When Nicolas Pepe made the club record £72m move to Arsenal over the summer, it was naturally expected he will make the Gunners attack even more lethal in a forward line that already boasted the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Piere-Emerick Aubameyang. Seven games into the season and the 24-year-old Ivorian only has one penalty goal and an assist to show for. Circumstances which have now led to a few questioning the validity of his price tag and if he can live up to the reputation that came with it.
Unai Emery insisted it was a good point but Arsenal departed Old Trafford wondering if they had wasted a perfect chance to end the hoodoo this ground holds over them in the Premier League.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cancelled out Scott McTominay’s first-half strike to earn the Gunners a point and doom Manchester United to their worst start to a league campaign in 30 years. But against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s struggling side it might not have needed much more to take all three points.
Certainly a Nicolas Pepe at the peak of his powers might have punished the Red Devils whilst had Unai Emery’s tactics been slightly more assertive then the Gunners might have been able to impose themselves on the game.
Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane was quick to lash out his criticism on the Ivorian and even suggested 18-year-old Bukayo Saka looked more influential than him on the pitch.
Speaking afterwards on Sky Sports, He said:
“I’ve been disappointed with him since he’s come to the club.
“There’s not great body language.
“We make excuses for players sometimes, it takes time to settle into the club, but you see this young kid(Saka) tonight and Pepe compared to him, for the money they paid, needs to do a lot more.
“His work rate, his lack of quality, his end product. His body language, he didn’t seem up for the fight tonight.”
Pepe was quick to defend his lacklustre performance stating he wasn’t worried and only needed more time to adapt.
“It has not been easy, I must tell the truth,” he told French radio station RMC.
“My stats have not been good enough or my usual performances, it is not the same as Lille or the Liverpool game earlier in the season.
“My confidence must come back. I am not very worried. People may be worried about my statistics but I am not.
“I have to keep working as the level here is different so is the language.”
Why it’s still too early to panic about Pepe
So here we are, seven games into his Arsenal career, and questions are already being asked about Pepe. How he and his new club must long for the days when Robert Pires was given six months before anyone made a serious assessment over him. He has scarcely got six games.
Already Roy Keane is “slamming” Pepe, making the easy comparison between Bukayo Saka and the new signing’s £72million transfer fee and questioning “his work rate, his lack of quality, end product, his body language.” Those comments would easily be justified by mid-season if Pepe continues his bad form – but a few weeks to settle in does not feel like too much to ask for.
It is far too early to write Arsenal’s club-record signing off at this stage, considering his number of appearances for the club is yet to reach double figures. Patience with Pepe is required and it is worth remembering that it took Thierry Henry until his ninth match for the Gunners to get off the mark. Pepe has already bettered that record with one goal from his opening eight games, albeit from the penalty spot.
Nevertheless, it is in these games that Pepe has been signed for. Arsenal’s record against the best of the rest is generally excellent but they have struggled against top-six rivals recently, particularly away from home.
Against United, the Ivorian didn’t manage a single successful cross in 45 minutes and that is shocking for any player at all, not to think of a player with his reputation.
Nicolas Pépé attempted more crosses (4) than any other player in the first half at Old Trafford.
None of them were successful. ? pic.twitter.com/2pzJRR9S2W
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 30, 2019
But the reality is that the match was at a low standard such that no side hit the target within the first 30 mins. In that regard, Pepe can be forgiven as well.
On the flip side he is still waiting for his first goal from open play and the penalty Aubameyang handed him in the win over Aston Villa didn’t seem to be doing much for his confidence on Monday evening. Yet a measure of patience with Pepe will have its rewards, not least because we are yet to see him command the right with a truly dangerous full-back partner of his own.
Perhaps Pepe’s greatest challenge was that when he picked up the ball and tried to drive inside Axel Tuanzebe felt able to follow him every step of the way, often doubling up on him with Scott McTominay. The issue for the Ivorian was that he had few options close by once he had been shepherded into that blind alley.
Calum Chambers did not pose enough of a threat on the overlap to concern Tuanzebe whilst infield were Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi, again not the sort of players who make telling contributions in the final third.
Add Hector Bellerin to the mix and Pepe ought to be a far more dangerous proposition. His darts infield can free up space for the Spaniard to dash in behind, forcing defenders to make immediate decisions on how to cope with this double threat. The former Lille man notably looked more effective going forward with Ainsley Maitland-Niles performing a similar role but Bellerin will eventually do so to even greater effect.
Perhaps only then will we see the best of Pepe – and frankly that is a much shorter wait than rival clubs have had before they have seen Son Heung-min, Leroy Sane or countless others hit their peak – but at least Arsenal supporters need not wait all that much longer.