Nicolas Pepe scored a stunner on against Dundalk but there have been serious questions about the price Arsenal paid for the forward, so is this the start of him paying it back?

Arsenal's French-born Ivorian midfielder Nicolas Pepe takes a tumble during the UEFA Europa League 1st round day 2 Group B football match between Arsenal and Dundalk at the Emirates Stadium in London on October 29, 2020. (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP)
Arsenal’s French-born Ivorian midfielder Nicolas Pepe takes a tumble during the UEFA Europa League 1st round day 2 Group B football match between Arsenal and Dundalk at the Emirates Stadium in London on October 29, 2020. (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP)

Nicolas Pepe isn’t as bad as people think he is.

True story.

His superb effort against lowly Dundalk in the Europa League on Thursday night would have bested any keeper on the planet and took him clear as Arsenal’s third top scorer for 2020 with 11 goals. That’s a tally bettered only by Alexandre Lacazette and, of course, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Speaking to the Arsenal website before our trip to Old Trafford, Mikel Arteta had this to say about Pepe; “He needed some time. It’s not easy when the club makes the investment that they made on him, the expectations are high.

“He’s handled the situation really well, he’s better adapted and he’s a player that is unpredictable, that has something special. It’s just about doing it in a consistent way.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 17: Nicolas Pepe of Arsenal looks on during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Burnley FC at Emirates Stadium on August 17, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 17: Nicolas Pepe of Arsenal looks on during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Burnley FC at Emirates Stadium on August 17, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

It’s safe to say that Nicolas Pepe did not got off to a flyer at Arsenal. I find it hard not to think of Theo Walcott when I watch Pepe play, but probably not for the reasons you’re thinking.

That’s OK. It happens. Players take a while to adjust. It’s why we often hear pundits, journalists and managers say things like ‘players take a while to adjust’. They can’t all be Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and score six goals in their first seven Premier League appearances.

I was reading a collection of essays by Malcolm Gladwell recently and one entitled ‘The Art of Failure’ made me think of Pepe. I don’t, by any stretch of the imagination, believe that he’s a failure, that’s an absurd conclusion to come to after a pandemic-disrupted single season, but there was a section in one of the essays that seemed to explain why Pepe has had such a hard time showing who he truly is as a player.

He’s too much in his head.

WATFORD, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Nicolas Pepe of Arsenal reacts after the Premier League match between Watford FC and Arsenal FC at Vicarage Road on September 15, 2019 in Watford, United Kingdom. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
WATFORD, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 15: Nicolas Pepe of Arsenal reacts after the Premier League match between Watford FC and Arsenal FC at Vicarage Road on September 15, 2019 in Watford, United Kingdom. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Pressure can do funny things to a person and Pepe arrived with plenty of it on his shoulders.

There was his £72m price-tag, the label of record-Arsenal signing, 10th most-expensive player in world football, third most expensive in Premier League history, and most expensive African of all time.

That’s a lot of expectation for a 24-year-old.

Add to that moving to a new country where they speak a different language, have a completely different culture and play a faster type of football, you can feel the pressure build.

None of this is to say that Pepe is not built to handle pressure. We all need time to adjust but I think it is worth taking a minute to truly appreciate what he’s had to get his head around.

That’s a lot of change for anyone to incorporate into their world, no matter how much they are being paid, on top of the insanity that 2020 has brought everyone.

“Human beings sometimes falter under pressure,” Gladwell writes in his piece. “Pilots crash and divers drown. Under the glare of competition basketball players cannot find the basket and golfers cannot find the pin. When that happens, we say variously that people have panicked or, to use the sports colloquialism, choked.”

Gladwell goes on to explain the difference between panicking and choking and it becomes clear that the latter is what has happened to Nicolas Pepe, much like it happened to Theo Walcott.

The good news, however, is that it probably isn’t as much of an issue for our current player the way it was for our former.

Implicit v explicit learning

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 22: Nicolas Pepe of Arsenal converts his sides penalty and scores their first goal of the game during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Aston Villa at Emirates Stadium on September 22, 2019, in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 22: Nicolas Pepe of Arsenal converts his sides penalty and scores their first goal of the game during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Aston Villa at Emirates Stadium on September 22, 2019, in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

When you’re learning a new skill, you learn explicitly. You take specific steps as instructed. But, as you repeat your lessons your learning starts to become implicit – it becomes second nature to you.

Sports people are at their best when they are playing from an implicit level. It’s what we mean when we talk about it being natural for them. There is no effort. Their movements are fluid and the split-second advantage that comes from an implicit action versus a thought-out explicit one is the difference between champion and loser.

The problem is when pressure is applied it can cause some people to stop reacting implicitly, returning to the state of almost near beginner as they run through in their head all the steps they would usually play out instinctively. You get more in your head, coaching yourself, commanding yourself, berating yourself. You are not fluid anymore but jittery, your game doesn’t flow, it falters.

This happened to Theo Walcott any time he had more than two seconds to think about what was going on around him. He was one of the most deadly finishers in front of goal when he was given no time to think. Allow him some time, however, and he was more likely to fall over the ball than find the back of the net. He never found a way to keep that pressure from triggering his explicit system and that’s why he was a bit-part player and ended up returning to Southampton on loan, his value around £9m, just under the £9.45m Arsenal paid for him in 2006.

Walcott has started the season off well, surprising many critics who suggested his time at the Emirates was gradually coming to a halt. | Photo: Paul Gilham / Getty Images
Walcott has started the season off well, surprising many critics who suggested his time at the Emirates was gradually coming to a halt. | Photo: Paul Gilham / Getty Images

The pressure on Pepe at present is extreme as detailed above. Much more than the normal game-related pressures that Walcott struggled with, something else Pepe has to contend with too.

From the flashes we’ve seen from him already, you can see that the quality is there when he relaxes. There will come a time when that extra pressure lifts from his shoulders and he will start to deliver on the pitch regularly. We can be fairly sure of that because he when he moved from Angers to Lille it took him nine games to get his first goal. He then got 11 in his next 25.

The following season he scored 22 with 11 assists in 38 league games.

Had Unai Emery not benched him soon after he scored those two against Vitoria, who knows what his tally might be already.

In the meantime, what he needs is support.

More pressure is only going to make things worse.

NOTE

A lot of people seemed to take exception with the headline on this article. Whether they read it or not, I cannot say. Theo Walcott scored over 100 goals for Arsenal which is a remarkable feat. There is no denying, however, that he never became the player we all expected him to and yet he still managed to score over 100 goals. Imagine what he could have achieved had he fulfilled all that potential.

There is no disrespect here and if that’s what you see, that’s on you.

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