Freddie Ljungberg Talks Nicolas Pepe Omission for Norwich vs. Arsenal

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistDecember 1, 2019

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 09: Nicolas Pepe of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Arsenal FC at The King Power Stadium on November 9, 2019 in Leicester, United Kingdom. (Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)
James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

Freddie Ljungberg has offered a blunt assessment of why Nicolas Pepe wasn't in the starting XI for Arsenal's 2-2 draw away to Norwich City in the Premier League on Sunday.

It was Ljungberg's first game in charge since replacing Unai Emery, who was sacked on Friday, per BBC Sport. The Swede explained why Pepe, who is the Gunners' record signing, was left on the bench at Carrow Road:


Freddie Ljungberg explains why he didn't bring on £72m Nicolas Pepe against Norwich... https://t.co/ccAY6IIrLo

It's a rather withering statement of where Pepe stands in the Arsenal pecking order, despite arriving from Lille in the summer in a deal worth £72 million. The winger hasn't started any of the Gunners' last four matches in all competitions, last getting the nod for the 1-1 draw away to Vitoria Guimaraes in the UEFA Europa League in early November.

Squawka Football @Squawka

Since starting against Crystal Palace, Nicolas Pépé has been included in seven matchday squads: 00 minutes vs. Liverpool 00 minutes vs. Wolves 90 minutes vs. Vitoria 13 minutes vs. Leicester 45 minutes vs. Southampton 00 minutes vs. Eintracht 00 minutes vs. Norwich 😬 https://t.co/wotAMMWSQT

Ljungberg's less-than flattering impression of Pepe comes after the 42-year-old has taken charge of just one training session. It means Pepe can still win his new boss over, but Ljungberg's instant put-down also speaks volumes about the Ivory Coast international's ongoing struggles in England.

He's endured a stunted start to life with the Gunners, showing flashes of brilliance but also more than a few moments of lethargy.

Pepe showcased the threat his awesome threat poses defenders during a 3-1 defeat away to Liverpool back in August. Yet he was a mere passenger when Arsenal blew a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 away to bottom-of-the-table Watford in September.

Things appeared to be turning Pepe's way when he came off the bench to score two free-kicks and help Arsenal beat Vitoria 3-2 at the Emirates Stadium in October. However, he was soon sent back to the bench following a rare start in the subsequent 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace.

Since then, not all of Pepe's cameos off the bench have proved as fruitful:

Statman Dave @StatmanDave

Nicolas Pépé’s game by numbers vs. Southampton: 33% dribbles completed 2 fouls committed 0 passes into the box 0 chances created 0 shots on target Not a vintage performance... ❌ https://t.co/NvCK52Hl0U

Emery struggled to make room for Pepe, especially after the Spaniard brought Mesut Ozil in from the cold. The latter is a classic No. 10 who thrives in central areas, and his artistry and vision have been preferred behind strikers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.

Ljungberg followed the same blueprint against the Canaries, leaving Ozil, Lacazette and two-goal hero Aubameyang up top, while overlooking Pepe. Instead, Ljungberg turned to academy graduate Bukayo Saka when he chose to bring a winger off the bench.

Ljungberg knows Saka well, having worked with the 18-year-old during his stint in charge of Arsenal U23s last season. Considering fellow youth prospect Joe Willock started, it was hardly surprising Ljungberg leaned on players he knew when it came time to make changes.

James Benge @jamesbenge

Obviously Twitter is not necessarily representative of fandom. And fandom is emotion and passion. But what happened to everyone saying give Ljungberg patience and time? Already seeing him accused of being biased in favour of academy kids and fans panicking over Pepe!

Of course, Ljungberg should also be expected to rotate his options somewhat given Arsenal face three games in eight days, with a home fixture against Brighton & Hove Albion on Thursday, before a trip to West Ham United on Monday, December 9 following Sunday's stalemate.

Arsenal have invested big money in Pepe, and finally getting the 24-year-old up to speed will remain one of Ljungberg's most pressing needs while he attempts to rebuild after Emery's ill-fated tenure.