The Gunners’ club-record signing made his first start of the new campaign as Mikel Arteta’s side beat Leicester 2-0 on Wednesday night
When Nicolas Pepe arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2019, there was a sense of excitement around the signing not felt at the Emirates Stadium since Mesut Ozil’s deadline day move from Real Madrid in 2013.
The Gunners had splashed out a club record £72 million ($95m) to land the Ivory Coast international from Lille, a figure that dwarfed the previous record of £56m ($79m) which was paid to Borussia Dortmund for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
For their money, Arsenal had landed themselves a player who had scored 22 times for Lille during the 2018-19 season – a goal tally which played a key role in the French club’s second-placed finish in Ligue 1.
Pepe was seen as the man who would come in and immediately make his mark at Arsenal, but it has not quite worked out like that for the winger.
There were flashes of real quality during his first season in England, but consistency proved to be a problem. Despite that, though, he still finished his maiden Arsenal campaign with 10 goals and eight assists.
For a player having to adjust to a new club and the most demanding league in the world, that is not a bad return. And that is before you factor in the problems Arsenal faced last season that led to them having three different managers.
The problem for Pepe, however, is that he will always be judged on his transfer fee and so for that reason, this is a huge year for the former Lille star.
It feels like a make or break season for him at Arsenal already.
There is no doubt that he improved as last season went on and he finished the campaign in fine form, playing a major part in Arsenal winning the FA Cup.
There was another fine performance in the final itself, and it is displays like that showed why Arsenal invested so heavily to bring him in from France.
But now he needs to build and improve on that strong finish to the season. The problem he faces, though, is that Willian has now arrived from Chelsea to add further competition for places on the right-hand side.
The Brazil international has started both of Arsenal’s league games so far this season and played a starring role in the 3-0 victory at Fulham on the opening weekend.
Pepe, meanwhile, had to make do with fleeting appearances off the bench.
The club-record signing did get his first start of the campaign at Leicester City on Wednesday as Arsenal opened their Carabao Cup campaign with a 2-0 third-round win, but Willian is expected to come back into the side when the Gunners take on Liverpool at Anfield on Monday.
“It’s not [just] Nico, I think for the players that were on the bench and as well the ones that we had to leave at home,” said Arteta, while discussing having to leave players out of his starting XI. “If they raise their levels then the performances of the team and club are going to improve and this is what I demand from them.
“I’m really happy with all the boys and the way they’re training, but selection is getting more complicated and with this new rule of just having only 18 players in the squad makes it very difficult.”
Pepe was not poor at the King Power Stadium, and even played a major role in the opening goal. It was his cross after a forceful run into the box which resulted in the scramble that eventually led to Christian Fuchs deflecting the ball into his own net.
There were some moments of real quality, especially in the second half, and his work ethic on the right-hand side was exactly what his manager would have been demanding.
But it was not the kind of performance that will see him force his way into Arteta’s starting XI on Merseyside. When Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette return to the side at Anfield, it is highly likely that it will be Willian who joins them up front.
It is a challenge Pepe has to face this season. In Arteta he has a manager who has a proven track record in bringing the best out of wide attacking players. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling both benefitted massively from working with him at Manchester City.
“He is very willing and he is a player with incredible potential,” Arteta said towards the end of last season, after Pepe had scored in the defeat at Brighton. “However, he needs to take care of moments in the game when he disconnects himself a little bit. He cannot do that, and I will be very persistent with him to try to change that.
“He also needs to be decisive in every game because if he is at his best he is a player who can make the difference.
“There are things to work on and improve but he is heading in the right direction. He is doing things very well too, like realising what he needs to do for the team when we don’t have the ball.”
Arteta was constantly coaching Pepe from the sidelines against the Foxes. The Spaniard knows he has a real talent on his hands, and it is just about getting the best out of him.
The potential Pepe has is clear, but he needs to believe in himself a bit more, especially when he has the ball on his right foot.
He had one chance in the first half against Leicester when he received a pass from Joe Willock inside the penalty area. Most would have taken the shot first time, but because it was on his right foot he tried to cut inside onto his left and allowed a Leicester defender to get back and clear the danger.
It is moments like that where Pepe must improve. For £72m you want to see a player taking a shot on with his weaker foot, not passing up the opportunity because he does not feel comfortable shooting.
Pepe has shown during his short time in north London that he has the talent to make a real difference at Arsenal. But now he has to start showing more than just potential.