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Record signing to free transfer: Why Pepe failed at Arsenal

Record signing to free transfer: Why Pepe failed at Arsenal
  • PublishedSeptember 13, 2023

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After completing his £72 million move to Arsenal in 2019, Nicolas Pépé reflected on how he had “struggled a lot” and a big Premier League move was his reward. As it turned out, his struggles had only just begun. On Saturday, the 28-year-old completed a journey from club-record signing to free transfer in a four-year downward spiral that reflects badly on everyone involved.

The days of Arsenal paying players to leave the club were supposed to be over. But such was the lack of interest in a winger who has badly lost his way, the Gunners ripped up the final year of his contract and allowed him to join Trabzonspor for no fee.

Pepe is the ninth player to leave in this fashion since Mikel Arteta took over as manager in 2019, and Arsenal will hope the Ivory Coast international is the last.

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It is tempting with the benefit of hindsight to suggest Pepe’s career at Arsenal was doomed from the start. The inflated fee created its own burden. There was general surprise among agents working in the market that summer that Arsenal paid as much as they did, even if Pepe registered 22 goals and 11 assists in a prolific 2018-19 campaign for Lille.

Lille owner Gerard Lopez has subsequently claimed another unnamed club offered even more money than Arsenal as a total package including wages — Napoli were serious contenders at one stage — but the final figure was greeted with widespread scepticism.

ESPN reported in August 2020 that the deal was scrutinised internally as part of a review of the club’s decision-making processes, which led to cost-cutting measures. Although the club denied any formal investigation, head of football Raul Sanllehi left later that month with no official explanation given.

Sanllehi had been a key figure in negotiating several deals, including the pursuit of Pepe — who was not the first choice of then-manager Unai Emery — to strengthen their attacking options. Emery admitted in January 2021 that he in fact wanted to sign Crystal Palace‘s Wilfried Zaha instead. Ironically, both players are now in Turkey with Zaha joining Galatasaray earlier this summer.

Emery stated his preference was predicated upon the idea Zaha would need less time to adapt to English football; Pepe certainly struggled in that regard, a process not helped by a change in the dugout. Arsenal sacked Emery in November 2019 and appointed Arteta a month later, triggering a radical overhaul of the playing style and the squad itself.

Even amid the transition, Pepe had his moments. There was his brilliant goal in Arsenal’s June 2020 defeat to Brighton and an assist for the winning goal in August’s FA Cup final win over Chelsea. In fact, he had a superb goal ruled out in that final by a tight VAR offside call — perhaps a sliding doors moment in a career that never quite took off.

Pepe was all about moments: a fine free kick, a smart piece of skill, a flurry of goals in the Europa League. But he lacked the consistency Arteta craved.

Some questioned his commitment, too. Sources have told ESPN that Pepe spent a lot of time with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, forming a clique that Arteta increasingly believed was stifling the squad’s progress. Aubameyang was later stripped of the captaincy after repeated bouts of ill-discipline and jettisoned to Barcelona while Lacazette faded in influence and left on a free transfer to rejoin Lyon last year.

Sources suggested Pepe gained a reputation for rarely being one of the first on the training pitch, often hanging back with Lacazette and Aubameyang as the squad made their way out from the changing room. He was also said to often neglect acknowledging staff around the training ground who weren’t closely connected to first-team operations.

By his own admission, Pepe had problems with authority growing up. On his first day at his first professional club, Angers, the manager told him to shave off his showy blond-dyed mohawk. He defied the instruction, only belatedly doing so when marginalised in preseason training. Pepe also once shouted back at his coach during an under-19s game. He was immediately substituted and forced to apologise to his teammates.

Many young players go through such learning experiences and, in his defence, there were certainly signs at Arsenal that Pepe had grown up. He was not an aggressively corrosive figure, or the “mole” Arteta sought to identify after news of a training ground bustup involving Dani Ceballos and David Luiz was leaked to the media in January 2021.

In fact, when Pepe’s partner gave birth to a baby boy in February last year — a seismic moment in anybody’s life — he told Arteta that despite missing training as a result, he still wanted to be considered for selection in their next Premier League game against Wolves because the squad was short of attacking options. Pepe came off the bench to score one and make another as Arsenal came from behind to win 2-1.

“I see a different Nico,” Arteta said after that match, referencing “his energy, his happiness, his all-round play, how he’s training” as evidence Pepe could soon turn a corner. But it proved another false dawn. Arsenal evolved under Arteta, and Pepe’s stock diminished further, the flickers of quality receding into darkness.

To his credit, Pepe agreed to take a 25% pay cut to join Nice on loan last season, ensuring the move happened rather than taking an easy option of remaining on a higher salary without any responsibility of playing. He left Arsenal for good with a record of 27 goals in 112 games, agreeing a compromise on the final year of his contract to join Trabzonspor.

Ultimately, Arsenal simply did not know what version of Pepe they would get, and Arteta is a manager who craves clarity in that regard. Defensively, Pepe did not work hard enough, but regardless it did not help his cause that at the same time, Bukayo Saka rapidly developed into one of the most consistent and dangerous right-wing players in Europe, adored by Arsenal fans.

The Gunners have since overhauled their transfer approach with significant success as the acquisitions of Martin Odegaard, Ben White and Gabriel Jesus. among others, indicate.

Meanwhile, Pepe seeks to rebuild his career in Turkey, and the struggle continues to be real.

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