40 minutes of Premier League action this season.
That’s what Nicolas Pepe has been granted so far for Arsenal. Not even a half of football.
Is that the right decision? Well, it’s key to avoid the risk of going with the flow, so to speak: Willian didn’t play particularly well against West Ham, so the natural progression is to thrust Pepe back into the side and suddenly all problems are solved. That’s how it works, right?
Going on form, Pepe’s last start was probably one of his best displays in red and white. He can, however, be too predictable in the final third. His trickery can get him out of any situation, but defenders know he loves chopping and changing direction and it has the tendency to slow attacks down.
That’s why Willian is here and in the team, since he offers diversity in attacking phases. Staying wide or patrolling infield, he’s got the experience to read the play and detect where he can hurt teams.
There wasn’t much of that on Saturday. The Brazilian was quiet throughout. He made little in the way of impact and was taken off in place of his Ivorian teammate with 24 minutes left to play.
I’m not someone who watches Chelsea week in week out, but I’ve been reliably informed by many Blues fans that this is what Willian does.
Be not consistent.
It’s a trait that we’ve come to notice in the latter years of Willian’s career, that he can turn it on certain days and be unplayable while other times he can drift through 90 minutes as a complete passenger. We saw more of the latter at the Emirates.
He does add the creativity and fluidity in attack, but with a style very different to Pepe. Our record signing is more explosive, quicker and skillful, playing more off the cuff than his more experienced counterpart.
This means we can have moments of quality erupting from thin air, and times of niggling frustration.
But he still has to start against Liverpool.
The worry will be whether Arteta fields him in the Carabao Cup tie against Leicester, something that if it happens, gives a clear signal for the trip to Anfield. Yet against the Reds, Arsenal will see far less of the ball, be forced to break with pace and Pepe will suit that approach down to a tee.
Adding Willian to the ranks runs the risk of denting Pepe’s confidence so considerably he may never reach the heights expected of him, but it should be taken the other way: motivation.
Reason to push on. Reason to prove his worth. Reason to score great goals more often and hit into double figures for assists. We all know he has it, it’s just up to him now.
Further arguing his case to get the nod against Liverpool is Ainsley Maitland-Niles. When he lines up in the right wing-back slot, the telepathic connection between him and Pepe is far greater than when Hector Bellerin plays on the same flank. Get those two in there and see what Arsenal can create.
We’ll need flair on Merseyside, and for all of Willian’s great attributes, he’s not one to conjure up a moment of real quality quite like Pepe.
Of course, it’s not easy being a manager and providing each player with ample playing time. Nobody is going to be happy all the time and maintaining a level of contentment within the ranks is an unenviable task. Thus, choosing the right time to field Pepe will be crucial.
Whether Arteta feels that is at Leicester or Liverpool obviously rests on his shoulders, but for me, he should get the nod at Anfield.