The Gunners’ record signing may have scored his third goal of the season on Thursday night but his manager wants consistency across 90 minutes
Mikel Arteta’s answer was clear when asked what Nicolas Pepe needed to show in order to earn himself a regular starting spot in Arsenal’s Premier League team.
“Consistency,” said the Arsenal boss, when quizzed on the Gunners’ record signing, following Thursday’s night’s 4-1 Europa League win against Molde at the Emirates Stadium.
It was a game that perfectly encapsulated the enigma that is Pepe.
The £72 million ($95m) man was infuriating at times – especially in the first half – but just as he had done against Dundalk a week earlier, he popped up with an excellent goal.
He also went on to add an assist for Joe Willock, a late strike which sealed a comfortable victory for Arteta’s side and all but booked Arsenal’s passage into the knockout stages.
It was a classic Pepe performance and more evidence of why he remains such a puzzle in north London.
His quality is undeniable and his goal threat is something Arsenal desperately need, but unless he produces his best on a more regular basis he is always going to be a bit-part player under a manager as demanding as Arteta.
Pepe has started just one Premier League game so far this season and, despite having now scored three goals in all competitions, he is unlikely to get the nod against Aston Villa on Sunday.
What does he need to do to force his way back into the starting XI on a regular basis?
“He has to show consistency throughout the game, throughout the 90 minutes in every action,” said Arteta.
“Every time he is on the ball in the final third [he has] to make a difference and do it more and more and more.
“The final product has to be better, not just from him. If we want to become a top, top team and score many more goals it’s something we have to put higher demands on.
“He scored a really good goal [against Molde], he got an assist, but he can do more.”
The problem for Pepe is that he will always be judged on his price tag.
When a club smash their transfer record to sign a player for £72m, the expectation is that they will be signing someone who is able to deliver at the top level, week in, week out. But Pepe has been unable to do that since he arrived from Lille for such an eye-watering fee in August 2019.
There have been flashes of brilliance along the way as his numbers show. Pepe has now scored 11 goals for Arsenal since his debut. Only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (33) and Alexandre Lacazette (15) have scored more.
And his assist for Willock on Thursday night took his tally in an Arsenal shirt to 12. Bukayo Saka (14) is the only Arsenal player to have more in the same time frame and Aubameyang (37) is the only man to have more direct goal contributions.
When you consider Arsenal’s struggles for goals and creativity at present, those numbers make it somewhat difficult to understand why Pepe is not starting more in the Premier League. Arteta’s side need some X-Factor and Pepe has shown he can provide it.
But for all the quality moments he has provided, such as the goals against Dundalk and Molde, there are equally as many occasions when he has flattered to deceive.
“The thing that has disappointed me a tiny bit is his decision-making during games,” former Arsenal striker Jeremie Aliadiere told Goal, while discussing Pepe’s form earlier this year.
“For a player who cost £72m, it’s the simple parts of the game that sometimes I see him lacking. And that’s what I pick on a bit.
“Yes, he goes on a good dribble and goes through two or three players – that’s amazing. But when you have Aubameyang on your left and all you have to do is pass the ball in the right spot, and instead cut it back at the wrong time, that bothers me. And I’ve seen that quite a lot.
“Maybe with confidence, with more games, that will improve. But it’s that sort of thing – when he switches off and seems to lack concentration – that gets to me.
“That is something you can’t really have with top, top players who come for that sort of money. The easy stuff has got to be done properly.”
Pepe does have a tendency to switch off at times in games and Arteta is often heard having to coach the Ivory Coast international throughout matches, especially when it comes to tracking back and falling into a defensive shape.
He can also be sloppy in possession, as was highlighted when he lost the ball 15 times against Molde, more than any other Arsenal player.
That is perhaps why the Spaniard has preferred to use Willian on the right side of his attack for the majority of Premier League games this season, even though the Brazil international is also struggling for form during the early part of the campaign.
Willian has yet to score for Arsenal following his move from Chelsea in the summer and his only assists came in the victory at Fulham on the opening day of the season.
Since then he has gone eight games without a direct goal contribution and he was disappointing again on Thursday night before being replaced by Saka on 64 minutes.
But the 32-year-old is expected to get the nod over Pepe once again this Sunday when Aston Villa arrive at the Emirates and that is largely down to his ability to stay switched on during games, even when struggling for form.
“It’s not just Nico or Willy,” said Arteta, when asked about the form of his two wingers and where they must improve.
“With the quality we have, we have to finish things better. We can improve a lot consistency-wise in the final third with the end product. That goes for every single player.
“Nico has scored three goals, the aim has to be to score 10 and Willy the same. Three assists, he needs 10. If we don’t have that mindset, we won’t become the top team we want to be.”