Nicolas Pepe has come under some scrutiny for his performances in his debut season as Arsenal’s club-record signing – but the Gunners faithful are slowly starting to witness the brilliance he is very capable of producing.
In the latest article of our new series, TEAMtalk writers make their feelings clear on an issue in the game that is bugging them.
Previous articles saw our writers argue why:
- Tottenham had to already call time on Jose Mourinho’s reign
- Leeds star Kalvin Phillips was the best player outside the Premier League
Now it’s the turn of Dan Woffenden, as he argues why, next season, Arsenal supporters are finally going to see why the club were convinced to spend £72m to bring in Ivorian star Pepe from Lille….
Pepe has only played his trade in the Premier League for just short of a year in another underwhelming season for Arsenal, but the 24-year-old has showcased a hatful of performances to suggest he could become key to the club’s future success.
Before I start, I was one of many football fans astounded by the £72million price tag put on Pepe’s head during Arsenal’s long-winded pursuit last summer – but I had a feeling he would provide every penny’s worth, once people gave him time.
So here, I set out MY five reasons why Pepe will be influential for Mikel Arteta’s side next season and beyond in their hope of ending 14 painful years without a Premier League trophy.
1) ONE SEASON DOES NOT DEFINE A PLAYER
Many Arsenal fans would have been optimistic that Pepe was going to hit the ground running and replicate the performance levels he did for Lille, but let’s be truthful – it takes player’s time.
The Ivorian was a hugely-popular figure in France and soon became one of Ligue 1’s brightest talents after finishing runner-up behind Kylian Mbappe in the goalscoring charts in the 2018/19 campaign. His haul of with 22 goals and 11 assists put many European clubs on red-hot alert and it was little wonder Arsenal took the bait.
However, it wasn’t always plain sailing for Pepe, who took some time to place his name on centre stage and struggled to make his mark on the game after below par spells with Stade Poitevin FC and then Angers. However, it was under the watchful eye of former Lille coach and current Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa that gave Pepe his big break – and boy, did he take it!
Yes, Ligue 1 is not a patch on the Premier League if you consider physicality and the intensity of play, but it takes months for players to adapt to the demand.
Look at Thierry Henry, an Arsenal legend who was a doubt-riddled outsider in his first few synonymous months with the club – with Patrick Vieira teasing him about his profligacy after failing to score in his first eight appearances. A humble forward with the world at his feet… Henry started the game partnered with Dennis Bergkamp against Derby in 1999, scoring twice and coming off to a standing ovation in the moment his Arsenal career changed forever.
Of course, Pepe has some work if he is to live up to the ‘iconic’ status of Henry amongst others in an Arsenal shirt, but it takes time for players to settle in the Premier League. There is no doubt that this is a marriage made in heaven – and the Arsenal fans are bound to see that soon.
2) MIKEL ARTETA’S INFLUENCE
Pepe was signed by former Arsenal manager Unai Emery, who was eventually succeeded by Arteta after a string of poor results. But dare I say Arteta’s influence and tactical expertise can help to nurture Pepe in fulfilling that potential far better than Emery ever could.
And while Arsenal, at times, played some attractive stuff under the former Sevilla and PSG boss, his number was inevitably up after a string of woeful results around the autumn clearly showed Arsenal’s stars had stopped performing for him. Just don’t blame that ‘white witch’ of an ex-girlfriend of his!
There was no better successor than midfield menace Arteta, who has already played his part in Manchester City’s success under fellow Spaniard Pep Guardiola.
You guessed it, since the turn of the year, Arsenal are the only side in the Premier League to go unbeaten. Signs of improvement for sure! If there was a perfect fit to galvanise the Gunners’ squad and get them firing again, it’s him!
Despite taking 14 league games to score his first goal from open play, recent statistics suggest Arteta’s influence is having a profound affect on the Pepe’s performances – making five goal contributions in his eight games, with goals against Manchester United and Newcastle United. Despite initially being bereft of confidence and hope, Pepe is now finding his feet and becoming a crucial asset to Arsenal’s late season charge.
3) A REHAUL BECKONS… PEPE WILL BECOME THE FOCAL POINT
Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to name a few, any team would suffer from losing their top assets, and to a lesser extent Dani Ceballos and Lucas Torreira. Arsenal have some generational talents in Ozil and Aubameyang, but it is highly likely the pair are destined for new pastures come the end of this season – whenever that may be!
It looks like Arsenal may be a due a squad overhaul, as a result. Granted, while they probably do want to keep Aubameyang, the Gunners may well be backed into a corner should he not extend that deal that expires in summer 2021. And with the likes of Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli all knocking on the door for a regular first-team place, Arteta can probably rest easy over his options in attack – with Pepe likely to become the focal point.
Arsenal are in need of some established Premier League and European players who can steady the ship. Arteta’s playing style has provided glimpses of potency in attack and a high-press throughout, but their lack of leaders to pull out an ugly result is somewhat lacking.
Some shrewd spending can adjust that need; after all, it’s not the pretty players Arsenal need to attract, it’s the blood and thunder, well-drilled and well versed in the Premier League that they need. Chris Smalling in defence would, for example, provide a decent base.
And if they can bring in the basics, and bring them in well, Arsenal already have players who can provide the sparkle and the magic. And if there is one player who will take the Prem by storm next season, I believe the deceptively quick, skilful and hard-working player in Pepe will be the answer.
4) AT ONLY 24… PEPE HAS THE WORLD AT HIS FEET
When you consider most footballers to start hitting peak form at the age of 28, Pepe’s age of 24 shows that the Ivorian still has all the time in the world to adapt and become the superstar talent Arsenal thought they snapped up in August.
Of course, an astromincal fee of £72million puts instant pressure on you to perform and take the Premier League by storm, but not many players adapt to the English game from the get-go. It’s clear to see that Pepe has galvanised Arsenal in their recent run of form, with Arteta singing his praises and ex-Gunner Andrey Arshavin also predicting big things for the 24-year-old.
Terrorising Ligue 1 is a completely different ball game compared to terrorising the Premier League, as Tottenham Hotspur’s Tanguy Ndombele has recently discovered. Though, it’s not like Pepe has been all that bad in his first season. After all, Arsenal have had another underwhelming campaign.
Sitting one point above Burnley in 9th and crashing out of the Europa League to Greek outfit Olympiacos hardly defines success, but after all, Arteta has half a dozen players who do not want to be there and has only had a few months in the job. There will be scapegoats to blame for Arsenal’s season so far, but should Pepe really be one of them?
Anyone remember his brace against Vitoria in the Europa League? Or his strike against West Ham? Or his goal against Manchester United? I agree, the latter was from a few yards away… but it takes a good player to be in the right place at the right time.
So, when Arteta has more of his own players in the squad instead of some of Emery’s flops, I’m sure the Gunners will hit the ground running next season. Meanwhile for Pepe, having a run of games under his belt has done him the world of good and at the mere age of 24, the best is yet to come…
5) THE BIG V… VERSATILITY
And then there’s the matter of versatility. Pepe can play across the front three and is always seemingly willing to play in any position, which is always a bonus.
Arsenal have been crying out for a player who can play on the right or left and still provide the goods. That was trialed and errored with Aubameyang many times, who will sometimes shift to the wing to provide support for Nketiah or Lacazette up top with Pepe either side, but that does not seem to work.
The Ivorian originally started out as a striker during his spell at Lille under Bielsa… before playing as a winger under Christophe Galtier. He was instrumental in helping Lille to avoid relegation in the 2017-18 season, before having his big breakthrough the next… forming a devestating partnership with Jonathan Ikone.
The Premier League is a different kettle of fish and Pepe has a lot to learn, but his willingness to play on either flank or play behind one of the strikers gives him an advantage. We are used to seeing him cut inside from the right, but his versatility will undoubtedly make him a defender’s worst nightmare in the seasons to come.
In short, Pepe will become one of Arsenal’s and the Premier League’s best players. His pace, skills and ability to score from range makes him a real asset for Arsenal going forward and I’m sure Gunners fans will see the performances he is very capable of before too long.
By Dan Woffenden
We’re inviting submissions! Got a subject at your club you feel strongly about? If so, send them, along your ‘Five Reasons Why’ to firstname.lastname@example.org