Is Pépé becoming undroppable?
As little as two weeks ago, ‘Nicolas Pépé’ and the word ‘undroppable’ would not fit in the same sentence. However, a string of fine performances in the Premier League has seen Pépé become an integral part of Arsenal’s attacking line.
Nicolas Pépé arrived at Arsenal in August 2019 for £72m, smashing the club record transfer fee. The Ivorian international became the fourth most expensive signing in Premier League history at the time, behind Paul Pogba (£89m – Manchester United), Romelu Lukaku (£75m – Manchester United) and Virgil Van Dijk (£75m – Liverpool). He arrived in London following an impressive 2018-2019 Ligue 1 campaign, scoring 22 and assisting 11 in 38 appearances. Only World Cup winner Kylian Mbappé had more goal contributions (43). This fine campaign, coupled with the expensive price-tag, had Arsenal fans across the globe beaming with excitement.
However, a relatively disappointing debut campaign was to follow. With just 5 league goals in the 2019-2020 season, Pépé was not even close to replicating the form of his final season in France. Arsenal fans were treated to flashes of his brilliance – notably his two late free kicks against Vitória in the Europa League, saving the Gunners from an embarrassing home defeat. But our record signing could not find the consistency he needed to hold down a starting berth, regularly finding himself watching the game from the dugout. Pépé’s average form saw him labelled a ‘flop’ by rival fans, which was often countered with the idea that the winger needed a season to adapt to the physicality of English football.
Pépé’s start to his second season as a Gunner mirrored his first campaign in England – mainly utilised in the cup competitions and only showing glimpses of what he is capable of. His attitude and performances were prone to criticism from several pundits. In January, ex-Arsenal striker Alan Smith accused Pépé of looking “disinterested” and questioned his will to succeed. Pépé had fallen behind Aubameyang, Saka and Willian in the pecking order, and two relatively poor performances in the FA Cup, against Newcastle and Southampton, cast further doubt over his future as an Arsenal player.
A family emergency saw club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang miss the Premier League game at Southampton, handing Pépé an unexpected league start – an opportunity the Ivorian winger grabbed with both hands. Employed on the left of the attacking trio, rather than his usual post on the right, Pépé was a constant attacking threat. Regularly getting in behind the Southampton backline, Pépé scored his third league goal of the season, finding the bottom right corner following Xhaka’s defence splitting pass. His impressive performance and Aubameyang’s continued absence saw Pépé start the next two league games against Manchester United and Wolves – scoring against the latter, following a double nutmeg on Nelson Semedo and Conor Coady.
It’s not just Pépé’s attacking threat that has impressed in recent weeks, but his defensive contribution as well. In the Southampton double header and goalless draw with Manchester United, our club record signing won 22 ground duels, 7 aerial duels, made 4 interceptions and 6 tackles. In the controversial defeat to Wolves, the winger competed in 14 duels (more than any Arsenal player), made two tackles, one clearance and one interception in just 61 minutes – the “best he has played” in an Arsenal shirt, claimed Mikel Arteta in his post-match press conference.
With Aubameyang returning to the squad for the trip to Villa Park, who Arteta would pick to occupy the left flank was the question on everyone’s mind. Pépé’s fine run of performances saw him start over the club captain, with the manager seeing him as undroppable in his current vein of form. It wasn’t Pépé’s finest performance in red and white, but the Ivorian still looked threatening in certain aspects of the game.
Having been in England for 18 months now, Pépé’s adaptation period is over and he must kick on. We’ve all seen his quality, but consistency is key. Switching to the left flank seems to have benefitted our club record signing – but with Aubameyang, Saka, Martinelli, Willian and even Nelson vying for spots on the flanks, Pépé must keep to this level of performance or he will quickly find himself back on the bench. Arteta worked wonders with Sterling and Sané at Manchester City, so here’s hoping he can do the same with Pépé. With only Alex Lacazette (13) providing more goal contributions than Pépé (10) for the Gunners this season – the ability is there, but it’s time to kick on further. Keep it up Nico!
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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