Mikel Arteta’s Nicolas Pepe dilemma and the solution to push Arsenal to another level

Among the 20 most expensive footballers of all time Nicolas Pepe might just stand apart. Few, if any, of his contemporaries among the sport’s most highly-valued have been so consistently framed as a project rather than a signing to make an immediate impact.

Even before Pepe arrived at the Emirates Stadium Arsenal were downplaying short-term expectations. They had spent £72million on a player who had just turned 24 because he was a long-term bet as opposed to a more immediate option such as Wilfried Zaha. Better, they figured, to get five years of quality even if the return in year one was less spectacular.

Pepe needed time to adapt to a new league, to rest after a summer of transfer speculation and the Africa Cup of Nations. Year one would not be the Ivorian at his best and in truth a return of eight goals and 10 assists, with a direct hand in an Arsenal goal every 151 minutes, is not to be sniffed at.

As the season wore on Pepe steadily improved under the tutelage of an excellent young manager and his best game for the club was arguably the FA Cup Final. The signs were there that year two would be when he lives up to the billing. Yet how he can do that when Willian seems to have usurped him in the pecking order is a question that Arteta may struggle to answer.

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It is impossible to assess Pepe without at least partly seeing him through the lens of his price tag. It is not just that there are certain expectations that exist for players after such significant investment but also that for a club like Arsenal spending £72million on one position brings opportunity costs elsewhere.

Theresa May might note that there is no magic money tree at the Emirates Stadium. Ownership expects Arsenal to live within its means even if of late it has put together mechanisms to allow Vinai Venkatesham et al to be a degree more creative in how they invest.