Nicolas Pepe: Has It Been As Bad As It Seems?
Riding high in April and then shot down in May. The life of a footballer can change so quickly. Once the talk of the town, Nicolas Pepe looks set to depart through the back door at Arsenal.
The Gunners famously broke their transfer record to bring the Ivorian from Lille in a £72 million deal back in 2019. A true technician, blessed with elegance and tremendous speed, Arsenal fans drooled at the prospect of Pepe forming an attacking trio with Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
Ultimately, Pepe flattered to deceive. In contrast to his searing displays at Lille, where his deadly left foot conjured 55 goal contributions in 79 games, he struggled to adapt to English football. Loaned out to Nice last season and now exiled from the first-team fold, many fans and pundits are quick to label Pepe a flop.
Without a doubt, it hasn’t worked out as expected, however, is it as bad as the media make it out to be? It’s important to realize the role of context in the illusive star’s Emirates tenure. Here we look to offer a more thought-provoking view on the Pepe debate.
Unai Emery’s Scapegoat
The issues began before Pepe even arrived at the Emirates. Fresh off the back of a humiliating 4-1 Europa League Final defeat to Chelsea, the Arsenal board wanted to make a statement signing. Transfer ‘don’ Raul Sanhelli (remember him Arsenal fans?) identified Pepe as the number one target.
However, Unai Emery didn’t want the Lille forward and preferred a move for his international teammate Wilfried Zaha. Due to the club’s structure and Emery’s role as ‘head coach’ instead of manager, he had little say in the matter.
This affected the balance of Emery’s side with Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang offering poor defensive output. The now-Aston Villa manager’s bizarre tactics really hindered the Ivorian.
Struggle For Form
The Spaniard tried to emulate Liverpool by playing three defensive midfielders behind the forwards. The disjointed pressing with Lucas Torreira as an attacking midfielder puzzled fans.
The lack of creative spark stifled Pepe and left him isolated as the sole creator on the right wing. Ainsley Maitland-Niles had to cover as a right back leaving Pepe without a defensive platform for him to push higher up the pitch.
Lacazette played through the middle and couldn’t run in behind, meaning the only way Pepe could create space was if he dribbled past two or three players at a time.
Arsenal fans were in meltdown, heavily criticising Pepe and labelling him as feeble and unbothered. It’s overlooked how poor Emery was in that second season, ending up sacked in December 2019 as the club sat 15th.
The team wasn’t suited to Pepe’s strengths of running in behind and going one-on-one against the opposition full-back.
The manager didn’t fancy Pepe and almost had to shoehorn him in due to the price tag. Coming from the French league, he needed time to settle and find his confidence, however, how could he if his own manager didn’t believe in him?
On the whole, Pepe’s output at Arsenal looks surprisingly decent given the context.
The right winger has managed 27 goals and 21 assists in 112 games at the Emirates. At face value, this seems rather uninspiring for a player of £72m pedigree, however, Pepe started just 67 of those games.
Contrary to common thought, Pepe delivered some clutch moments when playing from the off.
His role in Mikel Arteta’s FA Cup win back in 2020 goes under the radar. The Ivorian scored in the quarter-final as well as assisting the opener in the semi-final and Aubameyang’s winner in the final. It’s important to consider that without Pepe, Arsenal would not have lifted that trophy.
In the 2020/21 season, Pepe registered 22 goal contributions (16 goals and six assists) with 10 Premier League goals in 16 league stars as well as 10 goal contributions in 10 starts as Arsenal reached the Europa League Semi-Finals.
Compared to Arsenal’s ferocious attackers last season, this is higher than Gabriel Martinelli, level with Martin Odegaard with only Bukayo Saka reaching a better output than Pepe. It must be remembered that Pepe played in a side that finished eighth.
His numbers compared to fellow big-money wingers like Antony and Jadon Sancho make for interesting viewing too. The United duo have a measly 20 goals and nine assists COMBINED in their time so far at the club.
Both cost more than Pepe but are yet to be hit with the same ‘flop’ label. It’s even worse when you consider they’ve started more Premier League games between them than Pepe has across all competitions in his Arsenal career. With this in mind, maybe Pepe is left hung out to dry unfairly.
Rather unfortunate for Pepe was the emergence of Arsenal’s biggest academy talent in years in Bukayo Saka. After breaking through on the left-wing under Emery, it was Arteta’s appointment that redefined the England star.
Initially playing at left-back, Arteta converted Saka into a right winger with his defensive output and consistent top performances making him one of world football’s best wide players.
Pepe did find game time but instead on the left-hand side where he arguably had his best form at the club. It looked as though he had a future there with Arteta praising his newfound hunger: “It’s my feeling and it’s everybody’s feeling in the coaching staff, and his own feeling that he’s come a long way this season,”
”He’s changed his mentality and is willing to do much more.”
Despite some spells of encouragement, Pepe found himself further exiled from Arteta’s plans. The feeling was that Saka, Martinelli and Emile Smith-Rowe provided a more willing and able attitude.
Pepe is a maverick-style player, relying on flair and pace to beat his opponent. Arteta clearly isn’t too keen on his players using skills, berating the likes of Lacazette and more recently Kai Havertz for using flicks in training.
Eventually, it seemed Arteta had enough and loaned the Ivorian back to France last season. After returning this summer, the club are still yet to find a suitor. He’s been training away from the first team and rumours of interest from Saudi Arabia continue to circulate.
Arsenal and Arteta haven’t missed him with Saka and Martinelli arguably the best wing duo in world football.
It would’ve been interesting to see where Pepe would be now had Saka never emerged. I’m sure most Arsenal fans wouldn’t really care to find out.
Overall, it’s fair to say that while Pepe fell short of expectations, there was clearly a good player in there.
With more continuity in the starting XI, he could have grown into the role and adapted to the intensity.
Flop or unfortunate? The debate will go on.
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