By Nicolas Pepe’s own standards it’s been a difficult season so far. “It has been a tough season for me,” he said in an interview during the international break. “It is frustrating not to play. No player enjoys not playing but I have to respect the coach’s decision,” he went on to add.
After playing the full 90 minutes in six of Arsenal’s opening nine games this season, the Ivorian has not started a single Premier League match since October and has not started a club match of any kind in four months. With just two years remaining on his contract at the end of the season this has prompted speculation that he could leave this summer.
Pepe himself has refused to rule out an exit after reportedly attracting interest from a team in La Liga late in the January window. “I am focused on how well we do until the end of the season and the club’s target, which is getting into the Champions League,” he said in an interview last week. “Then we will see what happens.” It’s a sad state of affairs for a man from whom big things were expected after his record £ 72million arrival three years ago. So what exactly has gone wrong?
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The hype around Pepe was huge when he came in the summer of 2019 off the back of a season in which he’d scored 23 goals for Lille. Even former Chelsea and Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho was willing to offer Arsenal some praise about the signing during a period he spent as a pundit with Sky Sports. However, this came with one significant caveat. “I know Pepe very well. There’s a question mark over the time for his adaption of him but he’s obviously a kid with a lot of talent,” the Portuguese coach profesised.
That adjustment has proved to be a real problem for Pepe, who has admitted that he still struggles with the language barrier in London, while the intensity of the Premier League is something his more languid style doesn’t appear to have ever really meshed with.
Above all though, it is his consistency that has been the problem. For each cameo of the type we saw against Wolves, in which his goal and assist secured a crucial three points in the race for the top four, there has been another like the one seen against Aston Villa where his needless late concession of a free kick left Bernd Leno to spare his blushes with a miraculous save in the final act of the game.
This is something that former Everton, Newcastle and Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez predicted would be a problem for the Ivorian. “Pepe will have confidence for two or three games but he has to keep doing it now otherwise he will lose it again,” the Spaniard said after the 26-year-old netted just his second Arsenal goal during the 3-1 win over West Ham in Freddie Ljungberg’s brief tenure in charge.
This is a stark contrast to Bukayo Saka who has largely made Pepe’s preferred right wing spot his own this season. The England international is Arsenal’s joint top scorer this season with Emile Smith Rowe and has consistently combined with Martin Odegaard to make the Gunners’ right side arguably it’s most devastating point of attack. Whereas last season where there was a clear left-sided bias due to the reliance on Kieran Tierney’s crossing ability.
After watching Saka start from the bench for most of this season it had seemed as though Pepe was set to get his chance to impress on the right wing during Monday’s trip to Crystal Palace in the Premier League after the Hale Ender tested positive for Covid-19 . However, Mikel Arteta revealed in his press conference ahead of the match that Saka is very much in contention to play. “Bukayo is feeling good,” the Spaniard revealed on Thursday. “He’s training today hopefully if he’s still feeling as he was yesterday.”
It’s another blow for Pepe who may never get the chance to ever consistently show his ability in an Arsenal shirt again. After joining up with the team for the Wolves game just hours after the birth of second child, the Ivorian’s commitment to the cause cannot be questioned, but it just feels like he’s not the right fit. His dribbling skills of him appear more in tune with a side that likes to attack in transition rather than one that is expected to dominate possession as the Gunners have done more frequently in recent times.
Things could of course change between now and the end of the season. The threadbare nature of Arsenal’s squad means he will get opportunities to show what he’s capable of. But with the Gunners being heavily linked to forwards Darwin Nunez and Cody Gakpo recently, it seems that they are preparing for life without their £ 72million man and after failing to ever really find his best form at the Emirates Stadium, perhaps it’s time for the two to part way this summer.