ikel Arteta believes Nicolas Pepe is a “different player” since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations and, judging by his performance in this win over Wolves, the Arsenal manager could well be right.
For so long on Thursday night it looked like Arsenal were going to blow a golden chance to grab a hold of this top-four race, Hwang Hee-chan having given Wolves the lead in the 10th minute after Gabriel had undercooked a back pass to Aaron Ramsdale.
Wolves defended stoically after that, and it was easy to see why they had not lost in their previous 45 Premier League games when they had taken the lead.
That run dated back to November 2018, but it was ended last night, as Pepe came off the substitutes’ bench in the final 20 minutes and changed the game.
First, he finished coolly after a beautiful turn inside the box and then, deep into injury time, he picked out Alexandre Lacazette, whose strike was turned into his own net by Wolves goalkeeper Jose Sa.
“I told you last week, I see a different Nico,” said Arteta. “I don’t know, it’s his energy, his happiness, his all-round play, how he’s training.
“I was convinced that he could come in and do something for the team.”
Actions always speak louder than words, and Pepe’s performance last night added weight to Arteta’s glowing praise. There have been so many false dawns during Pepe’s Arsenal career, and his £72million price tag has always weighed heavy on him, but could now be the moment it finally clicks?
Arteta will certainly hope it is, as last night underlined how everyone needs to contribute if Arsenal are to qualify for the Champions League.
They are light in attack after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s exit, but Pepe demonstrated how the situation is an opportunity for others to step up.
The winger has not featured regularly this season but he could now have a crucial role to play in Arsenal’s charge for the top four.
There will be more games like last night, when the Gunners are struggling to break down opponents and they need a spark off the bench.
In January during AFCON, they sorely missed having Pepe to turn to and his impact against Wolves highlighted what he can offer when on song. He played with pace and purpose, unnerving a defence which had been so solid for so long.
Arsenal are now fifth, one point off Manchester United in fourth and with two games in hand, making Champions League qualification a real possibility.
Pepe can have a say in that, particularly if he continues to change games like last night, which would go some way to repaying that fee.