Nicolas Pepe: Can Arsenal’s record-signing turn it around at the Emirates?
Arsenal engaged in a long, drawn out battle to sign Nicolas Pepe last summer, and paid a sizeable fee, but so far the player is yet to justify the effort and cost to bring him to Emirates Stadium.
The Ivorian international was one of Europe’s most exciting prospects last summer after a breakout season in a Lille side that came second in Ligue 1 after escaping relegation by a single point the season previous.
Pepe scored 22 goals and laid on 12 assists in a dazzling campaign that caught the eyes of numerous suitors across the continent, with Liverpool at one stage believed to have been the favourites to sign him.
Arsenal ultimately won the race, parting with an eye-watering fee of £72m to get him to London with the hope that he would carry Arsenal to the next step.
After a goal and an assist within the first six matches, it appeared Pepe was finding his feet in English football, but it never really materialised for him throughout the campaign.
For every positive display it felt like there were a handful of average ones, and his inability to complete 90 minutes became a source of frustration as he was subbed in half of the games he started throughout the season, compared to being brought off in just nine of his 37 Ligue 1 starts in 2018/19.
Where has it gone wrong for Pepe at Arsenal?
|Stat||Lille 2018/19||Arsenal 2019/20|
|Chances Created P90||0.96||1.61|
|Shots on target P90||1.58||0.71|
|Shots on target %||52%||35%|
Some match-winning performances in the Europa League showed the quality was there, but whether it was fitness, confidence or adapting to a new team and competition, that never translated to league football.
Five goals and six assists left him some way short of the productivity he showed in his last season in France, although there was an adjustment from being ‘the man’ in that Lille side to a facilitator with the Gunners.
Passing and crossing accuracy both saw a significant increase from his previous campaign, as did key passes, while interceptions, tackles and free ball pick-ups were also more of a feature in his game as he began to fit into Arteta’s new-look defensive system.
But the £72m was spent for goals and assists and to win matches, which Pepe didn’t do nearly enough to justify the price.
The 25-year-old was worse off in just about every creative and attacking stat in his debut campaign at Arsenal – dribbles, shots on target and chances created among them.
The incision and creative freedom that he played with in France was suddenly lost from his game, and Arsenal suffered as part of his struggles, particularly throughout a tumultuous first half of the season.
SciSports says Pepe could be most accurately compared to Riyad Mahrez, a wide-playmaker or inside forward that plays the game with flair and a desire to get forward and make things happen.
Even the pair’s appearances and minutes played last season are strikingly similar, but the glaring difference is in the numbers as Mahrez was streets ahead of Pepe in his output for Manchester City, with 0.47 goals P90 and 0.39 assists P90 compared with Pepe’s 0.21 and 0.25 respectively.
In fact, his overall performance against other wingers in the league according to SciSports was below average, with the likes of Andros Townsend, Emi Buendia and Theo Walcott all ranking higher in terms of contribution to scoring and preventing goals P90.
Already Pepe is seeing last season’s form adversely impact the opportunities he is getting this season. The Ivorian has featured in seven of the eight Premier League games so far, but only once from the start and at an average of just 32 minutes per appearance.
It is difficult for a player to improve if they aren’t getting the minutes, but he also needs to prove why he is deserving of the time on the pitch and so far in his Arsenal career he hasn’t quite done that enough.
There is still plenty of time for him to turn it around and the quality is clearly there, but already Pepe is edging onto the ever-growing list of underwhelming Arsenal signings.