When Nicolas Pépé joined Arsenal from Lille for a club-record fee of £72m, Arsenal fans rejoiced at the capture of such a distinguished international star joining Unai Emery’s growing team.
Some 870+ days later and the Ivorian looks like a man in desperate need of a change of scenery and who is watching his twilight years dwindle as younger players take up more minutes on the pitch.
Pépé joined Arsenal on the 1st of August 2019 from French side Lille. Pépé had been the bell of the ball for most of the summer transfer window, with clubs such as Juventus, Napoli, Liverpool, Manchester City and Bayern Munich all rumoured to be clamouring for the Ivorian winger’s signature. But it was Arsenal who won the race in the end.
No one saw it coming and the signing sent shockwaves throughout Europe as Arsenal’s reported meagre £40m budget aided them in signing one of Europe’s top talents.
Pépé had ended the Ligue 1 season with a stunning 22 goals in 38 league matches and with a very impressive series of performances, with many only putting PSG’s Kylian Mbappé ahead of him.
Despite the celebrations erupting among the fanbase, head-coach Unai Emery will have no doubt turned a worried face to his assistant Juan Carlos Carcedo.
This was not the man he asked for. In fact, this was a very different man from the one he asked Head of Football Relations, Raül Sanllehí to sign.
Emery had asked for Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, a player who had given Emery’s Arsenal the runaround in a big way the previous season and who is so highly thought of in the league, that fans have even started bedding in new fullbacks with “The Zaha Test”, a humorous reference to testing a player’s ability to keep the winger quiet.
Zaha and Pépé share many similarities. Both from the Ivory Coast, highly-rated, can play in multiple positions in the forward-line, have exceptionally quick feet, explosive pace and potentially deadly from set-pieces.
However, Pépé is a left-footed player, where Zaha is right-footed. This causes an imbalance on the wing that Emery wanted to funnel movement down.
As Pépé is primarily a right-winger, he would need to cut back onto his left-foot in order to make the next move, a style of play that is often punished rather than rewarded in the Premier League, where time on the ball is sparse.
It’s unfair to say that Emery did not like Pépé, however, he was nevertheless very unwilling to give him game time. Reiss Nelson was the more favoured son on the right, but after Pépé’s last gasp free-kick at home to Vitória S.C. in the Europa League, Emery was forced to back him.
Emery, however, was not backed and was promptly sacked at the end of November.
Since then, Pépé has been under the tutelage of Mikel Arteta and (briefly) Freddie Ljungberg. Pépé started as Arsenal won a record-extending 14th FA Cup and he was ever-present in Arsenal’s Europa League campaign last season, but this year, it seems things have changed for Pépé.
This season, Pépé has been completely forgotten. He started Arsenal’s opening day humiliation away to Brentford and was on the pitch as Arsenal were thumped emphatically by Chelsea. He did not feature against Manchester City, but was back in the side against Norwich (grabbing himself an assist) and Burnley.
However, since making a 5-minute cameo in the team’s 0-2 away win to Leicester City, Pépé has been on the bench 7 times, making an appearance in just one of them, a 10-minute showing.
Completing just 7 90 minutes in all competitions, with 2 of those coming in the League Cup, Pépé will need to be making some decisions regarding his future.
Given the recent form of Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, there is no justifiable reason to be starting Pépé over either of them, even with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s current exile. The only other players to compete with, Martin Ødegaard and Emile Smith Rowe, both play in a different position to him on the field.
There is an argument to be made that Pépé could potentially occupy the same space as Alexandre Lacazette, but the Frenchman’s impressive performances and the fact that he has taken over the captain’s armband in Aubameyang’s absence has made that less likely too.
Pépé will need to find out how he fits into this Arsenal side, if at all.
With the AFCON coming up, Pépé will most likely be missing from the Arsenal ranks until February, so his game time pick up, at least at international level.
Of course, Pépé’s recent performance in Arsenal’s 5-1 win over Sunderland, in which he bagged a goal and two assists, may well give him the chance to force his way back into the manager’s thinking, but this comes with the caveat that he will likely only be int he team a little while before having to fly out for the AFCON.
However, his inclusion post-AFCON will be most intriguing. Does Pépé decide to accept a bit-part role in the team, performing when called upon and dutifully accepting that the space ahead of him is occupied by a younger, far more likeable and in-form player or does he look for a move in the summer?
The latter seems to make more sense than the former.
Sitting around waiting for Mikel Arteta to drop any of the current crop of youngsters in the position feels like a fool’s errand.
With the integration of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, Gabriel Martinelli was always going to be the next-in-line for a role in the team. Having exploded onto the scene under Unai Emery, everyone thought that he was set for a massive career under Mikel Arteta, however, a long-term injury hampered his chances.
With Pépé’s exceedingly patchy form and Aubameyang’s absence, Martinelli is now being given his chance to shine and the Brazilian has taken it with both hands.
Bukayo Saka is the club’s jewel in the crown, the club’s number 7 and arguably one of the most exciting prospects in world football and who lit up the EUROs this summer with his mesmeric displays. Arsenal are not about to drop him for Pépé.
There is also the inescapable fact that Pépé has simply not performed well enough to merit being given the kind of chance he craves outside of an injury or COVID crisis.
This isn’t even just this season either, Pépé has long cut a divisive figure at the club ever since his arrival.
Pépé is at his very best when he can run at defenders, preferably with a decent amount of ground covered behind him. Dealing with Pépé at full-pace is most defender’s worse nightmares, given his low centre of gravity, balance and how quick his feet are, but given that Arsenal tend to play a system that favours playing the ball into the feet of a teammate, Pépé isn’t really helped here.
Having had long periods in the team, it’s difficult to say that there have been many stand out performances from him.
When both Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe broke into the team, their impact was felt only when they left it. Without Saka, Arsenal lack a certain cutting edge that Saka brings in abundance; in Smith Rowe, Arsenal lack the ability to drive forward and the ability to play intricate passing patterns on the edge of an opponent’s box.
When Pépé is missing, Arsenal don’t feel like their missing a spark that only he can give them, they look better off.
Something that is perhaps more noticeable in left-footed players over right-footed ones, is the tendency to ignore their right foot unless absolutely necessary.
Perhaps it’s the fact that left-footed players are a rarer commodity than right-footed ones. Pépé is one of that number.
Most footballers favour their stronger foot, it’s no real surprise, but Pépé is someone who is rather scared to use his right. This complicates matters as Arsenal need someone on the wing who is capable of using their right-foot as well as their left.
Players like Santi Cazorla do not come around often and Pépé, unfortunately, is no Cazorla.
Some of the criticism levelled at Saka when he first broke into the side was that he would be left behind by the modern game as he was too reliant on his left foot, something Saka has since proven to be wrong.
While Saka certainly favours his left foot, he is capable of switching to his right, seemingly at a moment’s notice, whereas Pépé will rarely switch to his right, unless absolutely necessary.
This means that Pépé needs the ball to be played into his left-foot in order to be effective. This is not an inherently bad thing, since Arsenal have worked on passing into feet more since Mikel Arteta became manager, but it does limit his ability to do anything with it.
While he was ostensibly a right-winger, Premier League defenders are all too aware of his one-footedness and have started putting up road-blocks, prompting Arsenal to switch him to the other side of the pitch.
Pépé exclusion from the side is not entirely his own fault, however, he has also been a victim of Mikel Arteta’s harsh team selections and as a result of gameplans not suiting him.
On the latter point, Pépé is perhaps one of the best crossers of the ball in the league. His ability to whip the ball and pick out a teammate is near unrivalled for a winger and is perhaps one of his best qualities. The issue is that Arsenal do not play with anyone who can naturally head the ball in the way that Olivier Giroud used to.
The fact that Arsenal do not play with an official target man or have a natural header of the ball at the club, means that Pépé’s crosses are redundant and so removes an exceptional tool from his belt.
Then we come to the former point.
Pépé’s role on the bench has not gone unnoticed and given Arsenal’s need to keep player’s fit, the wide players are often substituted midway through the 2nd half.
Gabriel Martinelli’s 100mph playstyle often means that he is one of the first to be withdrawn, however, in recent weeks, Arteta has chosen to entrust Eddie Nketiah with the wide role, over Pépé.
There is probably no greater vote of no confidence in you as a player when the manager would rather play a natural striker on the wing instead of you, especially when that same striker will likely be out of the club in the next 6-12 months.
Pépé’s route to the first-team is already blocked by two in-form youngsters, adding in another roadblock makes his route to the team near impossible.
It’s difficult not to feel sorry for Pépé in this instance. How can he prove his worth to the manager, if the manager will not give him a chance?
However, many will argue that given Arsenal’s absence from European football this season and the more relaxed week-to-week schedule of their Premier League campaign has meant that Arsenal are not in a position in which they can start tinkering around and experimenting, especially with players who are as inconsistent as Pépé.
This means that Arsenal’s league games, already tight affairs on their own, hold more weight than they would have done in previous seasons. Arsenal simply cannot afford to drop points, every match is a must-win and their rivals encircle them with a ferocity that borders on the murderous, adding in a player who may or may not turn up is just not a luxury that Arsenal can afford anymore, as both Mesut Özil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have shown in recent years.