Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta shut down questions over Nicolas Pepe’s lack of game time recently and insists Eddie Nketiah deserved to play ahead of the club-record signing in Monday’s defeat to Everton.
The Gunners suffered another disappointing result despite taking the lead at Goodison Park, with second-half goals from Richarlison and Demarai Gray securing all three points for the struggling Toffees.
Arteta somewhat surprisingly opted to leave both captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and £72million signing Pepe out of the starting XI for the match, with Gabriel Martinelli and Alexandre Lacazette preferred.
Even more controversially, when Martinelli pulled up with an injury in the 71st minute, Arteta decided to bring on contract rebel Nketiah to play on the wing ahead of the more senior options at his disposal.
The 22-year-old, who is expected to leave Arsenal in the summer on a free transfer, missed a great chance to put the Gunners back ahead when the scores were level but nodded his header against the post from a yard out.
Many Arsenal fans felt either Pepe – who has only played five minutes in the last seven Premier League games – or Aubameyang would have buried the chance, but Arteta defended his decision afterwards.
Asked why Pepe has not been involved as much recently, Arteta replied bluntly at his post-match press conference: ‘Because I decided to play Eddie today, to bring him on.
‘He created three chances and hit the post in the space of 25 minutes I think.’
Probed further on the decision to pick Nketiah over Pepe, Arteta responded: ‘He does everything in training what you saw him do in 25 minutes here. Every single day. That’s why I picked him.’
Regardless of Arteta’s happiness with Nketiah’s brief cameo, many fans have questioned the continued omission of Pepe – who was in sparkling form at the end of last season – particularly in favour of a player who is unlikely to be at the club next season.
To make matters worse for Arsenal, Arteta is fearing the worst over Martinelli’s injury and the Brazilian is unlikely to be back in the side until next year.
Asked how serious the injury is, the Spanish coach added: ‘I don’t know we’ll have to assess him but he felt something in his hamstring. I am not very positive about it.’