Will a Turkish club save Arsenal from this £72m flop?


When it comes to signing flops, Arsenal have, for the most part, avoided the worst of the worst. Yes, there have been more than a few head-slappers: Gervinho, Squillaci, Santos, Mustafi, Stepanovs, and on and on. None of them, however, quite reach the levels set by our then-record signing, Nicolas Pépé. Like a lot of so-called flops, Pépé was signed on a massive fee that heaped more-massive pressure on him to perform, and, well, he…um…didn’t. Yes, he popped up with some flashy goals here and there, but he was only ever a square peg in a round hole.

Signed on a £72m fee back in 2019, there were high hopes that the Ivorian winger could set the Prem alight much as he had done for Lille. Alas, as we all know all too well, it was not to be. Despite flashes on incisive play, occasionally eviscerating opponents and scoring from wicked set-pieces, he never quite found his groove here. Ironically, the same language connection that encouraged him to join became the same language barrier that hindered his acclimation.

Speaking to the French website Colinterview, here’s how Pépé explained (bear with me, my French is straight from a textbook and a little rusty as well):

He spoke to Ancelotti about joining Napoli, but the call felt rushed, lasting only a few minutes. By contrast, Emery spoke with him for close to 45 minutes in decent French, but this was enough to create some mutual trust. After signing with Arsenal, however, he felt completely lost. With only a few French-speaking players in the squad (Lacazette, Aubameyang, Guendouzi…), Pépé felt very much out of his depth. This feeling was compounded by how much more-intense the fans were and how much faster the matches were. In Ligue 1, Pépé felt like he could receive the ball and take a second or two to decide; in the Prem, he felt like he had to make instantaneous, split-second decisions.

In addition to these factors, Pépé was used to waiting on the wing to receive the ball after which he could beat his man and run into space behind. At Arsenal, he was receiving the ball higher up the pitch in tighter spaces against packed-in defenses, all of which negated his skills.

Despite all of these obstacles, Pépé found Arteta to be a breath of fresh air. He didn’t feel that Arteta held no preconceived notions but instead gave him valuable instruction on how to improve. In fact, he credits Arteta with helping him to improve in numerous areas and regrets that the emergence of Saka—against whom Pépé appears to hold no grudges—played such a pivotal role in sidelining him.

Some of this contradicts what we’ve all assumed, namely that Pépé just didn’t fit into the managers’ plans (Emery wanted Zaha, Arteta wanted a more well-rounded winger). If anything, Pépé was a victim to the language barrier, the general instability in the squad under Emery and then Arteta, and to the emergence of a potentially generational talent in Saka.

With the news that Turkish side Beşiktaş are interested in signing him (where the hell are these Saudi clubs when you really need them?), Pépé could find a new lease on life by re-discovering his level, and Arsenal could find a way free of his £140k/wk salary if not that astronomical, Sannlehian (?) fee. I hold no grudges against Pépé. He’s not the first nor will he be the last to struggle with the transition from some other league to the Prem, the burden of a massive transfer fee, or the adjustment to a squad very much in transition. I wish him well.

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