Unai Emery admitted this week that he wanted to sign Nicolas Pepe over Wilfried Zaha, but the club decided to go against his preference.
Speaking to The Guardian, Unai Emery discussed his last window of transfer business with Arsenal, when they had Nicolas Pepe and Wilfried Zaha on their shortlist for a new winger.
Much of the early part of the summer focused on Arsenal’s £40m opening bid for Zaha and Crystal Palace’s £80-100m valuation. However, by the end of the window, Pepe joined the Gunners instead.
Emery explains that both rumours were genuine, and he was pushing for Zaha.
“We signed [Nicolas] Pépé. He’s a good player but we didn’t know his character and he needs time, patience,” Emery began. “I favoured someone who knew the league and wouldn’t need to adapt.
“[Wilfried] 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 Pépé 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. It’s also true he was expensive and Palace didn’t want to sell. There were a series of decisions that had repercussions.”
From what we know so far, it seems like Arsenal initially thought Zaha was both the manager’s choice and also the cheaper option. But after Palace made it clear they wanted the same or more than Pepe’s asking price, the Gunners chose the Lille man instead.
Was Zaha the better choice?
In a way, you do have some sympathy for Emery. He wanted an immediate Premier League-ready player but ended up with a project instead. There’s no doubt Zaha would’ve needed less time to settle with Arsenal.
At the same time, Zaha hasn’t exactly shone this season. Albeit with Crystal Palace and not Arsenal, he only has three goals and four assists from 29 league appearances. Pepe has more goals (four) and more assists (six) from fewer games (24).
Then we look at their respective ages. Pepe is a few years younger, currently 24, whilst Zaha is 27. Even if Pepe needs an extra season to settle in, he’ll still offer the club longer at his peak.
Zaha has never produced a season even close to Pepe’s 2018/19 campaign in terms of goals, and that’s including the seasons he spent in the Championship. His last move to a big-six club also went terribly.
You can see why Arsenal would hesitate to spend a greater fee on Zaha than a player of Pepe’s potential was available for.
In the end, Emery was working for Arsenal, not PSG. He couldn’t go out and sign Neymar to solve his problems, he had to work with what the club could afford to invest. They clearly saw Zaha for £80m (minimum!) as riskier than Pepe for £72m in instalments.