Unai Emery had a dejected look on his face after the ninety minutes at the Camp Nou where Arsenal took part in the annual Gamper Cup friendly against Barcelona. Leading for most of the game after Aubameyang put them ahead with a sublime control, turn and finish, Arsenal ended up losing 2-1 on the night courtesy a Luis Suarez acrobatic volley and a comical Maitland-Niles own goal.
Speaking after the game, Emery revealed that Pepe wasn’t back to compete fitness and will be training more intensely with each session as the club gears towards the start of the Premier League, with the season opener against Newcastle on Sunday.
Cleary, there is a lot of expectation and muffled excitement about the 24-year-old in London but is he really worth the hype and more importantly, can he be the man to lead the Gunners back to the top of the Premier League?
Arsenal pulled off one of the coups of the summer in signing Pepe from Lille. The Ivorian forward was the best player not named Kylian Mbappe in the Ligue 1 last season and his breakthrough season had the attention of the European powerhouses, all desperate in their attempts to woo him. In that light, Arsenal proved to be the victor beating the likes of Napoli, Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, PSG and Liverpool in the race for Nicolas Pepe but had to break the bank in that attempt making him the most expensive transfer in Arsenal’s history and the most expensive African footballer in history.
Nicolas Pepe will inject pace, power and precision into the Arsenal machinery at the top. Last season, he started out from the right hand side mostly playing as an inverted winger that allows him to cut inside with his left foot. Creative and smart on the ball, Pepe is also known to pick a pass and lay off an assist to a teammate as well as going for the killer shot on his own.
He scored 22 goals in the league last season only behind Mbappe in that category and also recorded 11 assists which saw him walking his way into the Ligue 1 team of the year. Lionel Messi aside, Nicolas Pepe was the only player with 20+ goals and 10+ assists in Europe last season.
He is also a strong dribbler and was the seventh best dribbler in Ligue 1 last season with 2.7 successful dribbles per game. Defenders found it difficult to cope up with Pepe’s pace and technique often resorting to physical challenges to obstruct him and he was the second most fouled player in the league.
However, Pepe is still 24 and far from the finished product. There is room for improvement with his aerial strength as Pepe is weak with headers and also needs more accuracy shooting with his right foot. With the pace of the game speeding up in Premier League and the reaction time becoming shorter, Pepe will need to improve his decision making which was brilliant at times but still leaves a lot for desire.
Where will he fit at Arsenal?
Arsenal played a 3-5-2 last season with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leading the lines but Unai Emery will probably have to revert to a 4-3-3. In this system, Pepe will slide into the system perfectly and make the right-wing his own. If he manages to click and combine with Lacazette and Aubameyang and form a good chemistry, Arsenal have one of the best trios in Europe in their hands.
This is a brilliant signing both from the club and the player’s perspective. Arsenal have one of the most potent forward talents in their ranks who can still develop and blossom into an even bigger star. Pepe’s arrival will be a big boost to the aspirations of the fans and the mentality surrounding the club.
Meanwhile for Nicolas, he needed a big stage to leave his stamp and continue his progress and Unai Emery has an exceptional record of handling and developing young talents. Signing with Arsenal is the next big step in his career which has seen a steady upward curve and while he has never lived away from France, he must now take this challenge on as well as he takes defenders on in the pitch and continue to impress.