Arsenal’s record signing will look to build on the Gunners’ strong finish to last season where he played his part in the club’s FA Cup success
Analysing Arsenal’s 2019/20 season requires some nuanced reasoning, as things were far from black and white.
The club’s summer transfer window, which saw them bring in Kieran Tierney, David Luiz, Dani Ceballos on loan and record signing Nicolas Pepe from Celtic, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Lille respectively, offered promise to Gooners.
Unai Emery’s side seemed to have made additions that suggested they’d be favourites for a top four finish due to the state of their rivals: Chelsea had lost Eden Hazard and were in uncharted territory with an inexperienced Frank Lampard at the helm and Tottenham Hotspur, despite their Champions League run in 18/19, looked to be on the wane under the brilliant Mauricio Pochettino.
Of the sides tipped for a Champions League spot, only Manchester United looked to pose a real threat to Arsenal’s chances, with both historic clubs expected to end below then-champions Manchester City and Liverpool in the sought-after European spots.
In that sense, the Gunners’ eventual eighth-placed finish was dispiriting given the raised expectations before a ball was kicked.
On the other hand, FA Cup success, which made up for the three-time Premier League champions’ failure to make European football via the league, was hugely important for the club.
New head coach Mikel Arteta has, in some way, been correcting the mess created in Emery’s last few months at London Colney. The three-time Europa League winner was sacked in November with the club in dire straits, largely directionless and unlikely to make any significant progress at home and on the continent.
So, given the situation Arteta walked into, their eventual FA Cup win and Community Shield success a fortnight ago indicate some upward trajectory. What made those victories significant were the teams they defeated in their cup run: Man City and Chelsea in the sport’s oldest cup competition and Jurgen Klopp’s relentless champions in the season’s curtain-raiser, albeit on penalties.
With the club now showing they can compete and hurt teams with superior technical quality or sides on equal footing, things are looking up again at the Emirates Stadium, but how does Nicolas Pepe fit into the club’s plans going forward?
The story of last season
Similarly to Arsenal’s year, Pepe didn’t match heightened expectations after his big-money move from Ligue 1.
However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom as the wide attacker showed his quality fleetingly in what was a tumultuous first year in Europe’s most popular division.
Regardless of the criticism the winger faced over his end product, tendency to hold on to the ball for too long and decision-making, Pepe delivered 11 goal contributions in the Premier League and created more big chances than any teammate. For context, only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with 25 and Alexander Lacazette (14) outdid the Ivory Coast star’s league return.
The West African also played an important part in their FA Cup success, with an assist for Auba’s first strike vs City, key role in the striker’s second against Pep Guardiola’s men and assist for the forward’s winning goal in the 2-1 win over Chelsea.
Thus, notwithstanding the criticism, he produced in crucial moments to deliver Arsenal’s first trophy since 2017. Still, there remains room for improvement.
Where does @Arsenal’s £72 million new boy Nicolas Pepe rank among Africa’s most expensive players of all time?https://t.co/h91HoIfFCm#AFC #TransferTalk #TransferNews #Team225 pic.twitter.com/0u8DfNxVGG
— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) August 1, 2019Any transfer rumours?
None. The North London club aren’t going to give up on their record signing just yet and he’s expected to be a vital component of Arteta’s side this season.
One hope for 2020/21
Certainly to see the winger produce moments of class with more consistency. There was a feeling that Pepe’s goal contributions didn’t tell the full story of what was a frustrating year for Gooners who watched him weekly.
The jury’s still out on his competence in playing in a possession-based style, as his best showings have come in games where either Emery and Arteta ceded the ball to the opposition.
If Pepe dominates games more, rather than drift in and out, as well as refine his game to eliminate weaknesses, this would get fans on-side and go a long way to placate observers who felt Arsenal overpaid in 2019.
Has Nicolas Pepe gone from £72 million flop to potential @Arsenal Player of the Season? pic.twitter.com/XPc7FAySMK
— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) June 23, 2020One fear for 2020/21
Probably the opposite of the aforementioned. After a year of assimilation for Pepe, it’ll be disappointing to see the same faults and deficiencies from his maiden year in England.
In truth, expecting a complete erasure of his deficiencies may be ambitious, still, little or non-improvement would be frowned upon.
For £72 million, you expect a lot more so failure to adapt his qualities to the division could prompt doubts about the Ivorian future as Arsenal’s go-to forward.
Also, with the arrival of Willian, a proven Premier League right winger and direct competition for Pepe, the ex-Lille winger may not have it all his way this season and may sit games out if performances remain erratic.
Goal’s prediction for the season to come
“Pepe will be looking to build on what was a promising first season at Arsenal this time around,” said Goal’s Arsenal correspondent Charlie Watts. “There were plenty who questioned his £72m price tag last season, but he still ended it with eight goals in all competitions and 10 assists.
“For a player who was adjusting to a new contract, that is not a bad return, but Arsenal fans will still want to see more from him this year and you would expect, with a season in the Premier League already under his belt, he will make even more of an impact and help himself to even more goals.
“He will have more competition following the arrival of Willian and I hope that will take his game up another level,” Watts concluded. “I’m expecting big things from Pepe this season.”
After suggesting Arteta’s Arsenal are on the up, it seems a bit contradictory to say their current squad may still be unequipped to end in the top four. However, this is logical given their over-reliance on Aubameyang, inability to fashion out chances against deep blocks and defensive frailties against the lesser sides.
“If we’d spent £35m on him, you’d say ‘great signing’. But when you think we have paid twice as much, you think, ‘He needs to do more.'”
Aliadiere on Pepe, the areas he must improve and why Arteta could be ‘perfect’ for Arsenal’s record signing.https://t.co/kLwztWjK4A
— Charles Watts (@charles_watts) May 22, 2020
Their squad looks short to last the rigours of a long season but additions of targets Houssem Aouar and Thomas Partey adds a bit of freshness to the Gunners and gives them a greater chance to finish in the UCL spots.
However, an alternative route to the continent’s premier competition would be claiming the Europa League. Having seen Arteta display his nous in one-off cup games, Gooners can be confident in their chances of continental success if their top four hopes are in jeopardy.
In summary, if Arsenal add to their squad before the end of the window, they have a greater chance of securing their best league finish since 2015/16.
Pepe ought to play a more prominent role in the club’s season, but additions in other positions would give him a higher chance of thriving as the North Londoners seek to get back where they belong.