Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe have provided a glimpse of Arsenal's future in recent weeks but where does Nicolas Pepe fit into it? The £72m winger has only made four Premier League starts under Mikel Arteta this season
Saturday 23 January 2021 07:04, UK
There were plenty of positives for Arsenal in Monday's 3-0 win over Newcastle. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's goals. Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe's creativity. A fifth consecutive clean sheet.
For Nicolas Pepe, though, it was another reminder of the challenge he faces to carve out a place in the team. During the five-game Premier League unbeaten run that has revived Arsenal's season and perhaps even provided a glimpse of a brighter future under Mikel Arteta, their record signing has only played 44 minutes.
Instead it's Saka who is shining on the right-hand side of the attack and it appears the 19-year-old isn't the only player ahead of Pepe in the pecking order. The Newcastle game was the third of the last five in which the Ivorian hasn't made it off the bench, Arteta this time preferring Willian and Gabriel Martinelli.
Arsenal's upturn in form has lifted the mood around the club. Martin Odegaard's arrival on loan from Real Madrid may now provide a further boost. But Pepe's plight is not what was envisaged when he joined from Lille in the summer of 2019, the £72m fee making him the fifth-most expensive signing in Premier League history.
The deal generated huge excitement. Pepe had been talked about as a transfer target for Liverpool, someone deemed good enough to break up Jurgen Klopp's imperious front three, and arrived at Arsenal on the back of an outstanding season with Lille in which he scored 22 goals and provided 11 assists in 37 Ligue 1 games.
His first year in England started slowly as he adapted to his new surroundings but it ended on a high, the 25-year-old producing arguably his best two performances of the campaign in the FA Cup semi-final and final wins over Manchester City and Chelsea.
An overall return of eight goals and 10 assists in 42 appearances was respectable if not spectacular but it hinted at better to come.
The hope was that with a season of transition behind him, Pepe would begin to demonstrate his true potential more consistently.
"I have seen players with much more experience than Nico come to the Premier League and for six, eight or 12 months, completely fail and underperform," said Arteta in conversation with Sky Sports last February. "But after that, they have come back the following season and become some of the best players in the Premier League."
At the halfway point of the new campaign, however, the worry is that Pepe has gone backwards rather than forwards.
There have been flashes of his quality, including a trademark goal against Sheffield United when he cut in off the right flank and curled a left-footed finish into the corner. But most of his best moments have come against modest opposition in the Europa League.
In the Premier League, he has only started four games out of 19 and did not help his cause by getting himself needlessly sent off in the second of them, against Leeds at Elland Road, when he pressed his head into Ezgjan Alioski and received a straight red card.
Arteta was furious, branding Pepe's conduct "unacceptable" after the game. It was an uncharacteristic reaction from someone who usually defends his players at every opportunity but Arteta is not the first Arsenal manager to have grown frustrated by him.
His predecessor, Unai Emery, said the winger needed to be more "demanding of himself" and "take responsibility for himself" in an interview with Sky Sports in November 2019 and Arteta echoed that view last February. "Absolutely," he said when asked if Pepe is a player who requires more pushing than most.
It is particularly problematic because Pepe, for all his undoubted quality, has found the transition from Ligue 1 to Premier League so tough. The refereeing is more lenient - Pepe has gone from winning three fouls per 90 minutes at Lille to one per 90 minutes at Arsenal - and the increased physicality also means less space to work in.
"He's a very shy boy who had an incredible season last year, but that was with a very different style of football, with a lot of space, with a lot of runs in behind, with a lot of freedom," added Arteta in February. "Here, it's different. He is surrounded by other top players and he needs to adapt to that."
The decision to spend £72m on him despite those factors raises questions of Arsenal's recruitment process under the now-departed head of football Raul Sanllehi and there can be little doubt that the price-tag has weighed heavily on the player himself.
"He is hurting, he is suffering - believe me, I am close to him - and he is trying his best," said Arteta after Pepe drew criticism for a poor display in last month's 2-1 loss to Everton. "He feels the responsibility because he knows why the club brought him here and he wants to deliver that."
The issue now is that at a time when younger team-mates such as Saka and Smith Rowe are playing with freedom and fearlessness, Pepe has become inhibited by a lack of confidence. It is far from ideal given his risk-taking style demands plenty of it and his performances have become increasingly erratic as a result.
What's even more worrying, however, is that confident or not it is difficult to see how exactly Pepe fits into Arteta's new-look side.
Saka has been far more productive than him both in terms of goals scored and chances created since moving to the right flank last month and Arsenal's overall attacking improvement owes a lot to the speed with which they are now moving the ball forward.
There is an emphasis on fewer touches and quicker, more incisive passing, as seen in the build-up to Saka's goal in the win over West Brom and Aubameyang's opener against Newcastle.
Pepe, though, is a player who likes to take his time in possession, his instinct being to try to beat his man and carry the ball forward himself rather than pick out a team-mate ahead of him.
It is no bad thing, of course, for a manager to have alternative options in his squad; players in reserve who can give the side something different. But in Pepe's case, Arsenal seem further away than ever from seeing a return on their £72m investment. The club's future has started to look brighter recently. But Pepe's place in it is less clear.