Lift-off for Arteta’s Arsenal as Pepe delivers

New Year’s Day saw the Arteta era produce its most significant result as Arsenal bounced back from a sequence of only one win in 15 matches

Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Arsenal have waited a long time for their club-record £72 million signing to deliver on the big occasion but, on New Year’s Day, Nicolas Pepe did exactly that.The Ivory Coast international played a starring role as the Gunners produced a sparkling display to sink Manchester United 2-0 and earn Mikel Arteta his first win since taking over as head coach.

Pepe scored the first and then played a big part in the second, swinging in the corner which led to Sokratis thumping a volley into the roof of David De Gea’s net.

This was the night Arsenal had been waiting for. After one win in 15 games, after four successive home defeats, they needed something to halt the slide and this victory should do exactly that.

Just as they did against Chelsea on Sunday, Arsenal flew out of the blocks. The energy and desire that Arteta has been demanding was there for all to see – as was the quality.

Luke Shaw had no answer for Pepe’s pace and trickery down the right, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and fit-again Sead Kolasinac combined time and time again to overrun Aaron Wan-Bissaka down the left and the magnificent Lucas Torreira didn’t give the United midfield an inch.

Pepe’s goal came after just eight minutes when he swept home Kolasinac’s cross after the Bosnian had been played in behind the visitors’ backline by Aubameyang.

It was no more than Arsenal deserved and crucially they went on to double their lead before the interval through Sokratis, who reacted quickest to the loose ball after De Gea had palmed out an Alexandre Lacazette header.

That goal gave the hosts the breathing space they needed after the interval when, just as they did against Chelsea, they tired and surrendered possession to their visitors.

But this time there was no late capitulation. With Arteta furiously gesturing for more on the sidelines, his players stood up and saw the game out. Torreira was exceptional, David Luiz and Sokratis were excellent at the back, as was Ainsley Maitland-Niles, while Leno’s handling was pure when it needed to be.

This was a huge win for Arsenal and the fact Pepe was at the heart of it will make it all the more sweet.

Emery couldn’t find a way of getting a tune out of the winger and, despite the former Lille star scoring in the win at West Ham, he soon found himself back amongst the substitutes under Freddie Ljungberg.

Arteta then waited to throw him in, leaving him on the bench against Bournemouth and Chelsea, but on the first night of 2020 he gave Pepe his opportunity and the big-money signing delivered.

When he was replaced by Reiss Nelson after 62 minutes, Pepe had a 100 per cent pass accuracy rate, had created four chances, completed four take-ons and had taken part in 16 duels. It was no wonder the Emirates stood in unison to serenade him as he made his way towards the bench.

A player that so often had been on the periphery of things since arriving in north London was instead at the heart of a win that has lifted the mood around the whole club.

As the clock ticked towards the 90-minute mark there was no usual mass exodus. Instead, the Arsenal fans stayed, stood and sung for their team.

Luiz even played the role of conductor deep into stoppage time, gesturing for more as the chants rang around a stadium that had not seen a home win since Vitoria were beaten 3-2 in the Europa League at the back end of October.

At full time the roar that swept across the Emirates was not just one of celebration, but of relief. It’s been a dark few months at Arsenal but there is now a genuine feeling of hope at the club once again.

Arteta has inspired a massive turnaround in a short space of time. The belief is coming back, the joy is coming back and now that all-important winning feeling is back.

There is a sense that Arsenal’s season starts here. Finally, we have lift off.

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