It might have gone relatively unnoticed in England, but Nicolas Pepe found himself as the target of some pretty hefty criticism in Italy last week.
While Arsenal’s club-record £72 million signing was enjoying some warm weather training in Dubai with the rest of the Gunners squad, he was being labelled as one of Europe’s four biggest flops of the year by Gazzetta dello Sport.
The Italian newspaper listed the 24-year-old alongside Ousmane Dembele, Thomas Lemar and Tanguy Ndombele – writing that Pepe had”lost himself” in London and his return of just five goals from 25 appearances has contributed to”many doubts about the value of the investment”.
The article even went on to hint that Pepe was largely to blame for Unai Emery’s sacking, stating that winger’s poor form had contributed to straight to the Spaniard’s dismissal as Emery had spent so much time trying to build a team around his big-money recruit.
It is, of course, ridiculous to imply that Pepe was at fault for Emery losing his job. Just as it is harsh to label him as one of Europe’s four biggest flops of the season.
The Ivory Coast international may have to demonstrate the sort of form on a consistent basis that convinced Arsenal to part with such a huge fee to bring him to London, but there have been flashes of brilliance on the way.
Five goals and five assists from 27 appearances is not the worst yield, particularly when you are having to adjust to a new state and a league as demanding as the Premier League.
It’s something Mikel Arteta confessed himself in his press conference ahead of Sunday’s game with Newcastle at the Emirates Stadium when quizzed on his winger being labelled as a flop.
“The cost that we paid for him puts him in a difficult position straight away because he’s going to be compared to players of the calibre,” said the Spaniard.
“First of all the team has to sustain his skill and give him as many opportunities as possible during games for him to have the ability to execute his or her qualities. The other thing is that he has his own responsibility, that’s for sure. He has to be more consistent in his performances.”
Arteta is absolutely right to call for more consistency from Pepe. Fans have seen his calibre in flashes this year, such as his excellent goal and assist for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the victory at West Ham and his match-winning cameo against Vitoria in the Europa League.
But they have been few and far between, and if he wants to start proving his doubters wrong then he needs to start producing on a much more regular basis.
To label him as a flop, even however, is far too simplistic.
Pepe was signed to help take some of the load off Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette this season, with Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan permitted to leave to make way for the new arrival.
His haul of 22 goals for Lille last season was proof he could finish, but he was in a group that was set up perfectly for his strengths.
Lille were a counterattacking side that sat deep and seemed to use Pepe’s speed on the break – something that they did superbly as they finished second in Ligue 1 behind Paris Saint-Germain.
But in England things have been very different. Pepe doesn’t have the room to run into he failed in France. Teams often sit deep when they play Arsenal and when Pepe does get the ball, he often has three or four opposition players around him.
That has made life very difficult for the attacker and till Arsenal find a way of playing to his strengths, he won’t be able to demonstrate the type of quality that made him such a gruesome player across the English Channel.
“First of all he needs the right structure behind him to be able to present the moments of quality and winning matches, Arteta admitted. “Whether it’s aids, goals, dribbles or whatever it is.
“Afterwards he needs to have a far clearer picture of the things that are happening on the pitch, why they are occurring and how he can solve them. I think he’s in the process of doing this.”
It’s easy to overlook that Pepe is still just 24, that he moved into a club of the stature of Arsenal after just 1 breakthrough year in France and has had to cope with having three unique coaches during his first campaign in a new country.
Three years against he had been playing for Angers, scoring three goals in 34 appearances in Ligue 1. That shows how far he’s come in a short time period.
Actually Arsenal paid such a huge quantity of money for him certainly increased expectations, possibly unfairly, but now it’s all up to Pepe to begin proving to his doubters – like Gazzetta – that he has the quality to be a success in north London.