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Nicolas Pepe: How Arsenal's record signing turned into a £72m nightmare

08:09 BST 24/08/2022
One of the most sought after players in Europe three years ago, the Ivorian's career has fallen off the rails...

Nicolas Pepe is on his way out of Arsenal.

The club’s record signing, who cost £72m ($85m) when they bought him from Lille just three years ago, is closing in on a return to France after Arsenal agreed a loan deal with Nice for the winger.

Talks have been ongoing between the two clubs over the exact make-up of the deal, with Pepe left out of Mikel Arteta's squad for the 3-0 win at Bournemouth in the Premier League as negotiations continued.

And an agreement for a season-long loan, which does not include an option to buy, has now been reached for the 27-year-old.

So why are Arsenal happy to let a player leave who just three years ago they were willing to smash their transfer record for? Below, GOAL takes a look.

  • Raul Sanllehi Arsenal

    A change of hierarchy

    This was a big thing for Pepe.

    Almost as soon as he arrived, all the big hitters who brought him to the club had left.

    Raul Sanllehi, who had been head of football at this time of Pepe’s arrival, played a huge role in bringing the Ivory Coast winger to the club.

    Manager Unai Emery had actually wanted to sign Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace, but had been overruled - with Pepe signing instead.

    Sanllehi was the man who did the deal and Huss Fahmy, who had been Arsenal’s chief contract negotiator, was the man who spoke with Pepe and ironed out all the details. So both were heavily invested in the transfer.

    But both would soon move on during a period of major change at the club.

    Edu arrived as technical director with his own ideas on how things should be run and then Arteta replaced Emery, bringing with him a new philosophy in terms of how he wanted to play.

    And it soon became clear that Pepe did not really fit the bill.

  • Nicolas Pepe of Arsenal

    Consistency issues

    It would be unfair to say that Pepe has completely failed at Arsenal.

    There have been good moments, including his fine form towards the end of Arteta’s first season in charge when he played a key role in Arsenal’s success in the FA Cup, even setting up the winning goal in the final.

    And in 2020/21, Pepe scored 16 times in all competitions - including eight goals in his final 11 games.

    But the winger’s major problem has been a lack of consistency. There have been flashes of real quality, but they have been few and far between.

    And for a player who cost £72m, that is just not good enough. You expect more.

    His best performances have also seemed to have come in cup competitions, rarely in the Premier League.

    And when you have a manager as demanding as Arteta, that is always going to be a problem.

  • Mikel Arteta Arsenal 2021-22

    A lack of defensive awareness

    Another issue Pepe has suffered from is his inability to defend well.

    Arteta is not the type of manager who will allow his attackers to just stay in their positions when they don’t have the ball.

    He always wants his players to track back, to press and to help out the defence.

    But defending is far from Pepe’s strong point and you can feel Arteta’s frustration with the winger whenever he is watching him from the sidelines.

    Arsenal’s manager almost has to coach Pepe through the games, constantly telling him exactly where he wants him to be at all times.

    There was one moment towards the end of last season that summed up Arteta’s frustrations with Pepe.

    Leading 1-0 in the final few seconds at Aston Villa, the winger - who has been introduced as a late substitute - put in a lazy challenge to give away a free-kick in a dangerous area.

    Arteta was clearly incensed at the £72m for his decision making, not for the first time.

  • Bukayo Saka Arsenal 2022

    Saka's rapid emergence

    This has been another huge factor in Pepe being unable to really force his way into the picture.

    While there was plenty of excitement about Saka as he made his way through the age groups at Arsenal, few expected him to make an impact on the first-team so quickly.

    But from the moment he made his first start, the young winger made himself a near ever present in the starting XI - taking away one of the wide positions in the starting XI.

    From this moment on, there was no real way back for Pepe.

    He was always just going to be a back-up option due to Saka’s clearly superior quality in all aspects of the game.

  • Arsenal and Ivory Coast winger Nicolas Pepe.

    Not fitting the system

    When Pepe signed from Lille, he arrived with the reputation of a fearsome counter attacking player.

    His final season in France saw him score 22 times, with many of his goals coming when he was able to run into space and use his pace.

    But at Arsenal he has rarely been able to do that, such has been the system they have utilised while he has been at the club.

    It was noticeable that his best form during his time in north London came at a time when Arsenal were playing a more counter attacking style soon after Arteta’s appointment.

    Pepe played a starring role in that end to the 2019/20 season, which culminated in the FA Cup success, as Arteta looked to get the best out of what he was left with.

    But since the Spaniard has started to bring in his own players and get the team playing the style he wants, Pepe’s opportunities have become more and more limited.