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 sort 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 of 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, discussion around the Ivory Coast international is impossible without some kind of reference to his transfer fee.
When Arsenal forked over £72 million to sign him from Lille in the summer of 2019, they had to beat out competition from Napoli for the privilege. Considering the club’s precarious financial position, that outlay was ostensibly based on a belief they were signing a truly transformative talent.
Even then, it seemed a rather steep price. However, squint hard enough and you can just about see what Arsenal were 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 in the French top flight. Along the way, the forward plundered 22 goals and assisted a further 11, staggering numbers that ignited interest all over Europe.
If he could even halfway replicate those numbers in his first Premier League season, it would go some way 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 pulse, especially held up to the lens of his fee.
However, there was a positive denouement, as Pepe contributed assists for all three Pierre Emerick Aubameyang goals in the semi-final and final of the FA Cup and, in the process, earned the Gunners a spot in Europe.
That offered plenty of hope he would kick on in 2020/21, as 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 favoured right-wing berth often taken up by the impressive 19-year-old Bukayo Saka.
For all that he can be frustrating to watch at times, there is no disputing the ability of the 25-year-old. So what exactly is to blame for his struggles in North London?
A slightly boring answer here, but to be honest there is more than enough blame on both sides. However, any objective analysis would lay a significant 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 every player is on equal footing and so must be full-on 100 percent of the time. It is an admirable worldview, but it is not one which is rooted in reality: in the real world, players suffer crises of confidence, have fallow periods and occasionally need special privileges in order to produce their best.
For some, the carrot; for some, the stick. For others, a bit of both. However, for Pepe it has been all stick: he has found himself restricted to the bench more often than not, punished for being unable to build up decent rhythm by being denied chances to achieve said rhythm. This has fed into a vicious cycle that is difficult to understand, especially considering the latitude afforded a player like Willian, who arrived on a free from Chelsea last summer.
Ironically, it is the 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 colours. Pepe, who might have expected some patience on the back of the club’s significant investment in him, has seen precious little of it. It is, to put it kindly, counterintuitive management of assets.
That is not to 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 former 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 form reliable relationships with his teammates on the pitch, as well a lack of tactical understanding in terms of his assigned role – this was evident again with his frustrating indivindualism against United on Saturday.
At other times, he just looks raw, and that cuts to the heart of some of the frustration around him: there are too many glaring holes in his game for a player who cost as much as he did.
There are some who contend it would be best to simply set aside the baggage of the cost of the transfer and instead judge Pepe objectively.
It is a fair sentiment, but impractical for one simple reason: the player himself seems constantly aware of the burden, and this is reflected in his play.
He constantly tries too hard on this account, and as a consequence lacks the sort of effortless assurance in his own ability that can sometimes make dribbling akin to a mind trick on opposing defenders.
Until recently, he seemed to exist in a sort of limbo. However, a pair of performances against Southampton, in the league and cup, appear to have breathed new life into his flagging Arsenal career.
While the Saints turned over the Gunners in the FA Cup, it was Arteta’s side who had the last laugh, winning 3-1 at St Mary’s on Wednesday night. Pepe, fielded on the left, scored for the first time in six matches to level the score after the home side had taken an early lead, and in general looked more switched on and involved.
It should see him keep his place for Saturday’s meeting with Manchester United, especially with Aubameyang once more unlikely to feature as he comes to grips with his family situation.
It was in this same meeting last season that he arguably first provided a glimpse of the ability that saw the club pay out a record fee. If Pepe can provide the same jolt of electricity on Saturday, it won’t matter that he came by this opportunity by default; he would well and truly give Arteta a choice to make.