Labelled as one of the most exciting talents in Europe following 22 goals in Ligue 1 for Lille last season, Arsenal stunned the world of football when they signed the Ivory Cost winger for a club record fee of £72million back in August.
Back in April, we discussed how he could be the new Eden Hazard, who joined Chelsea from Lille, but also warned that Gervinho came to the Premier League at a similar age and reputation.
All 3 players came to the Premier League in their early 20s with very similar scoring records over the previous 2 seasons for Lille. Hazard scored 34 goals in all competitions, Gervinho 36 and Pepe 37.
Hazard and Gervinho had very different Premier League careers. One was one of the finest players to grace the league in the last decade, the other was a flop.
Half-way through his 1st season, Pepe has been closer to Gervinho than he has Hazard. Some have gone to label him a huge flop already following his huge price tag and justified the opinion of some that he was a penalty stat padder (9 of his 22 league goals came from the spot last year).
Misses against Liverpool and Sheffield bought back memories of Gervinho’s wastefulness. The Ghost of Bradford had returned.
Despite the misses, it did not feel like we were watching the incarnation of Gervinho
Gervinho was very technically poor. You would not catch him bending shots into the top corner or scoring free kicks. He could not pass, could not cross, could not shoot. He was a physicaly player. Quick, strong with a burst of acceleration that got him into space and made himself chances.
Highlight reels of Pepe at Lille had already shown his ability in dead ball situations, with numerous goals from open play from the outside of the box. This was a guy who was clearly technical sound.
From day 1 at Arsenal he was taking corners. He must have been showing something on the training ground to be our 1st choice set piece taker.
Against Vitoria de Guimaraes he showed he did have magic in his boots with two stunning free kicks. Both unsaveable no matter who was in goal.
But he was still struggling from open play. And successive managers from Unai Emery, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta left him on the bench. He had fallen behind both Bukayo Saka and Riess Nelson.
He looked lightweight on the pitch, despite his 6-foot frame. Knocked off the ball to easy, he tired quickly and contributed little defensively.
Reports began to surface that he was not doing what was required in training.
Following being dropped to the bench against Norwich, Ljungberg told reporters “Pepe is a very good player, but I looked at what we did in training and what I see every day. And that is how I judge it.”
Pepe made his 9th start of the season against West Ham in the middle of December where he bent one perfectly in the top corner from just inside the box, reminding everyone that he has technical ability to go with his pace.
Against Manchester City he played a full 90minutes but looked laboured in what was his worst performance for Arsenal.
He failed to get off the bench in interim-manager Ljungberg’s last game in charge, and played just 12 minutes in Arteta’s first two games. The new manager deciding to start Nelson in both games and bring on Joe Willock before him.
Against Manchester United he put in a Man of the Match performance in Arsenal’s best result of the season, scoring with a first time finish.
Pepe was substituted off after 61 minutes and there are some clear conditioning issues there, but he is also clearly a big talent.
A lot will now come down to Pepe’s own mentality.
Does he buy into Arteta’s philosophy of demanding “120 per cent” commitment from every player? Is he going to follow Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s lead and start putting in a big defensive shift alongside his attacking prowess?
Despite having a slow start to his Arsenal career, Pepe has still has 5 goals and 5 assists in 1,245 minutes of football. That is a goal or assist every 124 minutes. That is a better contribution per minute that what Eden Hazard achieved in his first season (147 minutes) and the same as what Sadio Mane did in his first season at Liverpool.
What Pepe now needs is more game time. That will allow him to contribute more. Score more. Assist more.
With 17 league games as well as FA Cup and Europa League still to come, Pepe should be targeting to double what he has done so far.
20 goals and assists in his first season in English football will be a solid return and something that he can build on.
What Arteta now needs to do is trust in his record signing, play him. And Pepe needs to repay that by performing both on the pitch and at London Colney.
Pepe can become a huge player for Arsenal in the future. It is down to him to apply himself.