Arsenal's FA Cup exit shows why they need Odegaard as Pepe & Willian flop again

Martin Odegaard Nicolas Pepe Real Madrid Arsenal GFXGetty/Goal

There will be no FA Cup to salvage Arsenal’s season this time around.

Mikel Arteta’s side, who lifted the trophy for a record 14th time at Wembley in August, are out in the fourth round, beaten 1-0 by Southampton at St Mary’s.

Arteta shuffled his pack for the game, making seven changes from the side that strolled past Newcastle in the Premier League on Monday night, giving the likes of Willian, Nicolas Pepe and Eddie Nketiah another chance to impress.

Article continues below

But, as has been the case for the majority of the season, they failed to grasp their opportunity.

Both Willian and Pepe have increasingly found themselves reduced to the status of bit-part players during the past month, with Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe leaping in front of them in the pecking order.

The two youngsters have injected a vibrancy into Arteta’s attack since Boxing Day, inspiring a run of five wins from six games which has turned Arsenal’s season on its head.

But with Willian and Pepe back in the side against Southampton, the Gunners served up the type of disappointing performance which had littered the opening months of the campaign.

Arsenal did improve in the second half, particularly after Thomas Partey and Saka had been introduced, but by then the damage had been done – with Gabriel Magalhaes’ own goal on 24 minutes giving Southampton a lead they never surrendered.

Willian Arsenal Southampton GFXGetty/Goal

The defeat will certainly put pressure on Arteta ahead of the midweek Premier League meeting between the two sides. The Arsenal manager’s team selection clearly showed that he was prioritising Tuesday's game and now that his team are out of the cup, three points are essential.

But this defeat also shone a light once again on the continued struggles of Pepe and Willian ahead of the imminent arrival of Martin Odegaard from Real Madrid.

Pepe, Arsenal’s club-record signing, had a torrid afternoon on the right-hand side of the attack, while Willian offered next to nothing in the No.10 position in which Smith Rowe has excelled in recent weeks.

Both players have found opportunities tough to come by in the Premier League since the turn of the year and with Odegaard set to join on loan before the end of the transfer window, those opportunities are about to become even more limited during the second half of the season.

Pepe and Willian were not the only players who underperformed for Arsenal at St Mary’s. Nketiah once again looked out of his depth leading the line, while Mohamed Elneny, whose mistake led to Southampton’s winner, was poor in central midfield.

But given the money Arsenal paid for Pepe and the lucrative three-year contract they handed Willian when bringing him in from Chelsea in the summer, they are simply not producing enough.

The fact that they have fallen so far behind 19-year-old Saka and 20-year-old Smith Rowe sums it up, as does the fact Arsenal are now bringing 22-year-old Odegaard in for the next few months to provide cover for the two youngsters.

Nicolas Pepe Arsenal Southampton GFXGetty/Goal

The Norway international will be another player in front of Pepe and Willian in the pecking order and the futures of both players are quite rightly now being called into question.

Willian was supposed to come in and hit the ground running, having already spent seven years in the Premier League. Instead, he has stunk the place out, registering just three assists and failing to score a single goal for his new club.

Arsenal have finally managed to get rid of Mesut Ozil  only to find themselves with another ageing highly paid star on a long-term contract. What at the time was viewed as a no-risk deal is now looking like a costly error.

And a decision will also need to be made on Pepe at the end of the season. Flashes of quality are not enough to justify a £72 million ($95m) price tag and with every week that passes, the feeling that the Ivory Coast international is too one-dimensional for the Premier League grows stronger.

Arsenal will return to full strength for the Premier League meeting on Tuesday night, with Smith Rowe and Saka restored to the starting XI.

Should they go on to win that and close the gap on the top six in the process, this defeat will soon be forgotten.

The doubts over Willian and Pepe, however, will remain.