Nicolas Pepe shut down Arsenal twitter for a whole week. The now famous David Ornstein tweets saying that Arsenal were on the verge of signing the burgeoning Ivorian 23-year old from Lille, after taking France’s top level league by storm, sent Arsenal fans into a state of chaos that hasn’t been seen since Mesut Ozil signed on deadline day in 2013. Being one of two players in Europe’s top-five leagues to score 20 goals and register 10 assists will garner that type of hype and attention. The only other person to have that kind of stat? Some kid named Lionel Messi.
20+10 - Nicolas Pépé was one of only two players to score 20+ goals and register 10+ assists in the top five European leagues in 2018-19, alongside Lionel Messi. Announced. pic.twitter.com/HZmiz7KVRi— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 1, 2019
August 1st was supposed to be the day that Arsenal finally woke up from their three year slumber of inferior European football, and the swift left-footed winger was supposed to be the pack of smelling salts that awakened the senses of a once proud and exciting club. Sadly, the exact opposite has happened.
It’s not all Pepe’s fault. Far from it actually, but when your club has mortgaged its financial future on one player, you hope that the guy they brought in can produce. They don’t have to score every single game, but you hope that they can show glimpses of hope as they adjust to the most physical league in the world (bar some lower level South American leagues who kick opponents shins until their opposition submits).
Pepe walked into a club that was in shambles, and it has only gotten worse. Pepe has been in and out of the starting XI, as Unai Emery has been unable to figure out how to utilize the $200 million worth of attacking talent he has at his disposal to come together in a fluid manner. The puzzling part now is looking back at Emery’s comments on signing day about Pepe, and how his initial plans haven’t come to fruition:
“Signing a top-class winger has been one of our key objectives in this transfer window and I am glad that he is joining, he will add pace, power, and creativity, with the aim to bring more goals into the team.”
Pepe has shown Arsenal fans glimpses of why clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Napoli, and PSG were all after his services. His run past Andy Robertson at Anfield, followed by making the titan that is Virgil Van Dijk look mortal with a swivel of his hips, had Gooners all over the world salivating. His turn and nutmeg against Burnley at home got fans on their feet, but the tricks and flicks have yet to produce the end product that propelled him from a player with endless amounts of potential to one that seemed to be on the cusp of being in the same conversation of wingers like Mane, Salah, Sterling, and Hazard.
Instead, Pepe has been isolated mainly on the wing, as Arsenal have been shuffling in between Ainsley Maitland-Nile and Calum Chambers at right back while Hector Bellerin continues to get up to speed after a devastating ACL tear that he suffered just under a year ago. The inconsistent partners have stunted Pepe’s ability to settle in and get to know his surroundings. Yet, the excuses that Arsenal fans have been able to create over the last couple of months are running dry, and his form is getting worrying, especially since Arsenal are currently sitting with a negative goal difference (16 goals in 12 matches). With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang accounting for half of those goals, Arsenal are a one man team unable to get anyone else going.
The season started in August, and as I sit here writing this article in November, Pepe and his fans (I am absolutely one of them, don’t you dare get it twisted) are still holding on to the memory of the few tricky moves that he had as the summer was coming to a close. It’s now heading to the dreaded winter months, and the two free kicks against mediocre Portuguese players are the only thing added to his YouTube montage.
Patience needs to be taken with the newcomer, but to question the lack of production doesn't make you a bad fan. Asking questions about your club’s most expensive signing is something that isn't out of the ordinary, it’s just as natural as Emery leaving Ozil out of the squad for no apparent reason.
If Pepe comes back from the international break and can’t find his form against opposition like Southampton, Eintracht Frankfurt, Norwich, and Brighton, then the mumblings about Pepe are going to quickly turn to outright questions.
Pepe moved to Lille from Angers SC for just under $15 million in the summer of 2017. Pepe wasn’t the starlet that he is now, and was very much an uncut gem that Marcelo Bielsa saw in the dirt. This was looked at as a positive from Arsenal fans as many, including myself, believed that Arsenal had just bought a player on the upward trajectory of their career with tons of potential still to uncover.
With Pepe’s lack of production, many are looking to his sudden rise to fame as a negative, wondering if his breakout season last year in France as a one-off, and hoping that the new executive setup of Raul Sanllehi and his fellow suits upstairs didn’t just take out an astronomically sized loan for a player who played a couple months of football out of his mind before crashing back to earth.
These are all the thoughts that are running through many fans’ heads, and this is natural when the team overall isn’t achieving what their potential suggests. If Arsenal had won just a couple of the past five matches, then the discussion around certain players, including Pepe, would be much different. That’s why waiting to see is the best option, but waiting to see when your club seems like it’s churning its tires in the stickiest of mud isn’t fun.
Patience is a virtue, and in football, it can be the most agonizing thing that one can experience, but one that is also the most important. Pepe will come good, and it just might take a change of manager for him to fulfill the massive amounts of potential that are wrapped up in those boots.