When Nicolas Pepe arrived at Arsenal in the summer of 2019, he was held up as a symbol of ambition. This was the statement signing that, one way or another, would define the Unai Emery era.
18 months on, though, you could forgive Arsenal fans for longing for what might have been.
As we’ve learned in a telling interview with Wilfried Zaha, it was very nearly him, instead of his Ivory Coast team-mate, who arrived at the Emirates with the world at his feet.
“I had a conversation with the manager, actually,” he told Jamie Carragher on The Greatest Games podcast.
“He was just like, ‘we don’t need to go through much’. He’s seen me play, he knows I can change games at any time and stuff like that. It was like, ‘yeah, we’d love to have you’, and I was just like, ‘I’d love to come’.
“The conversation was rather straightforward because I’ve played against him when he’s managed Arsenal, he’s seen what I can do, he’s seen my work rate, what I can add to the team.
“Obviously, it was up to the club who they chose, and obviously they chose Pepe over me.”
Arsenal struggled in Pepe’s debut season, and as the goals dried up for their new talisman, Unai Emery found himself out of a job by December.
The signing has since been subject to ridicule, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to criticise the Gunners for choosing Pepe over Zaha. Particularly since latter has been one of the highlights of this Premier League season, while Arsenal’s identity crisis has continued.
It’s worth remembering, though, that at the time, the two were incomparable. Pepe was seen as one of the best forwards on the planet, having fired in 23 goals for Lille. Zaha, meanwhile, was impressive, but nowhere near that level.
Given that Palace wanted a similar price for their prized asset – perhaps even more, considering they knocked back a reported £70m from Everton – the evidence all pointed towards Pepe. It was a purely logical decision.
Yet Zaha feels his would-be employers missed a trick by deciding against the player who had proven himself in England. The Palace forward netted double figures for a struggling Eagles team that term, including one against Emery’s team, and he reckons if they’d had any sense, they would have taken his domestic experience into account.
“I just think if there’s a player who plays in the Premier League who you see week in, week out, and you know what he does… I feel like it’s a no-brainer,” he went on.
“The other leagues, I feel like they are totally different. In the Prem there are no easy games whatsoever. Every team is going to give you a run for your money. There’s no game where you’re going to go, ‘yeah, we’re going to win 5-0’.
“That’s my thought. I feel like when players come from abroad, I don’t know, they just have that edge with clubs, it’s just like [they say], ‘yeah, I may want him a bit more because he’s from there’.”
The latter point is a little odd, considering the number of players who have stepped over from France to the Premier League with seamless success. Anthony Martial, Bernardo Silva and even Lacazette, to name a handful, have had little trouble adapting, so it’s likely that Pepe’s struggles are far more nuanced than simply the league he’s playing in.
There is no guarantee either that Zaha would have been a success story – you only have to look at his own earlier move to Manchester United to how things can go haywire quickly after a move, regardless of a player’s prior experience.
Neither Zaha or Arsenal will spend too long living in the past in any case. Once FA Cup proceedings are out of the way this weekend, the two will go head to head at the Emirates on Thursday, each in a wildly different position to where they were 18 months ago.
No doubt the outcome of that one will determine who gets the last laugh.