Nicolas Pepe won Arsenal the FA Cup after 37 mins with a backheel nutmeg
The record books will tell you Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won the FA Cup final for Arsenal, but Nicolas Pepe was the man who gave the Gunners the sense of superiority they needed to prevail.
Aubameyang scored both of Arsenal’s goals to become the only player from the past 30 years to score twice in the FA Cup semi-final and final in the same season.
It is one of several remarkable stats from a remarkable season for the forward – but football isn’t just about cold, hard goals. Indeed, one of the greatest experiences as a fan is watching a player pulling down an opponent’s pants when they least expect it.
And while plenty will say Pepe hasn’t yet justified his hefty fee since signing for Arsenal, he is certainly capable of pulling down pants.
Players of his genre often find it harder to recognise their starting point in the quest for greatness, but there have been plenty of moments this season where he has given us a glimpse of what he’s working towards. That’s right, while other players belong to an ilk, Pepe is very much a genre footballer, joined on the Blockbuster Video shelf by Hatem Ben Arfa, Yannick Bolasie and, frankly, not enough others.
We saw it early on in his first season in England with a memorable nutmeg on Burnley’s Ben Mee, and more recently in a run which multiple Liverpool players failed to legally stop.
Of course, good things often come in threes, and the triumvirate was completed at Wembley at the expense of Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso.
Whether the first touch and manoeuvring is designed to set up the move or just a slightly less-than-perfect calculation of the space around him, Pepe makes sure it doesn’t matter.
His position with respect to Alonso is irrelevant if he can beat the defender from any angle, even without looking at him, and so it proves here.
The idea of staring into an opponent’s eyes and watching his soul leave his body can be fun, but it’s been done to death. Instead, why not tap the soul on its left shoulder and catch it as you loop around on its right, gently placing a mattress underneath to catch the body and psyche of a man in one fell swoop?
He’s uncompromising enough to leave Alonso scrambling with his jeans around his ankles but not cruel enough to leave him without somewhere to have a nice lie down when the moment calls for it.
After all, Pepe had already had his first ‘look at me’ moment, expertly finding the top corner only for his goal to be chalked out for an offside in the build-up.
Chelsea knew he was up for this and that he could threaten at any moment. Forcing their back-line to stare into the whites of his eyes while he did it was just overkill.
After those two moments, it was inevitable Pepe would be involved in the winning goal. He had won the game for Arsenal the second that ball went through Alonso’s legs; it just took everyone else on the pitch a bit of time to catch up.
Pepe is the kind of player who will forever be described as ‘frustrating’, both by fans of the club he represents and those observing him as neutrals on TV or in the pub.
Are these people wrong? Not at all, but they’re missing the point.
It’s purely through a reluctance to deliver this brilliance more regularly that the high points are both so eye-catching and so impossible to prevent. Sure, you might ‘prefer’ someone capable of brilliance at the drop of a hat, but it’s impossible to overstate how boring such routine excellence can become.
Not only do Arsenal need players like Nicolas Pepe, but so does English football.
By Tom Victor