The excitement was palpable among the Arsenal fans when Nicolas Pepe made his home debut against Burnley on August 17. Within minutes of replacing Reiss Nelson he had performed a drop of the shoulder and an audacious nutmeg that left Ben Mee for dead, and he continued to impress with his pace, directness and unpredictability.
“He should be called Valerie,” chimed in one fan, “for the way he keeps making a fool out of Mee!”
Finally Arsenal had a quick, classy, goalscoring wideman to replace Alexis Sanchez, carrying on the glorious tradition of Pires, Overmars, Limpar et al. He had set the Gunners back a club record £72 million, but it seemed like money well spent for a 24-year-old with the world at his feet.
Yet things have not quite gone to plan for Pepe this season. There have been flashes of brilliance – a pair of free kicks to put the mighty Vitoria to the sword; a fine finish against West Ham – but his first season in north London has largely been defined by a failure to deliver upon his promise. These are the five things Arsenal must do to get the best out of their record signing:
Pepe became one of the most coveted forwards in world football when he banged in 22 goals and provided 11 assists for Lille last season. It saw them finish second in Ligue 1 and qualify for the Champions League, but Pepe was clearly destined for greater things.
Man Utd, Liverpool and Napoli were all chasing his signature, but Pepe chose Arsenal, as he felt it would be the perfect environment for him to develop. He has not exactly hit the ground running at The Emirates, but the club should repay his faith in them by giving him time to flourish.
It always takes time for players to adapt to the rigours of the Premier League after they have enjoyed the gentler challenge of Ligue 1. Robert Pires is arguably the greatest winger in Arsenal’s history, offering an unstoppable blend of pace, flair and dynamism down the left flank, and it took him time to adapt. If Arsenal had given up on Pires, who knows what might have become of that great invincible side?
Thierry Henry famously endured a long goal drought after joining the club from Juventus. Very few players deliver consistent brilliance in their first season in English football, and there is still time for Pepe to come good. The key is to keep playing him, allowing him to build up vital experience in the division.
This season is already a disaster – Arsenal are languishing in mid-table with a negative goal difference as we approach the middle of February – so the Gunners should look to the future rather than tinkering in a bid for short-term success. Pepe should be an ever present between now and the end of the campaign.
Provide Strong Man Management
The cards were already stacked against Pepe by the time he arrived in north London. Manager Unai Emery was desperate for the club to sign Wilfried Zaha – who has spent his entire career in English football and knows what it takes to deliver match-winning contributions in the Premier League – but the hierarchy overruled him.
Pepe looked a much better investment than his fellow Ivorian, as he is three years younger and arguably has a higher ceiling. Yet Emery was clearly unhappy, and he took his frustration out on the young man.
Pepe was reduced to featuring as a bit part player, coming on towards the end of games and struggling to adapt to the pace of the league. It was enough to knock his confidence in the crucial early weeks of his career. When he was given more chances to prove his worth, he looked lost and despondent.
Emery’s communication problems were well documented. Pepe was not given clear instructions, and nor were his teammates, which resulted in a bunch of haphazard displays, and it ultimately cost the Spaniard his job.
Replacement Mikel Arteta should prove to be a dream appointment for Pepe. The former Arsenal captain was credited with sparking a tremendous upturn in the performance levels of both Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané during his trophy-laden tenure as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Man City.
Arteta is a winger whisperer. He is also a very strong communicator. The new manager can offer Pepe the strong man management he needs, and we should see a very different player emerge in the months ahead.
Improve His Positioning
A hallmark of Man City’s record-breaking title triumph in 2017-18 was Sané arriving at the back post to finish off a sweeping counterattack. Sterling would also pull off a similar trick down the other flank. There was nothing fortuitous about the timing of their arrivals in the box. Everything was meticulously planned on the training ground.
The players were exceptionally well drilled, and their moves were painstakingly orchestrated before the games began. When Kevin De Bruyne or David Silva had the ball, they knew exactly where Sané, Sterling and Sergio Aguero would go, allowing them to pick out a teammate and create a goalscoring opportunity.
The key challenge for Arteta is to replicate that environment on Arsenal’s training pitch. He has finally had two weeks with his players in between games, and we should start to see greater cohesion from Arsenal’s forwards in the coming weeks.
Arteta was able to spend plenty of time with Sané and Sterling at City, as he was not responsible for the overall running of the team. He does not have the luxury of devoting himself to improve Arsenal’s budding wing wizards – Pepe, Nelson and Bukayo Saka – as he is spread more thinly, but he should still find the time to help Pepe work on his positioning. It would provide Arsenal with a valuable source of goals, and it could transform them from the draw kings of the Premier League to a team that makes a habit of winning games.
Trust His Dead Ball Skills
Pepe’s finest performance in an Arsenal shirt came in a 15-minute cameo against Vitoria in the Europa League. The Gunners were 2-1 down and staring down the barrel of a humiliating defeat, so Emery threw on the Ivorian in a bid to save the day.
He duly delivered, firing in two superb free-kicks in the final 10 minutes of the game to hand Arsenal a 3-2 win.
Pepe can also whip in some devilish corners. Arsenal have a habit of frustrating fans with intricate short corners that amount to diddly squat, and it might be better to simply have Pepe fire in a pacy delivery for teammates to attack.
There are other contenders for set piece duties at Arsenal. Yet Mesut Ozil is often guilty of wastefulness from dead ball situations and you rarely see Alexandre Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang score a free-kick, while David Luiz should give up on those wayward knuckleball attempts.
Build the Team Around Him
There is healthy competition for places in Arsenal’s frontline, with Aubameyang, Lacazette, Pepe, Ozil, Nelson and Gabriel Martinelli all fighting for just three starting berths. However, it would make sense to build the team around some of the younger players.
Ozil has now been given plenty of chances to prove his worth to the team, but he is far too often a peripheral figure in Premier League matches. In their current guise, Arsenal arguably do not have the luxury of accommodating such a mercurial player in their front three.
Lacazette continues to struggle for form, so it would make sense to play Aubameyang down the middle, with Pepe and Martinelli wreaking havoc on the flanks. Ozil can even operate in a midfield triumvirate alongside Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka if Arteta feels the need for more creativity.
But it will be crucial to get Pepe on the ball as much as possible. If Arsenal allow him to express himself, they could reap the benefits. We have already seen him leave Virgil Van Dijk for dead, making him the first forward to successfully take on the PFA Player of the Year in 50 games.
It showed that he has the ability to make things happen, and that is a rare quality in the Premier League. Check out the fantasy football tips at Marathonbet and you will see that dynamic wide attackers that provide goals and assists are worth their weight in gold.
The best players in recent Premier League history have been able to conjure up a moment of magic out of thin air, deciding a game with their individual brilliance. Sanchez had that ability before his disastrous move to Old Trafford. Sterling and Sané regularly cause nightmares for defenders. Sadio Mané can pull it off with aplomb, just like Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale before him. Pepe could join that elite group, providing Arteta can unlock his full potential.