Nicolas Pepe: An Expensive Arsenal Gamble That Has Yet to Pay Off – With the Emphasis on ‘Yet’

Nicolas Pepe
Arsenal FC v Burnley FC – Premier League | Chloe Knott – Danehouse/Getty Images

‘LOL I can’t believe Arsenal wasted so much money on this step-over merchant’

‘He’s just Gervinho 2.0’

‘[insert Premier League rival] spent [insert fee] less on [insert player] and he’s so much better’

A good few of these having been knocking about across social media and down at the pub (back when pubs were actually accessible, that is), or even shouted across the street at anybody wearing an Arsenal top.

Because, truth be told, Nicolas Pepe has not lived up to his £72m price tag…. yet.

Was he ever going to, though? Was £72m pounds worth of footballing brilliance suddenly going to grace the Emirates and make that astronomical fee look like an utter bargain? No, it wasn’t, but there were plenty of Arsenal fans who sure thought it would.

It’s stressed a lot that a player shouldn’t be judged on the price a club pays for him. Be them still teenagers, World Cup winners, Ivorian wingers or whatnot, it’s always best to pretend that doesn’t exist and take them for face value.

But, when you arrive at a club as their record signing having accrued 33 goal involvements the season prior, it’s hard to overlook that dreaded figure.

With four goals and six assists in his 32 Arsenal matches to date, for a player joining a new league, with a different language and in a failing side in which he’s already played under three managers, it’s not a bad return. It really isn’t.

Bring that £72m back into the picture, though, and all involved with the club would have been asking for a bit more than ‘not bad’. Pepe himself would concur.

It took him six Premier League outings to net his first goal – coming from the penalty spot – but by this time the hordes of critics had already been lambasting him for his tendency to overplay with the ball at his feet and his lack of sharpness.

Nor did he arrive possessing anything that vaguely resembled a right foot. Falling neatly into the one-footed bracket, it’s an area of his game that needs improvement.

Not just that, mind. There are a few flaws in the Ivorian’s ability that have to be tweaked and nurtured to realise his full potential. But already we’re seeing those getting worked on.

Whenever he gathered possession he seemed to head aimlessly in any direction, carrying the ball merely for the sake of carrying the ball. Yet under Mikel Arteta we’ve seen improvements in his ball retention, his understanding of opposition defenders and his positional play. Three assists and a goal in his three most recent top flight outings attest to that.

It’s key to note the surroundings he’s entered. Arsenal have not been Arsenal this season. They’ve been even worse.

Under the ‘tactical’ sh*tstorm of Unai Emery’s tenure, to the rookie put-him-in-and-hope spell of Freddie Ljungberg, his progress was always going to decelerate. But said progress was never meant to be immediate. It can seem outlandish – but the £72m spent was always with an eye on the future, not the present.

Such were the reasons why the club opted to move away from a deal for Wilfried Zaha. He was a player for the now, with Pepe one that could become a now guy in due course.

That ‘due course’, though, tends to get muddled when money is involved. Patience is a virtue, but football waits for no one.

Nicolas PepeNicolas Pepe
Julian Finney/Getty Images

If you’re not banging in goals from the very first minute, causing people to flood YouTube with ‘Goalz N Skillz 2k20’ videos then you’re blatantly doing something wrong. That shouldn’t be the case, mind. Pepe’s development was always going to be steady, no matter what fee was slapped on him.

However, there are only so many excuses you can make. A certain degree of tempering can be placed on the arguments against his form, but it hasn’t been the impact everyone quite hoped for.

What can be said is that he definitely falls under the ‘exciting’ category. Pepe has more tricks than a clown’s pocket, regularly showcasing neat and tidy close control crafted from those lanky legs of his. He’s lightening quick, loves to take players on and commands defences to double-mark him.

When he gets possession the Emirates stands up. Not for a while has this been the case, not perhaps since Alexis Sanchez was in prime form during his Gunners spell.

Now he’s starting to blend together better tactical know-how with his undoubted natural ability, the calls of ‘just another Gervinho’ could potentially dissipate…. who are we kidding he could net 20 goals and season and social media would still make that jibe.

With the Premier League now finally set to resume in under three weeks’ time, one of the key reasons for Arsenal fans to harbour any modicum of enthusiasm is to monitor the 25-year-old forward’s improvements – or possible lack thereof.

Manchester City await first up with the possibility of quashing the Gunners’ exceedingly dim chances of securing Champions League football at the very first (sort of) hurdle.

Will the lack of supporters in stadiums benefit Pepe? He won’t be subject to the Emirates groans when he loses the ball, possibly opening the door for more confident performances. But even if there isn’t a drastic spike in his displays for the final ten-game stretch, he’s not ‘finished’ by any means.

He was bought with an eye on the future and the future isn’t his debut campaign in England where he didn’t have a pre-season behind him.

Nicolas PepeNicolas Pepe
Chloe Knott – Danehouse/Getty Images

What’s going on with Pepe at the moment is a process.

One of integration, learning, fine-tuning and assimilation.

It does feel as if peoples’ heads are starting to turn on the Pepe situation. The early castigating has mellowed, and under Arteta he appears far more settled in his job role and surroundings – but again expectations must be soothed.

How long it will take for him to replicate the level of form he demonstrated in his final season with Lille nobody knows. Though, when (if) it does come, this slightly under-par debut campaign will be quickly forgotten. Perhaps not so much the bank balance, but you’ve got to spend money to make money, right?

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