The Gunners’ record signing curled in two late free-kicks to salvage victory from the jaws of defeat against Vitoria as pressure builds on the coach
Nicolas Pepe has been up and running for Arsenal – and Unai Emery will be the most relieved man in north London.
Emery had called for patience before his side’s Europa League clash with Vitoria, but for 80 minutes there was little of that on show as his side appeared to be heading for a second damaging defeat in three days.
Pepe, though, produced one almighty rescue act to get his coach off the hook.
The club’s record signing, who had only scored one penalty in his first 11 game prior to Thursday’s game, had been brought on for Alexandre Lacazette 15 minutes from time with Arsenal trailing 2-1 and looking devoid of any sort of invention.
But he struck two glorious free-kicks, the second of which came deep into stoppage time, to turn the game on its head and make it three wins out of three for the Gunners in Group F.
It was a wonderful night for Pepe, one he desperately needed, but the comeback only papered over the cracks.
After the nightmare of Bramall Lane on Monday, this was supposed to be a walk in the park for Arsenal, who had kicked off their group stage campaign with back to back convincing wins against Eintracht Frankfurt and Standard Liege.
But Vitoria, who started the night bottom of the group following successive defeats, had not read the script and were well on track to secure a deserved victory after goals from Marcus Edwards, a former Tottenham academy star, and Bruno Duarte.
Gabriel Martinelli had briefly restored parity after Edwards’ opener, his fifth goal in six games, but the visitors deservedly went into the break with a 2-1 lead thanks to Duarte’s smart finish.
Boos rang around the Emirates as fans vented their frustration following a dismal opening 45 minutes that was devoid of any creativity.
And there were chants for Mesut Ozil as well, who was once again left out of the squad by Emery as he continues to freeze out the club’s highest paid soccer professional and one genuine playmaker.
Against Sheffield United, Emery tried three different players in the No.10 role. Joe Willock started, but was replaced at half-time. Dani Ceballos then had a go before Bukayo Saka, an 18-year-old winger, ended the game trying to pull the strings behind the strikers.
And tonight Emile Smith Rowe got the nod in the first half, but after Matteo Guendouzi and Ceballos were brought on at the interval, Lucas Torreira ended up as the man trying to feed Lacazette.
It has been a farcical state of affairs and the longer it goes on, the worse it has been going to get for Emery – especially if his side continue to struggle to create anything of note from the central areas.
Emery can call for patience all he wants, but with his side consistently producing performances as bad as the what we are seeing right now, he will find those pleas falling on deaf ears. We have not even reached November yet, but the fans’ patience has been wearing very thin.
After this win, Arsenal are well on course to make it trough to the knockout stages with at least one game to spare, but the bigger picture has been that the club have a coach who has been looking more and more out of his depth by the week.
Why can’t he get a tune out of Ozil? Why can’t he improve the defence? And why does he continue to pick midfields that lack any sort of shape or structure?
Given what has been going on elsewhere in the Premier League this season, Arsenal have a real opportunity to get themselves back into the top four and secure the Champions League football that this club desperately needs. But as it stands you just don’t get the impression that Emery has what it takes to get the job done.
Article continues below
And with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Lacazette yet to sign new contracts, that has been very troubling situation for those in the corridors of power at the Emirates.
The word right now has been the management group of Raul Sanllehi, Vinai Venkatesham and technical director Edu are happy with Emery and would be unlikely to make a change at the midway point of the campiagn. But can Arsenal afford to sit on their hands and potentially waste a season? Because what we are seeing right now suggests that has been the way things could be going.
Pepe’s brilliance may have got Emery out of a hole tonight, but the question marks over the Spaniard remain.