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Pepe: Is Arsenal winger limited by conservative Emery?

15:15 EAT 26/10/2019
Nicolas Pepe Arsenal 2019-20
The Gunners’ record signing spared his coach’s blushes on Thursday, and now has to quash doubts about his ability to thrive in the Premier League

With Arsenal trailing Vitoria de Guimaraes 2-1 as the game entered its final 10 minutes, Unai Emery and his players were probably anticipating a crescendo of boos if Thursday night’s Europa League fixture ended in defeat.

However, two moments of set-piece brilliance from Nicolas Pepe, introduced with 15 minutes remaining, turned the game on its head to carry the English club to a 3-2 win, after largely underwhelming over 90 minutes.

Pepe scored not one, but two free-kicks in the final 10 minutes, which maintained the North London club’s unblemished run in Europe's second-tier competition.

They sit top of Group F on nine points, three above Eintracht Frankfurt and six ahead of Standard Liege in third. For context, they’d be level with the German club and three in front of the Belgian outfit if their record signing hadn’t come up with the goods.

Thursday’s win was also a welcome gift after events of Monday night that ended in defeat by Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.

While the 1-0 reverse was a disappointment, the meek manner of Arsenal’s surrender doubled the anguish fans felt after their second loss this term. The general consensus in the aftermath was the loss had been coming due to a succession of average performances in recent weeks.

Indeed, good performances by Emery’s charges have been few and far between this season, and they’ve mostly had to rely on individual brilliance to win games. It is remarkable that this is still the case for the Spaniard after over a year in charge of the side. The North Londoners struggle with creating chances, constantly concede shots to the opposition and seem to lack a recognized identity.

Their constant concession of shots is odd owing to the former Sevilla trainer’s pragmatism as regards his selection and in-game changes. The Gunners have been out-shot in five of their nine games this term with the most noteworthy fixture their 2-2 draw at Watford, a game that saw the Gunners allow 31 shots at Bernd Leno’s goal.

Consequently, it’s not surprising the German has made the most saves in the top flight with 35.

This then begs the question why Emery hasn’t chosen to input a bit more creativity in the side if conservatism isn’t helping matters on the pitch?

Their indecision between philosophies has left them neither here nor there and without an identity, a sorry reflection after circa 16 months into a new era.

Even though it’s a small sample size, their lack of creativity has seen Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fail to hit the back of the net in successive games in the league. The little freedom they are afforded has led to the carving out of just two big chances in 180 minutes against Bournemouth and Sheffield United.

Auba’s last goal was in Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United, which came following a mistake the away side took advantage of, rather than an opportunity they fashioned out. That was also the only shot taken by the Gabon international throughout the encounter between the old foes at Old Trafford.

Against the Cherries, Emery’s troops laboured and failed to capitalise on their opponents’ constant panic in the first-half before allowing Eddie Howe’s team to gain a foothold after the break.

They started well on Monday night, but faded after the half-hour mark and similarly let the Blades gain control of the game. Their inability to dominate for large periods without ceding the initiative is a recurring theme of Emery’s time in charge, and isn’t sustainable if the Gunners are to progress as a team.

In truth, gameweek nine could’ve panned out differently had Pepe finished what turned out to be Arsenal’s best opportunity in the opening half but he failed to divert the presentable chance into the back of the net.

That was the closest the visitors were to scoring as no other good chance was carved out.

The absence of life in their attack is why the Gooners have seemed disillusioned this season, even if a win at Sheffield could have put them third on 18 points, just one behind Manchester City.

It is why, until Monday night, the team’s unbeaten run of eight in all competitions didn’t please supporters who believed their run gave a false sense of the side’s development and didn’t reflect how poor they’ve been playing.

With Crystal Palace visiting the Emirates on Sunday, Arsenal have seen first-hand how the Eagles can take advantage of average showings, as seen in last season’s 3-2 defeat. They will know that they can’t ease up in the hunt for maximum points.

After another poor team showing on Thursday, Pepe came to the rescue with a two moments of brilliance to help the side to three points.

Having been mostly subdued domestically, is the wideman finally primed to blossom into the player Arsenal splurged on, or will his manager’s pragmatism continue to hold him and the side back?