Not since the win over Leicester City back in September had Nicolas Pepe started a Premier League match for Arsenal. By the time the Gunners arrived at Elland Road Sunday to face Leeds United, Mikel Arteta’s preference of Willian over the Ivorian winger had been well established. Yet Arteta made the call to shuffle his pack, giving Pepe a second chance.
The 25-year-old could barely have made a worse second impression, though. His sending off for a petulant head-butt on Ezgjan Alioski left Arsenal with only 10 men on the pitch for the majority of the second half. There’s no guarantee the Gunners would have found a winner with 11 men, but Pepe’s dismissal certainly didn’t help their cause.
Arteta labelled the winger’s behaviour “unacceptable.” The rage was clear in the Arsenal manager’s expression. It will take a lot for Pepe to get back in the Spaniard’s good books, with the 25-year-old now suspended for the next three Premier League fixtures against Wolves, Tottenham Hotspur and Burnley.
Arsenal surely expected much, much more for the £72 million they splurged on Nicolas Pepe. The Ivorian is the club’s record signing, with his arrival two summers ago seen as a statement of intent by the North London club. Pepe had been linked with a number of clubs, including Liverpool and Manchester United, but it was Arsenal who managed to lure him.
This is a player who registered 22 goals and 11 assists in his final Ligue 1 season for Lille. Pepe was signed to give Arsenal’s attack balance. With Aubameyang on the left, Alexandre Lacazette through the middle and the Ivorian on the right, the Gunners had the potential to be among the Premier League’s most potent attacking outfits.
Pepe’s tally of five goals and six assists in his first Premier League season was respectable, but wasn’t quite befitting of a player who had cost £72 million. More was expected of him in his second season at Arsenal. So far, though, Nicolas Pepe has produced even less, losing his place in the starting lineup.
Contrast Pepe’s recent form to that of Wilfried Zaha, who Arsenal refused to pay £70 million to sign in the same summer window they signed Pepe in. The Crystal Palace winger has five goals and two assists in eight Premier League appearances this season and appears to have reached another level in his game.
On his current trajectory, Pepe is on course to go down as one of the biggest transfer flops in Premier League history alongside the likes of Fernando Torres, Alexis Sanchez and Andy Carroll. This is the sort of company he will keep in the collective conscious of English football fans if he doesn’t turn around his Arsenal career.
There is still hope for Nicolas Pepe. Arteta’s Arsenal remain a work-in-progress, as illustrated by their recent results. The Spaniard has yet to find a winning formula. He is still trying new things, as demonstrated by the decision to leave Lacazette on the bench and play Aubameyang through the middle against Leeds United
Through this ongoing process it’s possible, likely even, that Nicolas Pepe will find himself back in the Arsenal team at some point after he has served his three-match suspension. There is, however, a limit to the opportunities the Ivorian will be afforded by Arteta. While fans and pundits are still trying to work out the Spaniard’s tactical profile as a coach, his ruthlessness as a judge of character is in no doubt – look at how Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Ozil were swiftly exiled from the first team.
Pepe clearly has ability, but glimpses of that ability in an Arsenal shirt have been too few and far between. This has to change. For £72 million, the Gunners expected a player who would make the difference for them on a regular basis. Someone who could win a match almost entirely on his own. Rather than helping Arsenal win matches, though, Nicolas Pepe is making winning more difficult.
You could earn up to £100 (or currency equivalent) in bonus funds by joining Colossus with our New Player Bonus. Click here to join the action.