A £72m response! Brilliant Pepe shows Arsenal what they will be missing

Nicolas Pepe Molde vs Arsenal Europa League 2020-21
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The Gunners winger scored the opening goal as Mikel Arteta's side beat Molde 3-0 in the Europa League but faces an upcoming Premier League suspension

As responses go, this was as good as it gets from Nicolas Pepe.

With the spotlight firmly on Arsenal’s club-record signing following his sending off at Leeds on Sunday, he delivered a sparkling display in Molde to secure passage through to the knockout stages of the Europa League for Mikel Arteta’s side.

Pepe scored the first and was unlucky not to have a couple more as Arsenal cruised to a 3-0 success to make it four wins from four in Europe this season.

It was just the type of performance Arteta will have been hoping for following the intense scrutiny that has come Pepe’s way in the wake of his moment of madness at Elland Road.

“Hopefully we see the player we want to see,” Arteta had said ahead of the game. “Hopefully he has a really good reaction to help his team.”

And Pepe certainly answered his manager’s call.

Arsenal’s £72 million ($96m) winger was far too good for Molde. He was the outstanding player in an otherwise lacklustre first half and went close to breaking the deadlock when he curled one effort just past the post after a driving 60-yard run.

A wonderful effort early in the second half crashed against the underside of the bar before he finally got the goal he deserved, bending an excellent finish into the top corner from Joe Willock’s cross.

Nicolas Pepe Molde vs Arsenal Europa League 2020-21

The reaction from the Arsenal players told its own story. They knew the pressure Pepe was under during the past few days and were clearly delighted for their team-mate.

It was a reminder of why Arsenal invested so heavily to bring the Ivory Coast international in from Lille in the summer of 2019.

His lofty price tag will always be a focus of attention, but whilst there is debate about whether Arsenal overpaid for the 25-year-old, there can be no debate about what he brings to the team when he is on his game.

In a side that is struggling for goals and creativity, he adds something different - there is an unpredictability about his game that makes Arsenal a far more threatening team when he’s in the side.

He had six shots against Molde, three more than any other Arsenal player. He also made more key passes (4) than any of his team-mates, had more touches of the ball (80), competed in more duels (20) and made the most passes in the opposition half.

The problem for Arteta now of course is that he will be without Pepe for the next three Premier League games, starting with Wolves on Sunday.

He will then have to sit out the north London derby at Spurs and Burnley at the Emirates, before returning against Southampton on December 16.

Reiss Nelson Molde vs Arsenal Europa League 2020-21

With Willian struggling with a calf injury, that could leave Arteta short of options although the performance Reiss Nelson put in against Molde could see him handed a start on Sunday when Wolves visit.

The 20-year-old scored Arsenal’s second goal, getting on the end of another Willock assist, to add to Pepe’s earlier strike and put the visitors firmly in command.

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It was then a matter of just how many Arsenal were going to get. Eddie Nketiah wasted a glorious chance to add a third when he headed over from Pepe’s excellent cross and Alexandre Lacazette saw one fine effort saved.

The third goal did arrive seven minutes from time and it was a big moment for Folarin Balogun, who scored his first-ever Arsenal goal just 37 seconds after coming off the bench.

Balogun, who Arteta is trying to convince to sign a new contract, spun on Emile Smith Rowe’s pass and sent his finish past Andreas Linde to put the seal on a fine night’s work for the Gunners.