Sunday, October 2, 2022

Pepe joins Nice: talent can’t outdo circumstance

A very happy Friday to you. I hope you had more sleep than I did last night. Suffice to say, when a fox runs through the garden, a young German Shepherd will take exception to this and demand to be let out so she can insist that the fox go away. And by go away, I mean try and kill the fox.

The fox she can’t get near because it hopped up on a wall and run off.

In the meantime, the mayhem inside the house – where she knocked over some pictures in frames and smashed the glass all over the place – is far greater than that outside in the garden. When this happens when you’re just on the cusp of falling asleep, it brings you back into the land of the awake with something of a start, and isn’t then conducive to instant sleep when you have to clean up broken glass and listen to your heart beating like some kind of Paul van Dyk techno anthem after you’ve gone back to bed.

Anyway, as I said, happy Friday to you.

Mikel Arteta meets the press this morning ahead of our home game against Fulham, and I’m assuming bar any training ground shenanigans, we have a clean bill of health. We’ll cover all the news from that on Arseblog News, and preview the game in tomorrow’s blog, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if we saw the same starting XI once again.

At some point though, Arteta is going to have to trust his squad a bit and make some changes. It’s tough when you’re playing well and winning, but one of the keys to making this a successful season will be how we use the depth, keeping important players fresh, keeping ‘fringe’ players involved and ready to go, and ensuring there’s a competitive atmosphere. Even if there are some who we all know fit into this category, you don’t want too many players thinking they’re second choice options.

It’s three games in 8 days now with Fulham on Saturday, Aston Villa at home on Wednesday, then a trip to Old Trafford next Sunday. I know it’s early in the season, but a little bit of rotation here and there is going to be part and parcel of how we operate. It’s not about someone being dropped, it’s about ensuring everyone is as involved as possible. Anyway, it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on this if someone was to ask him about it in his presser.

Elsewhere, the big story is that Nicolas Pepe has officially joined Nice on loan for the season, and as I’ve said previously, this makes sense for all concerned. Hopefully he’ll get to play regularly, rediscover some form and by next summer there’s a player on the market who will garner some interest from clubs who’d be willing to spend money on a transfer fee as he’d have just a year to go on his contract.

Ultimately though, the Pepe deal is one which will go down as very expensive dud. It’s not as if he’s not a talented player, he is, and he has some excellent attacking qualities, but at no point since his arrival did he ever really feel like the right fit. And if we’re being completely fair, not all of it is down to him.

Let’s remember he arrived in a summer when Unai Emery made it abundantly clear he wanted Wilfried Zaha, a right-footed Premier League ready winger who plays on the left. He was given Nicolas Pepe, a left-footed winger who plays on the right with no Premier League experience at all. Some players take time to adapt, he was certainly one of them, but his first few months at the club coincided with the Emery slump, the team going off the rails, and the Spaniard being sacked.

Then Mikel Arteta arrived, thing started to change, and Covid hit. Having three coaches (Freddie too, you remember) and a pandemic in your first season in England is a lot to deal with, particularly if you’re something of an introvert, which Pepe seems to be. Nevertheless, he finished the season well, popping up with a quarter-final FA Cup goal in the win over Sheffield United, and assists in the semi-final and final in which he was probably our best player after the two goal hero Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The summer signing of Willian should have been a big red flag for all sorts of reasons. Despite ending the season well, the club decided bringing a washed-up has-been who just didn’t care was a good idea, and it relegated Pepe to the bench. Eventually Willian stopped being picked, and once again the Ivorian had a reasonably decent second half of the season, with goals in the Europa League and Premier League.

Ultimately though, the biggest impediment to Pepe’s success at Arsenal was the emergence of Bukayo Saka. A highly talented Academy graduate who took that place on the right and made it his own. Not only could he produce in the final third, he could do what the manager wanted out of possession too, and there’s no question that Pepe’s biggest flaw is what he does when the opposition have it. He lacked the defensive awareness of Saka, and while he did try, he was more likely to give away a free kick than win a tackle. I think he always had issues of consistency, and those were compounded by the infrequency of his appearances.

Last season he played just over 600 minutes in the Premier League, a sure sign that Arteta had little to no faith in him, and sometimes that just happens. A signing can be exciting, but it’s just the wrong guy at the wrong club at the wrong time. A player and a manager don’t click. It’s not personal, it’s just how it is and it’s very difficult to find any other solution than the departure of one or the other. In these current circumstances, it was always going to be Pepe. As I said, let’s hope he can have a good season in Ligue 1, where he can find his mojo again and get his career back on track. I wish him well.

For some extra reading this morning, Tim’s excellent new column is here.

Right, that’s your lot for this morning. There’s a brand new Arsecast for you below, and don’t forget Lewis and I will have a Fulham preview podcast for you over on Patreon later this afternoon.

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