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'Pepe's in the last chance saloon' - Arsenal's £72m signing running out of time to save Emirates career

12:00 GMT+4 10/02/2022
Pepe Arsenal Premier League 2021-22
The Gunners will have to decide this summer whether to stick with the Ivorian or cut their losses on the inconsistent winger

Arsenal saw the best of Nicolas Pepe last time they were in action at Wolves.

The Gunners' record signing was unplayable at times during the first half at Molineux in February 2021, scoring a wonderful individual goal to put the visitors ahead.

A controversial red card for David Luiz seconds before the interval turned the game on its head, however, and ultimately allowed Wolves to go on to claim all three points.

But Pepe’s first-half display was a clear indicator of just how dangerous he can be when he is in full flow.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, those types of performances have been few and far between since his arrival from Lille in the summer of 2019.

Indeed, inconsistency has plagued Pepe's time in North London.

A strong end to last season, when he scored eight times in 11 games to finish the campaign as Arsenal’s second top scorer in all competitions with 16, suggested the winger could be set for a stellar 2021-22.

But that has not been the case, with Pepe having started just five league games, with the last of those coming during the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace on October 18.

That is mainly down to the impressive form of Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli, who have both been exceptional on the left-hand side of the attack.

However, prior to the winter break, Mikel Arteta was even choosing to bring on Eddie Nketiah ahead of Pepe – an indicator of just how far down the pecking order the Ivory Coast international has fallen.

“With the amount of games we’re having, there’s not enough room,” Arteta said, when quizzed on Pepe’s lack of involvement during the first half of the season.

"Nico needs more opportunities to show what he can do and, in the last few games, he hasn’t had them. But I have to try to make the decision based on what I see every day.

“Nico is really willing to help the team. The reality is that in the position that he’s playing, Bukayo [Saka] is there and has been fantastic.”

Pepe has undeniably enjoyed patches of good form.

As well as last season's late goal glut, he also impressed during final months of his first campaign in England, when he played a key role in the FA Cup success, setting up goals for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in both the semi-final and the final.

However, on the whole, he has failed to justify the £72 million ($97m) transfer fee that Arsenal paid Lille to bring him to the Emirates.

And with his contract now approaching its final two years, a big decision is looming this summer when it comes to the 26-year-old.

Arsenal must decide whether to convince him to sign a new deal or cut their losses.

“I think Pepe might be in the last chance saloon,” Arsenal legend Ian Wright said on his podcast earlier this month.

“Up to this point, [Arteta] has not used Pepe in any way that makes me think he's got love for Pepe.”

The next few months are going to be crucial to Pepe’s chances of making a success of his time in north London.

Although he will no doubt be back on the bench on Thursday night when Arteta’s side return to Premier League action at Wolves, the departure of Aubameyang to Barcelona could open up some opportunities for him.

A lack of goals has been a problem for Arsenal all season and while Pepe does have his faults, his finishing is usually impressive and he is always a threat when he is on the pitch.

Even this season, having been in and out of the side, he averages 2.8 shots per game, which is more than Saka, Smith Rowe, Martinelli and Alexandre Lacazette.

He also averages 0.58 assists per 90 minutes, and 2.1 chances created – again, numbers which are better than those of his fellow forwards.

Pepe also ranks higher in touches per 90 minutes, passes, dribbles attempted and dribbles completed.

Interestingly, the one statistic that has taken a big dip this season for Pepe is his shot conversion.

In 2020-21, when he scored 16 goals in 47 games, he was finishing 17.8 per cent of his chances. This season, that has plummeted to 8.3%.

For someone who has always shown himself to be quite clinical, that is somewhat surprising – although it could be down to a lack of confidence given his lack of game time.

There were signs during the Africa Cup of Nations, however, that he was getting his eye in again.

While Ivory Coast largely disappointed during the tournament in Cameroon, Pepe impressed, scoring two goals and setting up another in his four appearances in the competition.

With just Lacazette and Nketiah as Arsenal’s recognised central strikers following Aubameyang’s departure, Pepe could now find himself as an option for Arteta down the middle at times between now and the end of the season.

“Mikel has got to take a chance on that,” Wright has argued.

It remains to be seen whether Pepe does emerge as an option for Arteta in the central attacking areas over the next few months.

However, wherever Pepe plays, he needs to step up and grasp his opportunities when they do arrive during the 17 games that Arteta's side still have to play this season.

His Arsenal career could depend on it.