Arriving as Arsenals record signing for £72million, he was under scrutiny throughout his debut campaign in red and white. Scoring eight goals and 10 assists didn’t blow away those watching across the Premier League, however, as the season went on, he grew into his role on the right of Arsenal’s attacking trident.
Expected to be one of Mikel Arteta’s key men this season, it was a surprise to see the 25-year-old benched for the first game of the season against Fulham, despite only playing one behind closed doors friendly against Aston Villa.
Instead, Willian started in his usual position and stole the show, playing a major part in all three of Arsenal’s goals on the day and even hitting the post in the first half.
Making such an instant impact on his debut, Willian’s performance raised more questions over Pepe’s role in the side this season, but Arteta ensured this isn’t going solely an issue that needs addressing by Pepe.
“Well, it’s not for Nico, I think it’s all the players that were on the bench and the ones that we had to leave at home. They have to raise their level and then the performances of the club are going to improve,” he said in his post-match press conference.
“This is what I demand. I’m really happy with all the boys in training but selection is getting more complicated. As well, we just have 18 players in the squad, it makes it very difficult.”
As has been the case since he walked through the door, Arteta appears ready to give places in the side to whoever proves they deserve it most.
In his nine months in charge, this philosophy has been best illustrated by Ainsley Maitland-Niles. The 23-year-old was crucial as an inverted right-back early in the Spaniard’s reign but lost his place in the months before lockdown, leading to Arteta telling football.london : “Ainsley needs to put his head down, work hard and show me every day in training he wants it more than anybody else and that he wants to play for this club and fight for his place.”
Fortunately for both Maitland-Niles and the team, he made positive changes over lockdown and has become a key to the 3-4-3 system as a left wing-back.
Pepe’s role is far from likely to change as drastically but the principles behind his approach remain similar. The positive signs are that he appears determined to win his place on the right wing back from Willian.
Replacing the Brazilian at Craven Cottage, Pepe had just 14 minutes to make an impression, and that’s exactly what he did. Entering play with a dangerous whipped corner, he could well have had an assist to his name if Alexandre Lacazette had positioned himself better to flick the ball towards goal.
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Later in the game, Arsenal looked to Pepe to break down the Fulham defence and he provided moments similar to last season in which he would force his markers to hesitate, allowing him to breeze past them into the box. This time around, with Scott Parker’s side exercising damage limitation, there was hardly any room for him to work in once he’d momentarily broke free.
On the whole, his cameo was promising, and showed that he’s ready to prove he can be just as – or even more – effective for the side as a was last season.
Ending the 2019/20 with his most complete performance in an Arsenal shirt, which was analysed in more detail here, the evidence Arteta can rely on Pepe is there for all to see. Willian’s performance may have sparked excitement across the Gunners fanbase and of course give the manager more options, but that’s exactly what he wanted heading into this season.
Pepe will have opportunities to prove himself again during the season and with more competition, he will be forced to produce at a higher level to keep his place in the side which will only benefit himself, his team-mates, Arteta and Arsenal.