The Ivorian was brought in at significant expense, but mismanagement and tactical failings have prevented him from making a mark at the Emirates
No word better sums up the Arsenal career of Nicolas Pepe (to date) than ‘inconsistent’.
Whether evaluating his impact or his playing minutes, the distinct impression remains of something sporadic, intermittent – a bright light flickering, producing a kind of psychedelic effect and eliciting euphoria and rage in almost equal measure.
There was evidence of this mercurial nature against Manchester United in Saturday’s 0-0 draw; on one hand, he was one among Arsenal’s better players – creating three goalscoring opportunities for teammates – but he was also maddeningly wasteful with the ball, failing to hit the target with any of his four shots on goal.
Invariably, the discussion around the Ivory Coast international is impossible without some quiet regard to his transfer fee.
When Arsenal forked over £72 million to sign him from Lille within the summer of 2019, that they had to beat out competition from Napoli for the privilege. Considering the club’s precarious financial position, that outlay has ostensibly supported a belief they were signing a very transformative talent.
Even then, it seemed a rather steep price. However, squint hard enough and you’ll almost see what Arsenal was going for.
In the 2018/19 season, Pepe had taken Ligue 1 by storm, emerging as a talisman for Lille as Les Dogues placed second within the French top flight. Along the way, the forward plundered 22 goals and assisted an extra 11, staggering numbers that ignited interest everywhere in Europe.
If he could even halfway replicate those numbers in his first Premier League season, it might go how toward repaying the exorbitant fee.
In the end, he only managed eight goals and 10 assists across three competitions in 2019/20. Not poor by any stretch, but hardly enough to quicken the heartbeat, especially delayed to the lens of his fee.
However, there was a positive denouement, as Pepe contributed assists for all three Pierre Emerick Aubameyang goals within the semi-final and final of the FA Cup and, within the process, earned the Gunners a spot in Europe.
That offered much hope he would kick on in 2020/21 because it appeared he had finally begun to iron out the kinks in his game.
However, that expectation proved short-lived. Pepe’s start and goal against Southampton in midweek were only his fifth and third of the season respectively, and among other indignities, he has seen his favored right-wing berth often haunted by the impressive 19-year-old Bukayo Saka.
For all that he is often frustrating to observe sometimes, there’s no disputing the power of the 25-year-old. So what exactly is responsible for his struggles in North London?
A slightly boring answer here, but to be honest there’s quite enough blaming on each side. However, any objective analysis would lay a big portion of the responsibility at the feet of Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta.
The Spaniard has earned praise for his ‘non-negotiables’ mantra, one founded on the premise that each player is on equal footing then must be full-on one hundred pc of the time. it’s an admirable worldview, but it’s not one that’s rooted in reality: within the world, players suffer crises of confidence, have fallow periods, and infrequently need special privileges to supply their best.
For some, the carrot; for a few, the stick. For others, a touch of both. However, for Pepe it’s been all stick: he has found himself restricted to the bench more often than not, punished for being unable to create up the decent rhythm by being denied chances to realize said rhythm. This has fed into a vicious circle that’s difficult to know, especially considering the latitude afforded a player like Willian, who arrived on a free from Chelsea last summer.
Ironically, it’s Brazilian, a six-year veteran of the Premier League, who has been granted repeated opportunities, despite – even by the admission of the club’s sporting director Edu – an unimpressive start to life in Arsenal colors. Pepe, who may need expected some patience on the rear of the club’s significant investment in him, has seen precious little of it. It is, to place it kindly, counterintuitive management of assets.
That is to not suggest that Pepe is himself blameless, however. His performances when he does get picked range from anonymous to excellent, with too many of them toward the previous end of the spectrum.
For all his skill with the ball at his feet, there are moments of infuriating awkwardness: treading on the ball, leaving it behind during runs, and running down cul-de-sacs.
There is also his inability to make reliable relationships together with his teammates on the pitch, also a scarcity of tactical understanding in terms of his assigned role – this was evident again together with his frustrating individualism against United on Saturday.
At other times, he just looks raw, which cuts to the guts of a number of the frustration around him: there are too many glaring holes in his game for a player who cost the maximum amount as he did.
Some contend it might be best to easily put aside the luggage of the value of the transfer and instead judge Pepe objectively.
It is a good sentiment, but impractical for one simple reason: the player himself seems constantly conscious of the burden, and this is often reflected in his play.
He constantly tries too hard on this account, and as a consequence lacks the type of effortless assurance in his own ability which will sometimes make dribbling like a mind trick on opposing defenders.
Until recently, he appeared to exist during a kind of limbo. However, a pair of performances against Southampton, within the league and cup, appears to possess breathed new life into his flagging Arsenal career.
While the Saints turned over the Gunners within the FA Cup, it had been Arteta’s side who had the victory, winning 3-1 at St Mary’s on Wednesday night. Pepe fielded on the left, scored for the primary time in six matches to level the score after the house side had taken an early lead, and generally looked more switched on and involved.
It should see him keep his place for Saturday’s meeting with Manchester United, especially with Aubameyang another time unlikely to feature as he involves grips together with his family situation.
It was during this same meeting last season that he arguably first provided a glimpse of the power that saw the club disburse a record fee. If Pepe can provide an equivalent jolt of electricity on Saturday, it won’t matter that he came by this chance by default; he would well and truly give Arteta an option to make.