Arteta backs Pepe ahead of Molde : Diego Maradona dies

We have Europa League action this evening as we take on Norwegian side Molde, a side we beat 4-1 in our last outing in this competition (also our biggest win so far this season).

With Wolves on Sunday, and this game taking place on an artificial pitch, I suspect we’ll see a lot of changes and no risks being taken on players who will be important for the weekend. It might include one or two though. I’m thinking David Luiz, for example, whose passing prowess might be useful in the Premier League, Alex Runarsson over Bernd Leno who does not need to play this evening, and Nicolas Pepe whose red card against Leeds means he’s suspended anyway.

The noise around him over the last few days has been pretty intense. Not just because of the red card but Mikel Arteta’s reaction to it. Labelling his behaviour as unacceptable is one thing, but following that up with a line about how ‘Pepe let the team down’ felt like the manager let his frustration get the better of him. It was most unusual because Arteta is usually the kind of guy to try and keep things in-house and under-wraps as much as possible.

Ahead of tonight though, he was very positive about Pepe and his reaction/apology for what happened, saying:

Let’s move on. We all make mistakes, we all make decisions when we are in the middle of the heat. It’s about the reaction, what we learn from it individually and as a team, and moving on.

I wonder if he might just be including himself in that ‘we’, because I think if he had his time over, his post-match reaction might have been slightly different, regardless of how frustrated he was. Pepe’s red card was a problem, but it’s not as if we’d been on top until then and it turned the tide the other way. Arteta also spoke about the player’s future, and how part of his job was to help maximise the on-pitch return on the club’s £72m investment in him:

“He has some responsibility, I have a lot of responsibility, which is to get the best out of him and get the best position for him, the best areas where he can do what he can do with the ball. I cannot fault his effort at all.

“You see the way he strives for the team, the way he’s working, it’s been the best since he’s been at the club. But there have been some aspects he can do better in because he has the ability.

“That’s where I’m going to put the pressure on him to deliver what he can do. To say it’s a threat for him to finish his [Arsenal] career… it’s not at all like that.”

I think that’s a decent response from the manager, and I’m glad to see it. What Pepe does tonight against Molde, if he plays, won’t define his Arsenal career or anything like that, but if he does contribute it’d be a some small repayment for what happened at Elland Road.

Beyond that, let’s see some young players. I had a dream last night that midfielder Miguel Azeez scored with a header that bounced down and into the top corner, which is weirdly specific, and as I wrote yesterday, some playing time for the likes of Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and perhaps even Folarin Balogun (who Arteta says he wants to tie down a new contract), should be beneficial for all concerned.

Kick-off this evening is the earlier time of 17.55, we’ll have a live blog as always, and the reaction on Arseblog News. Let’s hope we can calm the nerves a little ahead of the much more important visit of Wolves on Sunday evening.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the passing of Diego Maradona this morning, one of football’s greatest ever players, and as a person it was impossible to ignore him. My memories of him as a player come primarily from the 1986 World Cup, which remains my favourite to this day. I was just 14 so being able to stay up late during the summer to watch football was joyous in itself. Those pitches, that Azteca football, and Maradona.

I mean, look at what he was doing:

Sure, the ‘Hand of God’ thing was an illustration of a side of him that many did not like, but when you play with the left foot of all the other Gods put together, you can do what you want. Also, while I don’t have time for it this morning, there’s probably a deeper dive required on why exactly handball was considered so egregious as a form of cheating, while the many, many vicious fouls executed on Maradona were not – or at least accepted as part and parcel of a ‘man’s game’.

Let’s remember Maradona played at a time when the game was physically brutal. Leaving aside the fact that the pitches themselves were often worse than ones you might see in your local park these days, the challenges players were allowed to perpetrate on each other were ferocious, the kind of assaults on the ankles, shins and knees of an opponent which off the pitch would be considered grievous bodily harm. Those on the receiving end most often were the ones with the most skill, and nobody had more of that than Maradona. It remains an issue today that we get most exercised by the kind of cheating that is non-physical (handball, diving), without enough focus on the kind of stuff which can really damage a player.

Obviously there were things about him that weren’t as admirable, and I’ll admit that down the years I didn’t like them much myself. However, I watched the Asif Kapadia documentary (which I cannot recommend highly enough), and it completely and utterly changed my perspective on him as a person. The relentless pressure he was under from a ridiculously early age clearly had a significant effect on him. When you see it laid out the way it is in the film, it’s impossible not to see that. It’s not to excuse some of the things he did, but understand them better.

He was perhaps the greatest, most-talented footballer of all time, but a flawed person – and those of you sitting here this morning reading this who are perfect in every way can stand in judgement if you wish, but it’s something most people will be able to identify with on a very basic human level. And here’s the thing, for all his incredible ability with a football, I don’t think you get Diego Maradona the footballer, the icon, without that other side of him. They were like separate personalities, but inextricably linked. As he self-destructed away from the pitch, he destroyed teams on it, and few have ever done it with as much natural talent as he did.

Rest in peace.