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Nicolas Pepe & perspective: Why slating Arsenal attacker just wrong

COMMENT: Nicolas Pepe and these ex-players. "Horrible". "Redundant". "I don't know what he is". Of course they're right. Of course they're right in what they say about Arsenal's record signing...

...oh wait. Hang on. That wasn't messrs Keown, Merson and Wright slating Pepe after Bramall Lane. No. That was John Aldridge and Danny Murphy pulling apart Roberto Firmino's game just months after joining Liverpool from Hoffenheim.

At the time, Aldridge, one of the club's greatest No9s, would even question Firmino's courage. Yes, Firmino! The hardest working front-to-back striker in the game. But four years ago, Aldo saw things differently: "The Brazilian also pulled out of a challenge that was 55-45 in his favour. Liverpool fans won't accept that. I've been going for 50 years and I know it's unacceptable."

Of course, cycle forward to today and Aldridge's opinion has dramatically changed. As has Murphy's. The former Reds midfielder would later admit his initial judgment of the Brazilian was wrong.

You get the drift. Pepe isn't three months into his Premier League career and he's being absolutely slaughtered. The €80m man bearing the brunt of blame for Monday night's defeat at Sheffield United. Criticism which really is undeserved.

Yes, he isn't playing as a record signing is expected. And yes, he should be burying that chance in the first-half. But it was at the end of a move he'd initiated on the edge of Bernd Leno's penalty area. And he'd had to bend his run twice to get the timing right to meet the cross. Nine times out o... okay, okay given his current confidence levels... seven times out of ten Pepe is side-footing that volley past Dean Henderson in the Blades goal.

It would've been one of the great goals of the season. An end-to-end Mickey Thomas or David Rocastle effort. Different players. But Pepe, with all his shimmies and tricks, is also capable of doing that. And next time, there's every chance he's volleying the ball home.

As mentioned, Pepe isn't playing like an €80m signing. But he wasn't the worst player on the pitch on Monday night. Indeed, he had some bright moments. For the neutral, sitting back, it was a performance typical of a player from Ligue 1 trying to get to grips with the rigours of Premier League football. And showing some promise - at Bramall Lane no less. A dart and low cross down the right-hand side could've had the Gunners ahead in the first-half. Then after the break - and that miss - Pepe actually beat Henderson, but his shot from outside the area dipped the wrong side of the post.

But Pepe kept persisting - which should be encouraging for the Arsenal support. The head hasn't dropped yet. Which is a good sign.

That's not to say he shouldn't be doing better - and this isn't about making excuses for the Ivorian. But watching Pepe get caught up in the extremes of Prem punditry, some reality needs to prevail.

"Pepe, is he going to get into the team?" queried Martin Keown, the former Gunners centre-half. "It's a massive amount of money they have paid for him and Lille will be laughing all the way to the bank with that one."

Really? Luis Campos, Lille's sporting director, would say otherwise. His job would be far easier having Pepe still on the books than €80m in the bank. Certainly, good friend Jose Mourinho believes so. The Special One a regular at LOSC games last season where he was able to assess Pepe up close.

"He knows how to defend, to play in the 4-4-2 as the right winger, you know how to defend, not only that area but also the inside," said Mourinho, essentially describing Pepe's performance on Monday night to a tee. "He does that very well. When he has the ball and also without the ball, he is very effective and very direct.

"I think this boy has fantastic potential."

And "potential" is the word here. Pepe wasn't signed by the Gunners for the here and now. At 24, he's still learning his craft - and now doing so in the most demanding league in the world.

Four years ago, when it was Firmino getting it in the neck, Pepe was running around the French Third Division with US Orleans, having been plucked from Angers' reserves team. Today he's with Arsenal - and as their record signing.

A little perspective is required. Pepe's first months as an Arsenal player haven't been as horrible as claimed.


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Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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