Arsenal shocked the football world in late July when they announced that they had reached a deal with Lille over the transfer of Nicolas Pepe. The Ivorian winger burst onto the scene in Ligue 1 last season with an impressive 22 goals and 13 assists. These figures had all of Europe’s biggest clubs taking notice. It was a real statement of intent from Arsenal to break their transfer record in order to beat the likes of Bayern Munich and Napoli to the signing of Pepe.
Despite all this initial excitement at the signing of Pepe, a certain section of Arsenal fans are already beginning to questions his quality. Only four games into his Arsenal career for people to be writing this talented winger off is nothing short of ludicrous. So what can we expect from Nicolas Pepe this season?
Football fans today are more-fickle and dramatic than ever before. With the emergence of social media giving every fan a voice, sensationalism and overreaction are part and parcel of football. For Nicolas Pepe, a 24-year old new to the Premier League to already have doubters really sums up modern football. Only Kylian Mbappe scored more goals in Ligue 1 than the Ivorian last season and he was able to carry Lille to a Champions League place.
It is very important to remember who Pepe has been up against in his two starts in the Premier League- Liverpool and Tottenham, the two Champions League Finalists from last season. Even in these games, against stellar opposition, Pepe looked impressive. He managed to skip past Andy Robertson on more than one occasion, something which almost no player has been able to do over their best two seasons. His approach-play and dribbling have been fantastic, he just simply hasn’t found his end-product yet.
The Premier League is a completely different environment to that of Europe’s other top leagues. It is perfectly normal for players coming from these leagues to need a little bit more time to settle and find their feet in England. Obviously, Pepe’s massive price-tag does give him less leeway in terms of a grace period but for so-called Arsenal fans to hit the panic button after only two starts is a huge overreaction.
England a Hard Place to Settle
When we speak of players who took time to settle in England, Arsenal fans shouldn’t need to think too hard to come up with some examples. Arguably Arsenal’s two greatest ever players had struggles in the early stages of their Arsenal careers. Dennis Bergkamp took eight games to score his first goal for the club while Thierry Henry took seven. It’s crazy to imagine had social media existed in those days, would these legends have been written off as flops. Arsenal fans need to have more patience and give Pepe the time to be the player we all know he can be.
One recent example in the Premier League is Roberto Firmino. Firmino took until November of his first season in England to bag his first Liverpool goal and it’s no secret the impact he’s made at Anfield since then.
You can also look at Robert Pires, who may be an even better comparison to Nicolas Pepe. A winger, already well-established in his national side coming from France to the much more physical English Premier League, Pires too took time to find his feet. Pires scored just four goals and only registered a single assist in his first season in England. Arsene Wenger kept faith in the French winger and he went on to become a club legend.
Now admittedly if Nicolas Pepe finishes this season with only four goals and one assist, I may be thinking slightly more cynically than I am at the moment. But I believe that he looks to be more than capable of handling the physical side of the game so I expect a much better return from Pepe than what Pires was able to produce. He just needs that first goal to set him on his way.
Prior to this weekend’s matches, Nicolas Pepe had completed more dribbles than any other player in the Premier League. This was despite not starting in the opening two fixtures. This shows his immense quality and direct, fearless style of play. In flashes we have already seen what he is capable of, his nutmeg on Ben Mee lit-up the Emirates on his home debut and his one man break against Liverpool where he went past Robertson as if he wasn’t there was only lacking the finish to be a fantastic goal.
Pepe’s end product against Tottenham was admittedly not the best. He got in some great positions but he did seem rushed in the final third and could have shown more composure at times, snatching at shots and dragging them wide of the target. Is this cause for concern? I certainly don’t think so. I would be concerned if he had been anonymous in games and wasn’t getting into goalscoring positions at all. This has definitely not been the case and even though his final ball was a bit lacklustre on Sunday, he still registered an assist for Alexandre Lacazette’s crucial goal on the stroke of half-time.
Best Yet to Come
The best of Nicolas Pepe is certainly yet to come in an Arsenal shirt. His ability to carry the ball forward at pace is vital to Arsenal’s success and will frighten the life out of opposition defences. Arsenal are still a work in progress this season. With such a massive overhaul in the squad, Unai Emery is still trying to figure out how to get the best out of his players. On Sunday, Arsenal did seem to be lacking in creativity from the midfield. Ceballos, Ozil and Willock are all options to come into this midfield and make life easier for Arsenal’s new look front-three.
As Emery works out how to get the best out of his front-three, Pepe will find it easier and easier. His relationship with Alexandre Lacazette already looks like a fruitful one and with more time to play alongside Aubameyang, their understanding will develop also.
Arsenal fans simply need to relax when it comes to Pepe. I know you can’t ignore the price-tag completely but it needs to be set aside for the time being at least and allow him time to settle. His quality is plain to see, he just needs time to acclimatise to a new country, new league and new teammates before we will see the best he has to offer.