Mikel Arteta left to pick up the pieces as Unai Emery proved right over £72m transfer decision
18 months in and Nicolas Pepe’s Arsenal career has yet to really take off.
After Bukayo Saka was moved over to the right wing it could now be argued that the Ivorian is third choice in his favoured right wing position, with Willian also ahead of him in the pecking order.
His travails in North London are not helped by the continued brilliance of his international teammate further South in the capital city.
In the summer of 2019, Wilfried Zaha was heavily linked with a move to the Emirates. Speaking to the Greatest Games podcast he revealed how close he actually came to playing for the club he supported as a boy.
“I had a conversation with the manager actually, and he was like we don’t really need to go through much.
He’d seen me play, he knows I can change games at any time and stuff that and he was like ‘yeah we’d love to have you’ and I was just like ‘I’d love to come.
“The conversation was rather straight forward because I’ve played against him when he’s managed Arsenal and he’s seen what I can do. He sees my work rate and what I can add to the team.
“Obviously, it was up to the club who they chose. And they chose Pepe over me.”
Unai Emery has corroborated these claims and admitted in the past that he wanted to sign Zaha over Pepe at the time.
“We signed Pepe,” Emery told The Guardian “He’s a good player but we didn’t know his character and he needs time, patience.
“I favoured someone who knew the league and wouldn’t need to adapt. Zaha won games on his own: Tottenham, Manchester City, us. Incredible performances. I told them: ‘This is the player I know and want.’
“I met Zaha and he wanted to come. The club decided Pepe was one for the future. I said: ‘Yes, but we need to win now and this lad wins games.’ He beat us on his own.”
Since Pepe’s arrival the comparisons with Zaha have been inevitable. The Palace winger actually had one of his quieter seasons last time out scoring just four times, but he has already doubled that tally in just 15 games this year. Pepe, on the other hand, has just two goals in the Premier League this campaign.
Right now though it could be argued that the comparison is slightly unfair.
Crystal Palace as a side are entirely built around Wilfried Zaha. Everything they do is to try and get the best out of him and unsurprisingly he flourishes as a result.
This is not the case for Pepe at Arsenal. The 25-year-old has started just four times in the league this season and since a run of eight games right at the start of his Gunners career, the most consecutive opportunities he has had from the off in Premier League matches is just four.
He has also had to deal with three different managers, a move to a new country with a new language and a worldwide pandemic.
But, of course, despite the mitigating circumstances, Pepe does have to take some of the blame for his underwhelming stint in North London so far.
The work rate that Zaha mentioned as a key quality in his own game is often absent from Pepe’s. Despite scoring a penalty in the game, his performance against Everton last month stands out as an example of this.
It’s interesting to think what might have been had the Palace winger been able to secure his dream move to Arsenal.
It’s hard to say whether he would have been a success.
The players own track record of making the step up to elite level clubs is not a good one. Zaha largely underwhelmed in a six month stint at Manchester United, making just two substitute appearances before being bombed out on loan to Cardiff and eventually returning to South London with his tail in between his legs.
But players have failed in their first try at a bigger club and returned to prove doubters wrong before.
Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne both struggled to make an impact at Chelsea before going on to become two of the best players in the Premier League.
Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, and had certain moments in Nicolas Pepe’s time at Arsenal gone differently this debate would not even be happening.
But after a season and a half, it’s perhaps time to ask whether Gunners made a mistake in signing him over Wilfried Zaha.