With the days of Wright, Henry, Bergkamp and Van Persie long behind the club, it seems as though Arsenal FC has been crying out for a superstar for a while now. The club has now spent three consecutive seasons outside the top four, and after a less than encouraging start to 2019/20, the current crop of players appears likely to struggle again to restore Arsenal’s place within the Champions League qualification spots. Perhaps the closest thing to a figure of reliability, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored plenty of goals for the club, but the rest of the team hasn’t clicked as it should. However, in Nicolas Pepe, they will be hoping for a talisman who will help to inspire the club onto the next level.
Can Nicolas Pepe Translate his Ligue 1 Form to the Brutal Premier League?
With Nicolas Pepe notching 22 goals in his 38 games last year, there was certainly a lot of excitement when he signed for the club. Only Kylian Mbappe scored more than the Ivorian in Ligue 1 last season, but even more impressively, Pepe was also second in the assists table to Teji Savanier. Being able to rank so highly in both areas shows his special ability to both score and create, perhaps reminding many Gunners of Dennis Bergkamp in that regard.
33 – Nicolas Pepe 🇨🇮 was involved in 33 goals in Ligue 1 2018/19 (22 goals, 11 assists), only Lionel Messi (49), Kylian Mbappé (40) & Fabio Quagliarella (34) did better in the Top 5 European leagues. Gunner.@Arsenal pic.twitter.com/zSWsQ21kg0
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) July 30, 2019
However, Nicolas Pepe has a veritable canyon to make up if he is to achieve anywhere near the same stardom as the Dutch immortal. His performances with Lille showed just how talented he is, but in many respects, those stats flatter to deceive, as nearly half of his goals in 2018/19 also came from the penalty spot.
The quality of the goals Pepe scored from open play last term more than made up for that though. Most notably, he had a knack of mirroring Arjen Robben, with his main party piece comprising of cutting in from the right and scoring with his left.
Given that Robben was a former tormentor of Arsenal for two different clubs, many right-minded Gunners fans may hate such a comparison. At this moment, however, those same fans would embrace whatever it takes to get them back to enjoying the good times.
The Dangers of a Bad Spell
There is a fine line to be negotiated over the coming years, and it could end up being a problem for Arsenal if Nicolas Pepe is a little too good. The main concern is, of course, the return of Champions League football after three years of gross underachievement.
Ultimately, if Arsenal can’t get back into the competition within two years, they severely risk losing their best players, comfortably including Pepe and Aubameyang, on top of the continued failure to attract world-class talent.
Even with the likes of Eden Hazard and Cristiano Ronaldo, who were both part of formidable Premier League sides in the past, success is no guarantee of long-term loyalty. Depressing though it is to comprehend, players with such loyalty have become a premium commodity at Arsenal.
There is also the question as to whether or not Pepe’s current ‘7/10’ form will continue, especially since a lot of young wingers can easily suffer a drop in form. Certainly, in Pepe’s case, all it may take is a couple of bad performances to cause the fans to turn against him.
That could also have an impact upon various Premier League markets – especially those pertaining to the top-four, or which club is most likely to drop out of the ‘expected’ top-six.
All of this, but mostly the naturally-fickle nature of Premier League fans in general, may end up getting into his psyche. Furthermore, with the pressure that comes with bearing such a high price-tag, that could ultimately force him to revise his loyalty – with or without a return to the Champions League.
Indeed, even though he was a consistent performer at Lille last season, his performances in the African Cup of Nations were very underwhelming by contrast, and certainly indicative of potential inconsistency in the face of adversity. That alone suggests that Nicolas Pepe is not quite the ‘finished article’ yet, and that Arsenal fans should be patient when he goes through a bad period.
The Premier League has already seen quite a few examples of how quickly wingers can deteriorate, with players such as Memphis Depay, Juan Cuadrado, Angel Di Maria and Chelsea-era Mohamed Salah all being deemed as ‘flops’ in recent years.
In hindsight, all those players ever needed was time and the ability to play with more creativity, but the respective regimes under which they operated – particularly Depay under Louis Van Gaal at Manchester United – were counterproductive.
A Coup for Arsenal?
There were a few occasions at Lille where Nicolas Pepe played as a central striker, but never looked like a natural centre-forward. With Lacazette and Aubameyang, the club already has enough in that department, but as a right-winger, Pepe was able to utilise his devastating pace at Lille, and that ability to cut in on his left and threaten the goal.
While he will find that distinctly less-easy to do on a cold, wet weeknight at Bramall Lane, he certainly has enough quality to propel Arsenal all the way to the Europa League final once again.
The quality he possesses is further reflected by the calibre of rivals Arsenal beat to secure his signature. Amongst others, clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Napoli were courting the Ivorian, but Arsenal won out, largely by strength of Arsenal’s history in developing African and French players.
Of course, there can be no denying that the £72m paid for Nicolas Pepe did raise some eyebrows. The powers at the Emirates Stadium were also interested in Pepe’s countryman Wilfried Zaha, but with Crystal Palace demanding even more than that £72m, the chances of that move coming to fruition crumbled quickly.
Other, cheaper players with a similar natural position to Pepe have also thrived since arriving in the Premier League. They have also done so to a much greater obvious degree than Pepe, leading some to single him out for criticism on a bad day.
For instance, Manchester United’s teen sensation Daniel James would certainly be a worthy positional rival to Nicolas Pepe in North London right now, and only time will tell if Arsenal’s decision to go for the spectacular will pay off.
His start to life in the Premier League has been by no means lightning-quick, but his penalty against Aston Villa on Sunday could well kick-start his Arsenal career once and for all. After all, Thierry Henry scored only three times before Christmas Day in his first season at Arsenal – and it is fair to say that he did reasonably well from there.