Nicolas Pepe: An Expensive Arsenal Gamble That Has Yet to Pay Off – With the Emphasis on ‘Yet’

Nicolas Pepe
Arsenal FC v Burnley FC – Premier League | Chloe Knott – Danehouse/Getty Images

‘LOL I can’t believe Arsenal wasted so much money on this step-over merchant’

‘He’s just Gervinho 2.0’

‘[insert Premier League rival] spent [insert fee] less on [insert player] and he’s so much better’

A good few of these having been knocking about across social media and down at the pub (back when pubs were actually accessible, that is), or even shouted across the street at anybody wearing an Arsenal top.

Because, truth be told, Nicolas Pepe has not lived up to his £72m price tag…. yet.

Was he ever going to, though? Was £72m pounds worth of footballing brilliance suddenly going to grace the Emirates and make that astronomical fee look like an utter bargain? No, it wasn’t, but there were plenty of Arsenal fans who sure thought it would.

It’s stressed a lot that a player shouldn’t be judged on the price a club pays for him. Be them still teenagers, World Cup winners, Ivorian wingers or whatnot, it’s always best to pretend that doesn’t exist and take them for face value.

But, when you arrive at a club as their record signing having accrued 33 goal involvements the season prior, it’s hard to overlook that dreaded figure.

With four goals and six assists in his 32 Arsenal matches to date, for a player joining a new league, with a different language and in a failing side in which he’s already played under three managers, it’s not a bad return. It really isn’t.

Bring that £72m back into the picture, though, and all involved with the club would have been asking for a bit more than ‘not bad’. Pepe himself would concur.

It took him six Premier League outings to net his first goal – coming from the penalty spot – but by this time the hordes of critics had already been lambasting him for his tendency to overplay with the ball at his feet and his lack of sharpness.

Nor did he arrive possessing anything that vaguely resembled a right foot. Falling neatly into the one-footed bracket, it’s an area of his game that needs improvement.

Not just that, mind. There are a few flaws in the Ivorian’s ability that have to be tweaked and nurtured to realise his full potential. But already we’re seeing those getting worked on.

Whenever he gathered possession he seemed to head aimlessly in any direction, carrying the ball merely for the sake of carrying the ball. Yet under Mikel Arteta we’ve seen improvements in his ball retention, his understanding of opposition defenders and his positional play. Three assists and a goal in his three most recent top flight outings attest to that.

It’s key to note the surroundings he’s entered. Arsenal have not been Arsenal this season. They’ve been even worse.

Under the ‘tactical’ sh*tstorm of Unai Emery’s tenure, to the rookie put-him-in-and-hope spell of Freddie Ljungberg, his progress was always going to decelerate. But said progress was never meant to be immediate. It can seem outlandish – but the £72m spent was always with an eye on the future, not the present.

Such were the reasons why the club opted to move away from a deal for Wilfried Zaha. He was a player for the now, with Pepe one that could become a now guy in due course.

That ‘due course’, though, tends to get muddled when money is involved. Patience is a virtue, but football waits for no one.

Nicolas Pepe
Julian Finney/Getty Images

If you’re not banging in goals from the very first minute, causing people to flood YouTube with ‘Goalz N Skillz 2k20’ videos then you’re blatantly doing something wrong. That shouldn’t be the case, mind. Pepe’s development was always going to be steady, no matter what fee was slapped on him.

However, there are only so many excuses you can make. A certain degree of tempering can be placed on the arguments against his form, but it hasn’t been the impact everyone quite hoped for.

What can be said is that he definitely falls under the ‘exciting’ category. Pepe has more tricks than a clown’s pocket, regularly showcasing neat and tidy close control crafted from those lanky legs of his. He’s lightening quick, loves to take players on and commands defences to double-mark him.

When he gets possession the Emirates stands up. Not for a while has this been the case, not perhaps since Alexis Sanchez was in prime form during his Gunners spell.

Now he’s starting to blend together better tactical know-how with his undoubted natural ability, the calls of ‘just another Gervinho’ could potentially dissipate…. who are we kidding he could net 20 goals and season and social media would still make that jibe.

With the Premier League now finally set to resume in under three weeks’ time, one of the key reasons for Arsenal fans to harbour any modicum of enthusiasm is to monitor the 25-year-old forward’s improvements – or possible lack thereof.

Manchester City await first up with the possibility of quashing the Gunners’ exceedingly dim chances of securing Champions League football at the very first (sort of) hurdle.

Will the lack of supporters in stadiums benefit Pepe? He won’t be subject to the Emirates groans when he loses the ball, possibly opening the door for more confident performances. But even if there isn’t a drastic spike in his displays for the final ten-game stretch, he’s not ‘finished’ by any means.

He was bought with an eye on the future and the future isn’t his debut campaign in England where he didn’t have a pre-season behind him.

Nicolas Pepe
Chloe Knott – Danehouse/Getty Images

What’s going on with Pepe at the moment is a process.

One of integration, learning, fine-tuning and assimilation.

It does feel as if peoples’ heads are starting to turn on the Pepe situation. The early castigating has mellowed, and under Arteta he appears far more settled in his job role and surroundings – but again expectations must be soothed.

How long it will take for him to replicate the level of form he demonstrated in his final season with Lille nobody knows. Though, when (if) it does come, this slightly under-par debut campaign will be quickly forgotten. Perhaps not so much the bank balance, but you’ve got to spend money to make money, right?

For more from Ross Kennerley, follow him on Twitter!

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LASK Linz Deducted Six Points by Austrian FA After Breaking Coronavirus Training Rules

FC Red Bull Salzburg v LASK - Uniqa OeFB Cup
FC Red Bull Salzburg v LASK – Uniqa OeFB Cup | David Geieregger/Getty Images

Austrian Bundesliga leaders LASK Linz, who you may recognise from this season’s Europa League, have been handed a six-point deduction for breaking coronavirus training rules.

The deduction moves them down into second place behind Red Bull Salzburg in Austria’s top flight, with three points to make up. The Austrian FA have also fined the club €75,000.

LASK v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Round of 16: First Leg
LASK were well beaten by Man Utd | Franz Kirchmayr/Getty Images

According to Dutch news agency AD, LASK were found guilty of breaching rules brought in to protect the players in Austria during the COVID-19 pandemic. Clubs were instructed to only return to training if they were in small groups, training at an adequate distance from each other.

Die Schwarz-Weißen however, have been caught on video in full contact training. The club, managed by former Crystal Palace defender Valérien Ismaël, have apologised for breaching the rules, claiming that all of their players displayed negative tests prior to the sessions commencing. This wasn’t enough for the Austrian FA however, and their investigation may cost the Linz club their first Bundesliga since 1964/65.

LASK were beaten at home 5-0 by Man Utd in the Europa League quarter final, behind closed doors on 12 March, with the second leg set to be played when European competitions are cleared to restart. The Red Devils put in a dominant performance against the Austrians, with Odion Ighalo and Mason Greenwood amongst the goals that night.

The Austrian Bundesliga is due to return on 3 June, with LASK playing Hartberg, hoping they can begin to make back their six-point deduction. Austrian football on the whole though, gets back underway on 29 May with the cup final between Red Bull Salzburg and Austria Lustenau.

Mohamed Salah
Liverpool should get the opportunity to lift their first league title in 30 years | Julian Finney/Getty Images

They are set to follow the footsteps of the German Bundesliga, who saw their training and league begin before any other European league restarted, as they began with fixtures on 16 May. 90min reported on the Premier League’s announcement to restart contact training after a unanimous agreement between all 20 clubs.

After the return of contact training, the Premier League season is set to recommence on 17 June with Arsenal travelling to Man City. There have since been dates set for restarts in Spain and Italy, with La Liga to recommence on 11 June and Serie A on 20 June.

This means that four of Europe’s top five leagues will be completed, with France being the only exception after they crowned PSG as champions and cancelled Ligue 1 on 28 April.

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La Liga President Sets Out Timeline for Season’s End & Plans for 2020/21

Javier Tebas
La Liga President Javier Tebas | Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

La Liga president Javier Tebas has outlined his plans for both the end to the current season, as well as the 2020/21 campaign.

Like every other major football league, the Spanish top-flight was halted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. But clubs have been preparing for a return to action, with training resuming at the start of May, and the league was also given permission from Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to resume in June.

Speaking to Marca, Tebas revealed more details on his plans for restarting both La Liga and the Segunda División, as well as mentioning the date he has set for the following season to begin.

“We’ll restart, if God allows, on June 11,” the 57-year-old said. “We’re hoping that Madrid and Barcelona pass into Phase Two [of the lockdown de-escalation plan], which is where we can play.

“There are more than 130 people at LaLiga working so that everything can be done in a new way. Travel, organisation, everything. We’re prepared and the important thing will be the day we finish the league.

“We’ll start next season on September 12.”

Tebas also discussed how he planned to give viewers a choice in how they watch the remaining La Liga matches, which will all be played behind closed doors.

“Tonight, we have audiovisual tests so that the viewer can choose two images: the real one and one with a virtual crowd and crowd noise. We want to give the choice to the fans: silence or a simulation of the crowds. The tests I’ve seen are interesting and really catch your eye, but there will be two options.”

It’s already emerged that the league plan to begin with the Seville derby on 11 June, with ambitious plans to play games every day up until 19 July. This latest announcement from the La Liga president suggests that most teams will have a pre-season break of seven weeks before starting off the following campaign.

The three clubs of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid are also still competing in the unfinished Champions League, which is set to resume in August. Should it get played, the trio could have less than two weeks to prepare for the European club competition after the end of the Spanish league season.

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Inter Sporting Director Provides Updates on Futures of Alexis Sanchez, Ashley Young & Ivan Perisic

Alexis Sanchez
Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Inter’s sporting director Piero Ausilio has provided updates on the futures of three of the club’s loan stars – Ashley Young, Alexis Sanchez and Ivan Perisic.

Issues regarding the contracts of players across the continent have been prevalent since COVID-19 brought football to a standstill, as clubs were left unsure over how, and if, certain deals could be extended.

Those deals involved players whose contracts will expire in the summer, as well as those out on loan in some capacity.

It appears as if Inter have made inroads in regards to three of their players involved in such instances, after Ausilio spoke to Sky Sport Italia to discuss how the club would deal with Sanchez, Young and Perisic.

Having flopped rather catastrophically since joining Manchester United, the Red Devils managed to find a taker for the misfiring Sanchez last summer.

Alexis Sanchez
Silvia Lore/Getty Images

Inter decided to take the Chilean on loan for the entire 2019/20 season, a deal that did not include an option to buy upon its completion, but saw the Italian side pay £6m worth of his wages. Injuries and a lack of form meant he struggled to nail down a starting berth at San Siro, making just 15 outings across all competitions and netting only one goal.

That hasn’t deterred Inter from keeping him, as Ausilio confirmed Sanchez would remain in Milan for the duration of the 2019/20 campaign.

“Alexis Sanchez will stay until the end of the season,” he said. “Then we’ll decide about his future with Manchester United. Now he’ll have the opportunity to show his skill.”

With Serie A set to resume on 20 June, Sanchez could have a vital part to play in Antonio Conte’s side as they aim to wrestle the title away from Juventus, who currently sit top of the table.

In regard to players currently plying their trade away from the club, Perisic’s name has been mentioned on a number occasions with it not known whether Bayern would exercise the option to make his loan stint in Bavaria permanent.

He’s currently on a season-long loan at the Bundesliga side, but his move over to Germany did include an option to buy upon the deal’s completion.

Ivan Perisic - Bayern Munich
Ivan Perisic – Bayern Munich | TF-Images/Getty Images

In total he’s appeared 25 times for the club since, scoring five times, and is one of two forwards the club have brought in on loan this term. Philippe Coutinho is also at the Allianz Arena, but the substantial fee it would take to make his loan move a permanent one has seen Die Roten back off.

Instead, Ausilio has confirmed the strong relationship between Bayern and Inter has come into effect, with the pair to discuss the terms of signing Perisic beyond the season in the coming weeks.

Ausilio said: “We’ve a gentlemen agreement with Bayern Münich for Ivan Perisic, our relationship with them is so good so we can negotiate about his buy-back clause on next weeks.”

Perisic looks set to claim a league title in his third stint in German football, with Bayern sitting pretty at the Bundesliga summit, boasting a seven-point lead over their nearest rivals.

Another player who Conte has benefited from having on loan this season alongside Sanchez is Young, who has enjoyed something of a renaissance since making his first delve into Serie A.

Ashley Young - Inter
Ashley Young – Inter | Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

His initial deal from United was a six-month loan move signed in January for a fee of roughly £1.3m, but that included an option to extend that loan by another 12 months at the end of the campaign.

Young has been in and out of the side since joining, but made an impressive start to life by assisting Lautaro Martínez in a 1–1 draw against Cagliari.

He’s clearly impressed Conte enough, as Ausilio insisted ‘he’ll stay here for sure’.

There was no word on fellow loanee Victor Moses, who joined from Chelsea on an initial six-month loan with an option to buy, but progress has been made in three departments already – being of aid to Inter but also to both Bayern and United.

For more from Ross Kennerley, follow him on Twitter!

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Inter vs Juventus: Picking a Combined XI of Derby d’Italia Icons

Gianluigi Buffon, Javier Zanetti
Juventus FC v FC Internazionale Milano – Serie A | Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Inter and Juventus. Il derby d’Italia. The derby of Italy.

The two Goliath’s of Italian football have put on some of the greatest games in Serie A history over the years – and the derby has seen some of the sport’s elite stars do battle on the biggest stage. 

Unfortunately, we can’t squeeze all of the legends into our star-studded first team, so prepare to be angered and puzzled at one stage or another – and no, Zinedine Zidane hasn’t made the cut. And obviously Cristiano Ronaldo is nowhere near the lineup. Deal with it.

With all of the fine print out of the way, let’s get on with 90min’s Inter and Juve all-time combined XI.

Juventus's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon g
Juventus’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon g | GIUSEPPE CACACE/Getty Images

Gianluigi Buffon joined Juventus in 2001, and apart from one brief love affair with Paris, the Italian giant has remained in Turin ever since. A mainstay in I Bianconeri’s defence, Buffon has won everything on offer at club level – except the mischievous Champions League, of course. 

A nine-time scudetto winner, Gigi pips fellow Bianconeri shot-stopper Dino Zoff to the number one spot in our combined XI. One of the greatest goalkeepers of all time – and he’s still going, too.

Javier Zanetti
FC Internazionale Milano v Cagliari Calcio – Serie A | Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

A bandiera of the modern day Inter, Javier Zanetti made over 600 appearances for I Nerazzurri during his time in Milan, and grew to become one of the greatest players in the club’s history. The Argentine star lifted five Serie A titles while at San Siro, and was part of José Mourinho’s 2010 Champions League winning side. 

Bags of energy, pace and class on the ball, Zanetti gets the nod to patrol our right flank. 

​​Gaetano Scirea was a winner. There’s no other way of putting it. Widely considered one of the very best, the World Cup winner lifted every trophy on offer during his 14 years at ​Juventus, claiming seven Serie A titles and a clean sweep of European prizes. 

A complete defender – and one who rightly earned his place in Juve’s all-time greatest XI – he has also worked his way into 90min’s combined XI, too. I’m not sure which is more prestigious, really.

Walter Samuel
Inter Milan v CSKA Moscow – UEFA Champions League | Massimo Cebrelli/Getty Images

The Wall. You don’t just get handed the nickname ‘The Wall’, you’ve gotta earn it. And that’s exactly what Walter Samuel did. The Argentine was a ruthless defender, whose presence alone was enough to put any striker off their scoring appetite. 

A proper hard man, Samuel makes up one of the most fearsome centre-back partnerships of all time.

Another Inter legend completes our backline. A one-club man, and a legend also for the Italian national side, Giacinto Facchetti was one of the first – and very best – attacking full-backs in football history.

The Nerazzurri hero was openly considered a genuine sensation both defensively and offensively, so much so that he came second in the 1965 Ballon d’Or awards. Four Serie A titles are enough to allow Facchetti the freedom of our left flank.

Michel Platini, Mario Faccenda, Giuseppe Corti
Juventus French midfielder Michel Platini (C) stru | STF/Getty Images

Bit of a ‘Paul Scholes playing left-midfield for England’ vibe to this one, but needs must. Michel Platini has suffered a huge fall from grace with his dodgy dealings at FIFA in recent years, but we mustn’t forget that this man was absolutely unstoppable during his five-year spell at Juventus.

Although his time with I Bianconeri turned out to be the final years of his career, Platini still managed to bag two Serie A titles, a European Cup, and three Capocannoniere awards. I feel like I’m missing something…

Oh yeah, and three successive Ballon d’Or awards. A proper baller.

Esteban Cambiasso
FC Internazionale Milano v Bologna FC – Serie A | Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Every top side needs an unsung hero. For every Frank Lampard, there’s a Claude Makelele. For every Mesut Ozil, there’s a Granit Xha…maybe that example is a bit weaker. Anyway, Esteban Cambiasso was Inter through and through, and his impact on the team can never be underestimated.

The Argentine spent a decade at the heart of I Nerazzurri’s side, winning five scudetti and the aforementioned 2010 Champions League. A man who was never afraid of doing the dirty work, Cambiasso sits at the base of our midfield. Ready to get stuck in.

An oldie but a goldie, Giampiero Boniperti joins Cambiasso in the centre of the park. Boniperti picked up over 400 senior appearances during his career- and all for I Bianconeri. The Juve legend played as a striker for many years and became the club’s leading scorer – until a certain striker pinched that crown off him (more on that later).

But Boniperti was moved back into the midfield when I Bianconeri signed John Charles and Omar Sivori, and he made up the magical trio, which helped fire his beloved club to three Serie A titles.

Juventus Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved c
Juventus Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved c | GIUSEPPE CACACE/Getty Images

A proper Juventus legend. ​Those bouncing, flowing locks. That wicked left peg. Pavel Nedved took Turin by storm upon his arrival, winning two scudetti, and he even remained loyal to the club when they were relegated from Serie A during the Calciopoli scandal.

Nedved was cruelly robbed of a 2003 Champions League final appearance for a yellow card he collected in the semi-final, but it was us who were truly robbed of seeing the genius on the biggest stage of all. If it’s any consolation to Nedved though, he’s made the cut with 90min.

Ronaldo Nazario - Soccer Player
Claudio Villa Archive | Claudio Villa/Getty Images

A generational talent. A boy who burst onto the scene, and sat every goalkeeper down on their bum in an instant. Ronaldo was one of football’s greatest ever stars. Il Fenomeno. It’s unbelievable to think ​Barcelona allowed the Brazilian starlet to leave after only one season in Catalonia, but ​Inter broke the bank to sign the superstar – and they certainly reaped the benefits.

Ronaldo destroyed every defence in Serie A claiming his first Ballon d’Or success while at the club. The only sour note of his time in Italy was the knee injury he suffered against Lecce, and subsequently aggravated against Lazio, which would recur heartbreakingly throughout his career.

What a player, though.

Alexandro Del Piero
UEFA Champions League – Bayern Munich v Juventus | Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

One of the most​ talented strikers in world football, Alessandro Del Piero was always destined for greatness. His lightning quick feet, his ability to ghost beyond players, and of course, his clinical finishing. The Italian forward was the best in the business, but his brilliant career was sadly ravaged by injuries.

The fact Del Piero recovered from crippling knee problems and continued to break records speaks volumes of the character of the man, although he never reached the heights that were initially expected of him. But he changed his game to mask his deficiencies and he eventually became Juve’s highest ever scorer. But more importantly, he completes our unbeatable XI.

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