Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Manchester United shows manager may already have discovered how to make the most of £72m man.
Welcome to the Emirates, Nicolas Pépé. We’ve been expecting you. On a chilly, boisterous night in north London, Arsenal’s £72m record signing produced a fine attacking performance that was startling in more ways than one.
Startling first of all because Pépé was able to unpick the left side of Manchester United’s defence with such ease that the heavy-legged, heavy-footed, and indeed heavy Luke Shaw looked genuinely lost at times, a single stone Easter Island head planted in the sand, watching on in sombre silence as a game of football took place around him.
And startling also because it was Nicolas Pépé; and this has not been Pépé’s story at Arsenal, at least not before now.
Arsenal were aggressive in midfield and coherent in their attacking plans. Mesut Özil ran the game as a genuine No 10. Toward the end he took a dropping ball just outside his own area with such a beautifully soft, cushioned touch that his left boot seemed to cradle and cosset the ball, like a man tickling a cat beneath the chin.
And again Arsenal’s attacking plan was startling for other reasons too. Mainly, it was startling because Arsenal actually had an attacking plan; and this has not been the story of this team, at least not before now.
The ballad of Nicolas Pépé has made for a curious tale so far. At times he has been vague, peripheral, hard to define, and hostage to the idiot-wind of online Arsenal rage. But really, whose fault is this? To what degree can one high-priced inside-forward be expected to fix this huge, listing entity, the mixed and flowing substance that is Arsenal? Or even to step outside the general flow of Arsenal-ism, a condition that has been defined by vagueness, entropy, drift.
It is these qualities that Arteta has set his face against in his early days. “We are asking the players to do something different,” he wrote before the game, “to play at a different pace, much more aggressive than they’ve been used to.”
More aggressive, more physical. This is, it should be said, a low bar. But there has been a notable cranking of the throttle. And to his credit Arteta went with the full gun here, starting Pépé alongside Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang.
Arsenal’s manager makes for a compelling figure on the touchline. He looks like a man entirely possessed by the task. He looks like he lives every pass. He looks like a handsome tailor’s mannequin haunted by the spirit of a Victorian wraith.
But Arteta is nothing if not furiously thorough in his preparation. Here he seemed to have grasped before anyone else that Pépé should, given a clear run, have the beating of Shaw every time.
And so it came to pass. There were some early splutters. Three times in the opening five minutes United had one of those cavalry charge attacks at the Arsenal back four, bearing down on that strangely vacant space where usually some footballers stand.