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Arsenal's Pepe problem: Is £72m signing now surplus to requirements under Arteta?

11:00 pm AEDT 18/11/21
Nicolas Pepe Arsenal 2021-22
The Ivory Coast international is struggling for game time because of his inconsistent form and has been linked with a move away from the Emirates

It’s now more than two years since Nicolas Pepe was handed his first Arsenal start, against Liverpool.

Arsenal’s £72 million ($97m) record signing had shown flashes of his quality during two substitute appearances against Newcastle and Burnley before Unai Emery opted to throw him in from the start at Anfield on August 24, 2019.

And when the Ivory Coast international set off on a mazy run from inside his own half that almost ended with him scoring, it looked like the Gunners had broken the bank to bring in a player who was going to get fans off their seats on a regular basis.

But things haven’t quite gone to plan for Pepe in north London since then, and when Arsenal visit Anfield on Saturday, the 26-year-old is expected to find himself on the bench – an increasingly familiar position for the winger.

Pepe has started just five of Arsenal’s 11 Premier League outings this season, with just one of those starts coming in the last six matches.

The former Lille star currently finds himself on the outside looking in under Mikel Arteta and – barring any injuries – it’s difficult to see him getting many opportunities in the 4-4-2 system that the Arsenal boss is presently employing, such is the form of Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka.

And given he will have just two years left on his contract at the end of the season, it begs the question: what does the future hold for Pepe?

“He needed a period of adaptation but that is gone now,” Arteta said towards the end of the 2020-21 campaign.

“We cannot rely on adaptation again: now it is about performance. And he can do it.

“He has got the players to support him, a manager that trusts him, he has got all the staff that are willing to help him and all the team-mates who really like him because he is a really likeable character, so there are no excuses.”

There is no doubt Pepe is a player of huge talent, but a lack of consistency has plagued his time in north London.

He started slowly before going on to play a key role in Arsenal’s FA Cup success in 2020 and ended his first campaign in England with eight goals and 10 assists in all competitions, with only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette having more direct goal contributions.

His second season was even more fruitful, with the attacker scoring 16 times in 47 appearances. He also contributed a further five assists.

“I am very encouraged and positive for two reasons,” Arteta said after Pepe rounded off the season with eight goals in 11 games.

“The first reason is he has come a long way in terms of consistency and what he’s producing in games. Not in the Premier League, but what he’s done in Europe.

“And the second one is that he’s changed his mindset. He wants to look at every post-match review that we do with him.

“Individually, he wants to work and he wants to be the best. When that happens, with the talent that he has, I think it’s a really good mixture.”

The big issue for Pepe is that he has been unable to kick on from that strong end to last season.

He has scored just one goal in nine appearances in all competitions so far and has yet to find the net in the Premier League.

And now, given the emergence of Smith Rowe and Saka, he can’t get in the side on a regular basis.

Last year, he would have at least had Europa League games to keep him ticking over, but with Arsenal not in continental competition this term, opportunities are now few and far between.

This has even led to speculation that Arsenal could be willing to let Pepe go, with Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Everton mentioned as possible destinations.

The big issue for Arsenal, however, is that should the winger be allowed to move on, they would have to take a significant hit on the historic transfer fee they paid for his services two years ago.

“For a player who cost £72m, it’s the simple parts of the game that sometimes I see him lacking,” former Arsenal forward Jeremie Aliadiere told GOAL.

“Yes, he goes on a good dribble and goes through two or three players – that’s amazing. But when you have Aubameyang on your left and all you have to do is pass the ball in the right spot, and instead cut it back at the wrong time, that bothers me.

“It’s that sort of thing – when he switches off and seems to lack concentration – that gets to me.

“That is something you can’t really have with top, top players who come for that sort of money. The easy stuff has got to be done properly.”

And Pepe's inability to get even the basics right has put Arsenal in an awkward situation.

The longer he spends out of the starting XI, the more his value will plummet – especially if he is allowed to get into the final two years of his contract.

And even if a club does come calling in January or at the end of the season, Pepe’s wages, which are believed to be around £140,000 ($190,000) a week, will be tough for many teams to match.

Arsenal have had to make some difficult decisions in the past two years as Arteta and technical director Edu have embarked on their dramatic overhaul, with several big names being moved on.

Pepe is not at that stage just yet, but the outlook for the Gunners’ most expensive ever signing is looking far from clear as Arteta’s rebuild gathers pace around him.