When Arsenal broke their transfer record and signed Nicolas Pepe for £72 million from Lille last summer, pundits were quick to hail the decision as a massive statement from a club whose supporters have long been discontent with the hierarchy’s cautious approach in the transfer market.
The 25-year-old’s arrival was viewed as the beginning of the formation of a dynamic and formidable strike force within the team as he would be deployed alongside the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
The Ivory Coast international had registered 23 goals and 12 assists in 40 appearances for Lille last season and admittedly had hefty expectations to live up to upon his arrival at the Emirates. However, the winger has largely struggled to meet these hopes in a season full of tectonic changes within the club and has emerged as a divisive figure among the Gunners faithful.
In this article, we attempt to analyse Nicolas Pepe’s stint at Arsenal so far and how his role in the team could change in the near future.
Nicolas Pepe’s beginnings under Unai Emery
Unai Emery was clear that he wanted a winger at the start of the ongoing campaign and Arsenal were subsequently linked with Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha in what was looking like an expensive but probable transfer.
However, the London giants ended up signing Nicolas Pepe, partly due to the Eagles’ high valuation of Zaha and partly due to the Arsenal board’s desire to sign a player for the future.
Under the former Sevilla manager, the former Angers man failed to replicate the form that made him one of the most promising wingers in European football, showing isolated glimpses of his brilliance but no sustained run of form.
While he did showcase qualities that he is best known for such as his tremendous power and lightning pace, he is often knocked off the ball too easily, demonstrated in his first few games in the Premier League.
Nicolas Pepe stood out when he was given his first start in an Arsenal shirt against Liverpool in August last year but his teammates’ defensive flaws largely overshadowed his contributions.
His most spectacular moment under Emery arguably came in the club’s match against Vitoria Guimaraes in the Europa League, during which he came off the bench to score with two precise free-kicks in the final ten minutes of the game.
Emery’s lack of game management and tactical cohesion during his brief stint as Arsenal manager was viewed as two of the primary reasons behind Nicolas Pepe’s slow start in the Premier League.
The manager often required the 25-year-old to drop deeper in certain parts of the game, which is a tactic that is unfamiliar to the winger, who was either deployed on the flanks or as a poacher at Lille.
His rotational policy is also believed to have been detrimental to Pepe’s form in England, with the Spanish tactician having used four different tactical systems in just seven Premier League matches after his arrival.
At Lille, the France-born player was often deployed on the right-wing, in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 set-up, but he was utilized in vastly different positions in a short span of time at Arsenal.
Having said that, the Ivorian himself has displayed a lack of composure and efficient shot execution, something that has certainly not improved under Emery’s naturally defensive game, where he is also made to play in front of a lacklustre and pedestrian midfield.
In what appeared to be a defence of his torrid stint at Arsenal, the former PSG coach recently revealed that he was against Nicolas Pepe’s signing altogether and instead preferred a move for Wilfred Zaha, who had more experience playing in the English top flight.
A youthful revolution at the Emirates
Nicolas Pepe’s transfer to the Emirates coincided with the emergence of a series of young talents, with the likes of Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka and Joe Willock having displayed their tremendous abilities this season.
Due to a perpetual injury crisis in the squad and the general lack of depth, the likes of Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta have been forced to deploy young players in makeshift positions, particularly in the Europa League, League Cup and the FA Cup.
These players have, however, been far from disappointing and have routinely impressed in their respective positions, even giving some team regulars a run for their money.
The sheer importance of the young Gunners this season may be simplified in a statistic that has been making the rounds on social media lately, which is that they have contributed to nearly 35% of the club’s goals in all competitions.
The rise of these players and their manager’s ever-increasing dependence on them has certainly left Nicolas Pepe with unexpected competition and has, perhaps, even stopped him from building his confidence within his new set-up.
Will Pepe reach his full potential under the tutelage of Mikel Arteta?
While he still has a long way to go to earn the trust of the Arsenal faithful, Nicolas Pepe’s form at the Emirates has considerably improved since Mikel Arteta was appointed manager in November last year.
The former Manchester City assistant manager has overseen 11 fixtures so far this season and has been fairly successful in bringing some cohesion, balance and structure into the team, something which is crucial for the development of a new player such as Pepe.
He also boasts of a points-per-game ratio of 1.63 in just over six months at the helm, which is already better than Emery’s overall 1.29 ratio.
The Ivory Coast international, who has four goals and six assists to his name in the Premier League, has benefitted from the more organised set-up, especially when his team is out of possession.
The sturdier midfield also paves the way for the winger to showcase his exceptional ball-carrying abilities, which is one of the very few things he has earned plaudits for this season.
Nicolas Pepe’s influence is indisputably growing under Arteta and this was most evident in his starring role during Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Manchester United on New Year’s Day.
The former Lille man broke the deadlock in eight minutes and went on to display a man-of-the-match performance, which was a glimpse of what the future can look like for the Gunners if he reaches his full potential.
Pepe has certainly fallen short of the expectations that his exorbitant fees demand but, whether Arsenal like it or not, their mid-term future is tied to the winger’s form and Arteta will have to find a way to nurture his form- and sustain it- if he is to achieve any kind of success with the Gunners.