The fanfare surrounding Nicolas Pépé’s Arsenal arrival last summer was unparalleled.
Having implored the club to spend serious money, the signing of a player courted across Europe came as an almighty shock. £72m was splashed out – albeit not all at once – and the excitement levels soared through the roof. This is Arsenal we were talking about. How did they pull it off?
With no pre-season under his belt and expectation weighing heavy on his shoulders, Nicolas Pépé’s debut season in the Premier League can be viewed from two angles.
18 goal involvements in 42 outings is a more than credible return when you factor in the circumstances of his purchase. The Ivorian needed time to adjust culturally as much as he did in a footballing sense, notwithstanding the face he was thrust into a toxic environment, fan revolt and played under three different managers.
With that in mind, his first flirt with English football wasn’t too shabby.
Then, of course, there is the money element. Y’know, that lofty price tag coupled with the presumption that he would immediately replicate his form from the season prior with Lille: no less than 23 goals and 12 assists.
By that standing, he’s been underwhelming. The social media vultures would poke fun at the 25-year-old and his new supporters at any given opportunity. A ‘waste of money’, ‘almighty flop’ and ‘Gervinho 2.0’ were just a few of the pop shots made.
As expected, he grew into his new surroundings more fluidly as the season wore on. Tactically, he began to adjust, while striking the balance down the right flank to accentuate his best traits moved higher up Mikel Arteta‘s checklist. He bedded in better, as did the team around him.
Granted an extended period off before the 2020/21 campaign – absolutely necessary to ensure he’s in peak shape come September 12th – we’re yet to see him kick a ball in pre-season.
It’s widely accepted that he’ll return to the starting lineup come next term, but seeing the rest of the side perform at such a high level, with Bukayo Saka being fielded more frequently as an inverted right-winger, there is some concern that Pépé may not segue his way back into proceedings quite so effortlessly.
Based on his most recent performance, however, he certainly should.
His display in the FA Cup final easily ranks among his top three performances for Arsenal to date. Picking up positions in between the Chelsea back three and the wing-backs, he caused havoc all game, bamboozling the backline with his intelligent running off the ball.
If anything, it came across as a turning point for Pépé. Never before had he looked more switched on, well versed in his manager’s demands, confident with the ball at his feet and at the peak of his fitness. He was a joy to watch.
Yet as the days count down towards that early kick off at Craven Cottage, if he isn’t to regain his match sharpness in time for the occasion then the other players in the squad who will fill his role may stake a valid claim for themselves to start in his stead.
This is no criticism of Pépé. On the contrary, in fact. Provided the time he needs to recharge his batteries, there is merely an underlying fear that his over commitment to the previous campaign, without the pre-season he needed, may leave him playing catch up.
With the team utterly devoted to Arteta, any chance that arises in the starting lineup will be grasped with both hands. Look at Emiliano Martinez as a prime example. All Pépé needs to do is make sure he doesn’t let his own performances drop. Don’t give the manager any reason to leave you out of the team.
That (slight) fear is countered with an abundance of enthusiasm, though. We are still yet to see the best of Pépé – having only witnessed it in dashes last term – and when he hits that top form he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. He just needs to make sure nobody else has a chance to wrestle it away from him.