Thursday , October 31 2019

Nicolas Pepe’s signing filled Arsenal fans with hope but he looks a shadow of the player he was

Nicolas Pepe  has failed to live up to expectations since becoming Arsenal’s record signing

The news that Arsenal had agreed a £72million club-record fee for Nicolas Pepe in July was met with nothing short of pandemonium from a fan-base with little expectations for the summer. 

In truth, the majority knew fairly little about the Ivory Coast forward but a quick look at his Lille numbers and a visit to YouTube had the Gunners faithful believing they had acquired a real game-changer.

However, we’re now two months into the new season and it’s safe to say the excitement surrounding the signing has well and truly died down.

The 24-year-old managed 35 goals in 74 appearances as a winger in Ligue 1 but has found the net just once in 10 games so far in England, that strike coming from the penalty spot against newly-promoted Aston Villa.

But it’s more than merely a lack of goals that has supporters concerned.

He clearly has the pace, and one or two tricks in his locker, but as the matches have gone on the Ivorian’s all-round game has left a lot to be desired. 

A club known so long for its technically-gifted footballers, Pepe has looked clumsy on the ball and anything but clinical.

It’s early days, of course, but he has looked a shadow of the player he was in France – and the stats back it up.

Pepe arrived with a big reputation having scored 35 goals in 74 appearances for Lille

Pepe arrived with a big reputation having scored 35 goals in 74 appearances for Lille

The Ivory Coast international has so far struggled to adapt to life in the Premier League

The Ivory Coast international has so far struggled to adapt to life in the Premier League 

If he continues at this rate, Pepe’s end-of-season numbers will be a far cry from last term.

In all Lille’s player of the season was on the pitch for 3,540 minutes in the 2018-19 campaign, contributing 23 goals and 12 assists. Currently, he’s on course to finish with just six goals and six assists this time around.

Clearly he’s finding English football tough to adapt to, the winger averaging less completed dribbles and less touches in the opposition box than before. 

His struggles have also been compounded by the the success of his side’s other forwards, particularly the emergence of 18-year-old Bukayo Saka.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette can do no wrong in the eyes of the Emirates crowd while Saka has well and truly burst onto the scene since being handed a start in the Europa League.

Pepe's penalty against newly-promoted Aston Villa remains his only goal of the season

Pepe’s penalty against newly-promoted Aston Villa remains his only goal of the season 

The young winger took his chance with aplomb, starring in a 3-0 win over Frankfurt before going on to start all three Premier League games since, a fine showing at Old Trafford convincing many that he could well be a real gem.

What Saka’s early success has also done, however, is ramp up the pressure on his fellow winger. 

‘He looked like the £72m winger on show’, said Sportsmail columnist and Gunners legend Martin Keown of Saka following the Manchester United draw. 

Speaking to BT Sport a few days later, Keown went further, insisting Arsenal overpaid for Pepe and that he is only getting in the way of his young team-mate’s development.   

‘If you think back to Arsene Wenger, he would have never have blocked the path of a young player but they are in danger of doing that with Bukayo Saka,’ he said.

Pepe (right) has been outshone by 18-year-old winger Bukayo Saka (centre) so far this term

Pepe (right) has been outshone by 18-year-old winger Bukayo Saka (centre) so far this term

‘Pepe, is he going to get into the team? It’s a massive amount of money they have paid for him and Lille will be laughing all the way to the bank with that one.

‘It’s still early days and maybe the player will turn it around but I haven’t really seen what I expected to see from him.’

Fellow pundit Michael Owen agreed, adding: ‘We’re talking a lot of positives about Arsenal at the moment but I think there is one little negative eating away and that is Pepe. 

‘I was excited by him, I saw him in the French league and he looked a very good player, he started the first game and looked like he had a bag of tricks but he’s just gone off the boil.

‘That’s a huge investment for anybody but it is a huge investment for Arsenal.’

Martin Keown has seen enough to believe the Gunners overpaid for their record signing

Martin Keown has seen enough to believe the Gunners overpaid for their record signing

Confidence is undoubtedly a big issue here, the Pepe that looked a real handful in an early visit to league leaders Liverpool nowhere to be seen over the past few weeks.

‘It’s not been easy, we must tell the truth,’ Pepe told RMC after his anonymous display at United.

‘I’m not good enough in my stats or my usual form, it’s not the same as in Lille or during the Liverpool match early in the season.

‘The confidence must come back. I am not very worried. People may be worried about statistics, but I’m not. 

‘I have to keep working because the level is different, so is the language. It’s a new championship for me. I have to adapt quickly but it will not be long.’

And the 24-year-old certainly has time to turn things around.

Pepe admits he has not been good enough since joining the the north London club

Pepe admits he has not been good enough since joining the the north London club 

Arsenal boss Unai Emery is sticking by Pepe despite the emergence of youngster Saka

Arsenal boss Unai Emery is sticking by Pepe despite the emergence of youngster Saka

As is natural with a fan-base renowned for its negativity, there are those already seeking to label Pepe the ‘next Gervinho’.

However, the majority remain confident in the belief that he will come good, pointing to how long it took club legends Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp to settle in what is widely regarded the toughest league in the world.  

It’s also important to recognise that he ranks first in his side for assists, big chances created, key passes and successful dribbles, albeit in a team that has hardly set the world alight this season.

Ivory Coast team-mate Wilfried Zaha echoed the need for patience this week, saying: ‘I see the social media, I see everything and it’s a thing where he needs time. He’s come from another league, he’s young.

‘There’s this price tag that he has not put on himself, people have put that on him because of his performances. So you’ve got to give him time for him to reproduce that, it’s not going to come like that.’

Former Arsenal manager Wenger also called for Pepe to be given time, saying: ‘I like the player and I thought it was a good decision [to sign him]. He’s not yet completely adapted and you have to give him some time.’

However, Wenger also offered a warning.  

‘On the other hand, I must say we have good young players who can play on the flanks,’ the Frenchman continued. ‘He will have a fight to keep his position.’

Fair or not, a transfer fee of that magnitude brings expectations. Pepe hasn’t lived up to them yet and if he doesn’t start to over the next couple of months, there will be serious questions asked. 

Pepe knows he need to do much more to convince fans over the next few months

Pepe knows he need to do much more to convince fans over the next few months