Liverpool’s dominance at Anfield on Sunday acted as a reminder, not that anyone really needed reminding, that the Premier League is a two horse race. Following the team’s lacklustre performance, to be considered anything other than also rans would be an insult to the shadows which Arsenal chased on Saturday.
And yet, the mood remains buoyant. No Arsenal fans are calling for the manager’s head after the defeat, at least no supporters with a modicum of sensibility. Moreover, despite the performance being littered with mistakes by key players, the performance of Nicolas Pepe was enough to give the fanbase a taste of something that has been missing for so long: electricity.
It has been years since Arsenal have had a player who sends fans to their feet when the ball reaches theirs. Make no mistake, there have been false dawns in the past. Arsenal fans will grimace at the thought of Theo Walcott being unduly anointed with the #14 jersey. Fans will also shudder at the short lived joy that surrounded Andre Arshavin’s stint at the club. Even the more recent magic of Alexis Sanchez was frequently tainted by careless performances and frequent dismissal of his teammates.
But Saturday offered a rare opportunity for Arsenal fans to hang their hopes on a new star, a player that exudes both power and grace in equal measure. An ability, nay a natural instinct, to dribble at speed. To commit players to looking silly. To embarrass. Some may urge caution before prophesying the second coming but many of us are sold. Once more unto the breach, I say.
In the 160 minutes Pepe has been on the pitch, the Ivorian has dribbled past an opponent 11 times. His capacity to embarrass is more than that of a teenage boy at their first school dance. But it is not the quantity of his dribbles that impress, rather the style of them.
There are no unnecessary step-overs; no superfluous gimmicks. Just a straightforward shootout. A dalliance between him and his opponent, an intimate moment when it is just the two of them and the ball. A waiting game that almost always culminating with the defender looking foolish.
Perhaps I’m being too romantic; or I’m allowing my heart to rule my head. But it is difficult not to get excited by a player who has taken the soul of Ben Mee and dribbled past the previously impervious Virgil van Dijk.
Arsenal are a long way from the heady days of Henry et al; days when there was a visible stir amongst the Arsenal crowd and a shift of uneasiness from the opposition supporters when the Gunner’s talisman received the ball and glided towards goal. Pepe may never reach those heights and it is up to him to plough his own furrow but his ability to excite is a welcome reminder.
With all the talk of marketing, sponsorship and the necessity of Champions League football it is safe to say that football is a results based business. But try telling that to Arsenal fans in the cold winter months as they rise to their feet in unison, comforted by the warmth of their fellow supporter and the tingling of excitement in their belly as Pepe once again goes toe to toe with the opposition.
Once more unto the breach, I say.
Til next time,
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Level-headed columnist who secretly gets excited by wildly improbable transfer guff. Optimistic Arsenal fan, keen writer and a passable centre half (on a good day).