Nicolas Pepe has a fair amount of making up to do with Arsenal supporters.
The Ivory Coast winger was shown a red card in their 0-0 draw with Leeds on Sunday, severely damaging their hopes on leaving Elland Road with three points.
Manager Mikel Arteta backed him after his dismissal and included him in the starting lineup against Molde in the Europa League on Thursday night, with a place in the knockout stages beckoning.
The Gunners started the game very brightly and left no doubts that they were well up for the fight. Reiss Nelson caused headaches for Molde defenders early on and wreaked havoc on the full backs whenever he had the ball at his feet.
Pepe was a real threat cutting inside onto his favoured left foot. The winger, hell-bent on redemption after his dismissal at the weekend, looked a real live wire going forward and helped contribute massively to Arsenal’s bright start.
Pepe’s influence on the game continued into the second half and a 25-yard curling effort hit the crossbar. He got his goal only two minutes later after being teed up by an inch perfect Joe Willock cross, atoning in some part for his dismissal against Leeds.
Arteta will be delighted with the reaction shown by a starting XI that had eight changes from the Leeds draw. What he will be most pleased about, however, is the determination and work rate Pepe showed throughout the 90 minutes.
The Spaniard had rallied around Arsenal’s £72m record signing before the Europa League fixture and left no doubts about his commitment to the player.
As quoted by the Daily Mail, he said: “I think he’s dealing with it the right way, the other day he had a reaction and when you’re out on that pitch it’s completely different to being outside when trying to understand it, but he has reacted the right way and hopefully I can see a player that shows that every week. It’s in his hands, honestly.
“It’s a player I really like, I know what he can give us and it’s completely down to him.
“The club made a huge investment in him and obviously people expect a lot from him because he has this quality. I said many times, with the strikers and attacking players it’s the most difficult thing to be consistent when you have to create, when you have to unlock the door and score goals and make assists.
“But this is why he is here, and he needs to embrace that challenge and go for it. We have to provide the best possible scenarios for him to be able to do that.”
The red card against Leeds could be a turning point in Pepe’s Arsenal career, and could help him turn the corner and find consistency. The positive remarks about the former Lille winger reaffirms the belief he has in his ability. His comments also send a message to the rest of his squad and lets them know they need to be on their game to help Pepe with his.
It’s great news for Arsenal fans that Pepe has reacted in such a positive way and it could well be the wake up call he needs. The price tag hangs heavily around the winger’s neck but, as we have seen with players like Virgil van Dijk, if you play well enough the fee becomes immaterial.
Arsenal ran out 3-0 winners against Norwegian outfit Molde on Thursday evening, qualifying for the last 32 of the Europa League in the process.
The north London side were lively from the outset, with Reiss Nelson and Nicolas Pepe looking threatening, though Mikel Arteta’s men spurned a number of chances in the first half and lacked the killer instinct.
The Gunners’ intensity improved after the break and they made the breakthrough with Pepe’s fine effort. Nelson was rewarded not long after as he got his name on the scoresheet after being set up nicely by Joe Willock, who claimed his second assist of the game.
Substitute Folarin Balogun turned and finished only minutes after coming on, helping to seal a deserved 3-0 win for Arsenal.
Here are your player ratings for Arteta’s side.
Runar Runarsson (GK) – 6/10 – Showed his inexperience at times throughout the match and rushed out of his goal. Also passed the ball to under pressure teammates on the edge of his own box.
Cedric Soares (RB) – 7/10 – Got forward well and tried his best to feed Pepe wherever possible. Wasn’t really tested defensively and will be glad to get the minutes under his belt.
Shkodran Mustafi (CB) – 6/10 – Looked comfortable next to Luiz and later Rob Holding. He continuously organised those around him and showed his leadership after both Luiz and Xhaka were substituted.
David Luiz (CB) – 6/10 – There was nothing Luiz could do to stop the ball hitting his arm from a Molde corner and appeals were rightly waved away. Took a blow to the head and was substituted at half time.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles (LB) – 6/10 – Played out of his usual position for most of the game before moving into midfield late into the second half. He was unlucky not to score early on as his cross-turned-shot was tipped over the bar. Got forward wherever possible and linked up well with the lively Reiss Nelson.
Joe Willock (CM) – 8/10 – His cute left-footed cross was on a plate for Pepe and helped give his side a deserved lead. Willock once again teed up a teammate with an inch perfect pass right into Nelson’s feet on the edge of the six-yard box.
Granit Xhaka (CM) – 7/10 – Showed aggression in midfield and put himself about winning the ball back for his team. Made an important block in the first half and tried to get his side on the front foot wherever possible.
Nicolas Pepe (RW) – 9/10 – Consistently tried to cut inside onto his stronger left and caused Molde a defensive headache throughout. Struck the bar in the second half before finding the net a few minutes later with a cool slotted effort into the top corner.
Reiss Nelson (LW) – 8/10 – Was lively in the opening stages and struck a chance straight at the goalkeeper after a neat one-two with Lacazette. Looked a threat with both his crossing and movement and got the goal he deserved in the second half.
Alexandre Lacazette (SS) – 6/10 – Operated in the number ten role behind Nketiah and was involved in a number of Arsenal’s chances in the first half. Was denied a great goal by the Molde goalkeeper after the break and was substituted after failing to make an impact in the second half.
Eddie Nketiah (ST) – 6/10 – Lacked chemistry with Lacazette at times and was unlucky to have a goal ruled out for offside just after Pepe’s goal. Spurned a great headed chance after a promising counter attack and struggled to test the goalkeeper.
Rob Holding (CB) – 6/10 – Was put under pressure by his goalkeeper after receiving a pass while being pursued on the edge of his own box and was lucky not to give a goal away.
Dani Ceballos (CM) – 6/10 – Didn’t make a huge impact on the game since coming on.
Kieran Tierney (LB) – 7/10 – Played a part in Arsenal’s third goal after getting down the left flank and teeing up a team-mate. He was another who tried to get Arsenal on the front foot wherever possible
Emile Smith-Rowe (CM) – 7/10 – Set up Balogun for Arsenal’s third after being played in by Tierney. He got forward wherever possible and helped pile on the pressure late on.
Folarin Balogun (ST) – 7/10 – Scored minutes after coming on and turned his defender easily and finished impressively. That goal will be a huge confidence boost for the youngster.
Saturday’s Premier League action kicks off with Liverpool making the long trip to Brighton as both sides look to build on impressive victories in their last league outings.
Jurgen Klopp’s side did the double over the Seagulls last season as they steamrolled their way to their maiden Premier League crown, though Graham Potter’s side can take solace in the knowledge they found the back of the net in both fixtures, even though they came away empty handed.
Despite some relatively unconvincing displays early on this season, the champions still find themselves level on points with league leaders Tottenham, while Brighton will be hoping their win last time out at Aston Villa can be the catalyst for their season following a sluggish start.
Let’s take a look at all the details ahead of this Saturday’s early kick off.
When Is Kick Off? Saturday 28 November What Time Is Kick Off? 12:30 (GMT) Where Is it Played? American Express Community Stadium TV Channel/Live Stream? BT Sport 1 (UK) Referee? Stuart Attwell
Alexis Mac Allister will play no part in this weekend’s clash having tested positive for coronavirus, though Leandro Trossard and Solly March are both expected to be in contention for the home side.
Brighton boss Potter will definitely be without the suspended Tariq Lamptey after he picked up a red card in the win at Villa last time out, but the news is more encouraging regarding Davy Propper. The Netherlands international is yet to make an appearance this season due to an ongoing Achilles issue, though he could feature Saturday.
Liverpool, meanwhile, have more than their fair share of injury worries.
Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold will definitely miss Saturday’s trip, while Klopp confirmed prior to the Champions League game with Atalanta that he is unsure of when Thiago and Naby Keita will return. Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are also expected to miss out.
However, the Reds were boosted by the returns of Mohamed Salah and Neco Williams in their midweek European defeat. Both should play a part as Klopp looks to patch up a severely weakened starting XI.
Sunday’s win over Villa stopped a rot of six league games without a victory for Brighton. Prior to the Villa Park triumph, Potter’s men had gone more than two months without picking up three points in the league, with the 3-0 win over Newcastle in September the last time they tasted success.
Liverpool haven’t had anywhere near the same kind of issues in the league, though their form hasn’t been as perfect as we became accustomed to in the early parts of last season.
Their injury crisis certainly hasn’t helped matters, with the Reds already shipping 21 goals in 16 competitive games this season, but the 3-0 triumph over Leicester in their last league outing was a warning to the rest of the division that they’re still a force to be reckoned with.
Aston Villa 1-2 Brighton (21/11) Brighton 0-0 Burnley (6/11) Tottenham 2-1 Brighton (1/11) Brighton 1-1 West Brom (26/10) Crystal Palace 1-1 Brighton (18/10)
Liverpool 0-2 Atalanta (25/11) Liverpool 3-0 Leicester (22/11) Manchester City 1-1 Liverpool (8/11) Atalanta 0-5 Liverpool (3/11) Liverpool 2-1 West Ham (31/10)
Both sides are struggling with injuries, though it’s undoubtedly the visitors who’ll miss their absentees the most. Three of their reliable first choice back four are missing and the likes of Fabinho and Williams are expected to be called upon.
That being side, Brighton are yet to pick up a home league win this season and Klopp’s side have shown themselves to have the mental strength and the squad depth to cope with an injury crisis. Expect their razor sharp frontline to see them through in this one.
A 95th minute equaliser from Jamie Vardy earned Leicester a 3-3 draw against Braga, with the result ensuring the Foxes’ progression into the knockout stages of the Europa League.
The hosts took the lead inside four minutes when Ali Elmusrati fired a driven shot past Kasper Schmeichel from just outside the box. However, their lead did not last long as Harvey Barnes produced a superb finish to level things up soon after.
Ricardo Horta then made it 2-1 to Braga with less than half an hour on the clock, capping off a free-flowing team move with a tap-in.
After the break, Brendan Rodgers rung the changes to try and get back into the game. It paid off when one of these substitutes, James Maddison, drilled a cross into the path of Luke Thomas who finished smartly. Braga thought they settled it with just moments left when Fransergio finished a fine counter attack, only for Vardy to pop up at the back post in the 95th minute to earn his side a point.
Here are your Leicester player ratings from Portugal…
Kasper Schmeichel (GK) – 7/10 – Spent the first 45 minutes shouting abuse at his static defence. Made a couple of solid stops to keep the score down.
James Justin (CB) – 6/10 – Could have done more to prevent Braga’s second goal. Did a nice overlapping centre-backs thing with Luke Thomas.
Jonny Evans (CB) – 4/10 – Appeared leggy with Braga’s movement causing him a lot of problems. Looks like he’s lost at least a yard of pace from last season. Worrying.
Christian Fuchs (CB) – 5/10 – All the football he’s played recently seems to be taking its toll. Struggled to contain his opposite number before being replaced by Fofana at half time.
Marc Albrighton (RWB) – 6/10 – Lots of hustle but not much quality in the attacking phase.
Hamza Choudhury (CM) – 6/10 – Chasing shadows in the first half and failed to use the ball well. Improved after the break but still not very influential.
Dennis Praet (CM) – 5/10 – Struggled to gain a foothold in the game before being dragged off at the break. Continues to blow hot and cold.
Luke Thomas (LWB) – 7/10 – Can’t be blamed for his side’s porous defending. Also, took up some great attacking positions centrally in the second half, eventually being rewarded with a goal.
Cengiz Under (RW) – 6/10 – Poor, poor miss in the first half summed up some below par decision making. Saying that, he was at least trying to make stuff happen.
Kelechi Iheanacho (ST) – 6/10 – He’s been so impressive in Europe previously, making his underwhelming display particularly disappointing.
Harvey Barnes (LW) – 8/10 – Incredible finish in the first half and could have had another if Under’s vision had been better.
Youri Tielemans – 7/10 – Leicester looked sooooooo much better when he came on. He linked everything up in a way that Praet could not.
Wesley Fofana – 6/10 – Leaps and bounds ahead of any Leicester defender at the moment. Perhaps could have done better for Braga’s third goal though.
James Maddison – 7/10 – Came on, provided a fine assist, went home. Very nice.
Jamie Vardy – 7/10 – Secured his side’s progression to the knockout stages, making up for his poor decision not to take the ball to the corner minutes before.
Facing up against a core-less Real Madrid on Wednesday night, the Nerazzurri were distinctly second best from the get-go. It was a bout where Arturo Vidal’s sequence of stupidity in the opening period covered up Conte’s tactical failings against Zinedine Zidane.
With the Nerazzurri installing this tepid, tame press that has no right to be considered in the same breath as last season’s iteration, a technically proficient Real were able to bypass the hosts’ pressure with freakish ease. Toni Kroos enjoyed a fine evening in a deeper role.
Inter’s midfield was pulled apart. Nicolo Barella and Roberto Gagliardini frequently lost their respective assignments which often resulted in the likes of Martin Odegaard – who impressed on his Champions League debut – and Eden Hazard exploiting the gaping void between the Nerazzurri’s lines.
The home side’s structure out of possession was abysmal, easily manipulated by the determined visitors, and they were fortunate to be just one down by the time Vidal put his struggling side at a man disadvantage.
In attack, Inter are a side heavily reliant on timing, automatisms and rotations. Thus, when they’re out of sync, disaster ensues.
On Wednesday night, the Nerazzurri’s possession was stale and lifeless and anytime Inter’s backline sought to find their outlet in Romelu Lukaku, they were picked off by either Real’s savvy midfield or a proactive Nacho Fernandez – who did a sterling job on the Belgian throughout and actually won his side a penalty in the opening stages.
While the visitors’ rotations were enterprising and varied, Inter’s patterns were distinctly predictable. With Lukaku blunted and Real managing the third man – a favoured route of progression for Conte’s side which includes a runner from midfield or wing-back latching onto a Lukaku lay-off after the Belgian’s found with a direct pass – remarkably well, Inter were simply nullified from an attacking perspective.
A Rodrygo effort after the break sealed a comfortable 2-0 victory for the Spanish champions as Conte reverted to a back four in the second half – perhaps for the first time since September 2016, when his Chelsea side were beaten 3-0 by Arsenal.
Nevertheless, the result leaves Inter bottom of Group B with two points, meaning they need pretty much everything to go their way on the final two matchdays if Conte’s putrid European record isn’t to take another hit.
Seriously, it’s unexplainably poor for one of the great ‘league managers’ of the modern era.
So, what now for Conte’s Inter? They’re a side whom, despite their impressive summer investment and freakish squad depth, look a mere shadow of the outfit which, at this point last season, were enthralling the masses with Antonio Candreva at wing-back. What now?
Well, in a bid to find solutions, first we must identify the distinct problems with this Inter side.
Firstly, stopping the counter-attack. Secondly, address the lack of intensity out of possession, and thirdly, the predictability in attack. Those are the three problem areas for Conte at the moment.
In regard to their transition woes, those issues will somewhat be mitigated by the availability of Inter’s best three centre backs: Milan Skriniar, Stefan de Vrij and Alessandro Bastoni, who lined up together for the first time this season against Real. But thanks to Barella’s rashness and Vidal’s stupidity, their return outing as a trio was a difficult one.
Inter’s 13 goals against this term is only topped by the high-risk, high-reward Atalanta (14) in the top half of Serie A, with Conte’s cover options at centre-back proving sub-par. Danilo D’Ambrosio and Aleksandar Kolarov both lack athleticism, and the pair were ruthlessly exposed on the break by the speed of Milan’s wide men in the Derby della Madonnina last month.
However, issue one and two are linked, with Inter’s woes immediately after possession’s lost an obvious factor in why they’re so vulnerable at transitions.
While their positional play last season ensured they were, more often than not, in a favourable position to counter-press and prevent the opposition’s break at source, 2020/21 Inter have been nothing short of chaotic following a turnover. They look horribly unorganised at times. It’s very un-Conte like.
Opponents will often only need to bypass one Nerazzurri shirt before they’re running at a rapidly retreating back three, while Inter’s disjointed pressing game means teams need to enjoy a mere brief passing sequence or a switch of play before Inter’s structure is completely compromised and, once again, the back three are overloaded.
Last season, Inter would so often blitz their way into early leads through their overwhelming intensity before fading late on. It cost them points in January, in particular. Conte’s logic of a more passive approach appears smart but Inter’s current structural woes and worrying lack of organisation mean the Italian boss’ plans have been disastrous. Inter have transformed from an aggressive and compact unit into a passive and open one.
Thus, with pressing – a key playmaker in 2019/20 – almost taken away from the Nerazzurri, Inter have to find alternate ways to attack – perhaps methods which don’t include Lukaku, either.
However, whether it’s the use of a bona fide playmaker in Christian Eriksen – who offers a threat from range – greater innovation in relation to Achraf Hakimi’s role, losing his fetish for the mediocre Roberto Gagliardini or reintroducing Stefano Sensi following his return from injury, Conte certainly has options at his disposal.
And it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom among the Nerazzurri faithful, with calls for Conte’s head at this primitive stage of the campaign pretty silly.
Their fifth-place position in Serie A is a false one. If it wasn’t for horrible final third inefficiency, Inter would’ve secured a result in the derby and grabbed a victory against Parma.
While they’ve encountered problems this term, there’s also been enough to suggest the Nerazzurri are on the right track with Conte. Inter’s second-half resurgence against Torino on Sunday was a timely reminder of their credentials and their potential attacking potency.
Providing Inter’s world class coach can swiftly conjure up solutions to his side’s teething problems, there’s little questioning that they’ll be a part of what’s poised to be an enthralling Scudetto race in Italy.