After the Ivorian lost his cool and headbutted a Leeds defender on Sunday, the coach has come out to call the behaviour “unacceptable”. It truly was. Arsenal were chasing the game against a difficult Leeds side with the hope of improving their performance in the second half. Pepe was central to those hopes. He had been the most lively attacker in the first half although that’s not saying much. But he went ahead to lose his head and almost tank Arsenal’s chances of getting a result.
The criticism was swift and harsh. The coach called him out, and on Twitter he was subjected to racist abuse. Racially abusing a player is totally out of place and those who directed that abuse must be investigated, found out and punished. Football is only a game, after all. The rest of the criticism was deserved and the winger has since come out with an apology on his Instagram.
Arteta has treated Nicolas Pepe with a strong hand this season, and it gives some credibility to the rumours that the gaffer chooses his favourites. But we have literally heard before that in training, Pepe is Arteta’s biggest pet project. Nevertheless, there’s a sense of some invisible boundary with Arteta that you don’t cross. Guendouzi and Ozil seem to have crossed it. Pepe seems to be teetering closest to it. This week’s incident might have brought him closer to that edge.
However, Arteta really needs Pepe. The Ivorian was our best attacker not named Aubameyang last season and has flashed signs of it this season with his 3-points winning second half performance against Sheffield United. The club signed him for performances like that, not headbutts. He will still be absolutely crucial to our campaign this season for the simple fact that he has more incision than the likes of Willian or Nelson. He has more goals and assists in him than the others. This is why Arteta still needs him.
For all the post-match bluster from the coach, his career is not close to being over at Arsenal. Far from it.