When Arsenal shelled out a club record £72m for Nicolas Pepe this summer fans flocked to YouTube to watch his best bits. What they saw was a winger blessed with searing pace who loved a trick or two, sometimes more when the mood took him. He was an entertaining, invigorating bundle of energy and creativity.
They then headed for the stats and that’s when the excitement at his signing really kicked in. In 41 games last season for Lille, the Ivory Coast international scored 23 times and made 12 assists. Clearly there was an end product to the step-overs, a purpose to the razzmatazz.
His debut against Newcastle on the opening day of the season went exactly as you would expect from a player of his ilk. So keen was Pepe to impress and show what he could do that he was guilty at times of running down blind alleys, retaining possession when not the best option. And if it could be said that he ultimately flattered to deceive so be it. The goals would come. The assists would come. On that afternoon defenders were taken on and Pepe was a threat throughout. That was sufficient for an introduction: to show promise.
At Anfield towards the end of August Unai Emery shuffled his pack and played the 24-year-old just off Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The intention was to capitalise on his individuality and to see what came of it from counters.
The plan nearly worked too, until Liverpool took control of the game and won all-too-easily. Until that happened Pepe created a couple of chances for himself and others. He was a threat, a live-wire.
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Fast-forward to a woeful performance at Old Trafford recently and that threat remained unfulfilled. Worse yet a series of disappointing displays had now led to the narrative forming that Nicolas Pepe was flopping and flopping hard. “His work rate, his lack of quality, end product, his body language. He didn’t seem up for the fight tonight”. That was Roy Keane’s assessment in his punditry role for Sky.
As for the player himself he has been candid enough to admit that, “It’s not been easy, we must tell the truth”. “I’m not good enough in my stats or my usual form,” he has publicly concluded.
Returning to Keane’s criticism however it is necessary to take umbrage with his last barb. “He didn’t seem up for the fight”. That really does depend on how you define the term.
Because anyone who saw the game – indeed anyone who has watched Pepe toil under immense pressure and expectation from this season’s curtain raiser on – will surely note that the attacker ‘shows’ for the ball every time. He doesn’t hide. And when he gains possession he refuses too to play it safe. How often do we see a player struggling for whatever reason play a simple five yard pass back to whoever gave it to him. Pepe doesn’t do that. He turns. He faces up. He tries constantly to make something happen.
Who says there’s no atmosphere at the Emirates? The evidence in the video above suggests otherwise…
That should be respected. Because that is directly taking on the fight to prove himself; a player charged with creating and dribbling. A player deemed to be 72 million times talented enough to pull that off.
Whether Pepe manages to change perceptions and become a success at the Emirates remains to be seen.
But his valiant attempts to make that happen is little short of admirable, and history suggests that it’s far too early to lay the flop tag in the close vicinity of Pepe’s name.