The Ivorian was brought in at significant expense, but poor management and tactical failures kept him from standing out in the Emirates.
No word sums up Nicolas Pepe’s career at Arsenal (to date) better than “inconsistent”.
Whether evaluating its impact or its minutes of play, the distinct impression remains of something sporadic, intermittent – a bright light flickering, producing a sort of psychedelic high and eliciting euphoria and rabies to an almost equal extent.
There was evidence of this mercurial nature against Manchester United in Saturday’s 0-0 draw; On the one hand, he was one of Arsenal’s best players – creating three scoring opportunities for his teammates – but he was also exasperatingly wasting the ball, failing to hit the target with any of his four. shoot to the net.
Invariably, the discussion around the Ivorian international is impossible without some sort of reference to his transfer fees.
When Arsenal shelled out over £ 72million to sign him from Lille in the summer of 2019, they had to beat competition from Napoli to secure the privilege. Given the club’s precarious financial situation, this expense was apparently based on the belief that they were signing a truly transformative talent.
Even then, the price seemed pretty steep. However, squint hard enough and you can pretty much see what Arsenal were looking for.
In the 2018/19 season, Pepe had taken Ligue 1 by storm, emerging as a talisman for Lille as Mastiffs placed second in the French elite. Along the way, the striker plundered 22 goals and assisted 11 others, staggering numbers that sparked interest across Europe.
If he could even half-replicate those numbers in his debut Premier League season, it would go some way towards reimbursing the exorbitant fees.
In the end, he managed just eight goals and 10 assists in three competitions in 2019/20. Not poor at all, but barely enough to accelerate the pulse, especially given the lens of his fee.
However, there was a positive outcome, as Pepe helped assists for Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s three goals in the FA Cup semi-finals and FA Cup final and, in the process, earned the Gunners a place in Europe. .
It offered a lot of hope that he was going to start in 2020/21, as it looked like he had finally started to iron out his game’s issues.
However, this wait turned out to be short-lived. Pepe’s start and goal against Southampton in midweek was only his fifth and third of the season respectively, and among other indignities he saw his favorite right-wing spot often taken by the impressive Bukayo Saka, 19 years old.
Despite all that it can be frustrating to watch at times, there is no dispute over the 25-year-old’s ability. So what exactly is to blame for his struggles in North London?
A bit of a boring answer here, but to be fair there’s more than enough blame on both sides. However, any objective analysis would place a significant portion of the blame at the feet of Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta.
The Spaniard has earned praise for his “non-negotiable” mantra, which is based on the principle that every player is on an equal footing and therefore must be 100% of the time. It’s an admirable worldview, but it’s not a vision rooted in reality: in the real world, players suffer crises of confidence, have periods of fallow, and sometimes need special privileges to produce the best of themselves.
For some, the carrot; for some, the stick. For others, a bit of both. However, for Pepe it was all stick: he found himself more often than not confined to the bench, punished for failing to build a decent pace by being denied chances to reach said pace. It has fueled a vicious cycle that’s hard to understand, especially given the leeway given to a player like Willian, who arrived on loose ground from Chelsea last summer.
Ironically, it was the Brazilian, six-year Premier League veteran, who was given repeated opportunities, despite – even as club sporting director Edu admitted – an unimpressive start to life in the colors of ‘Arsenal. Pepe, who might have expected a little patience thanks to the club’s significant investment in him, saw very little. It is, to put it mildly, counter-intuitive asset management.
That’s not to say that Pepe himself is flawless, however. His performances when chosen range from anonymous to excellent, with too many of them towards the lower end of the spectrum.
For all his skill with the ball at his feet, there are moments of maddening awkwardness: stepping on the ball, leaving it behind during races, and running into dead ends.
There’s also his inability to forge reliable relationships with his teammates on the pitch, as well as a lack of tactical understanding of his assigned role – this was again evident with his frustrating individualism against United on Saturday. .
At other times, he just looks raw, and that goes to the heart of the frustration that surrounds him: There are too many glaring holes in his game for a player costing as much as him.
There are some who argue that it would be best to just put the baggage aside from the cost of the transfer and judge Pepe objectively.
It’s a fair feeling, but impractical for a simple reason: the player himself seems to be constantly aware of the burden, and this is reflected in his play.
He constantly tries too much for this account and as a result doesn’t have the kind of effortless confidence in his own ability that can sometimes make dribbling a mind trick over opposing defenders.
Until recently it seemed to exist in some kind of limbo. However, two performances against Southampton, in the league and in the Cup, appear to have breathed new life into his declining career at Arsenal.
As the Saints returned the Gunners to the FA Cup, Arteta’s side had the final say, winning 3-1 at St Mary’s on Wednesday night. Pepe, left-lined, scored for the first time in six games to tie the game after the home side quickly took the lead, and in general seemed more inclined and involved.
This should see him keep his spot for Saturday’s meeting with Manchester United, especially with Aubameyang once again unlikely to be faced with his family situation.
It was at this same meeting last season that he arguably gave for the first time a glimpse into the ability that has enabled the club to pay record fees. If Pepe can deliver the same shake of electricity on Saturday, it doesn’t matter if he seized that opportunity by default; he would indeed give Arteta a choice to make.