PARIS (AP) — When Arsenal broke the bank to buy Nicolas Pépé from Lille it was with the hope that he would lead the London side back to the top of the Premier League.
So it is ironic that the player signed for 80 million euros ($89 million) has left to join Nice on a season-long loan, with Arsenal now atop the Premier League after a perfect start.
That’s far from the case for coach Lucien Favre’s Nice side, which has picked up only two points from three games and is in 16th place ahead of Sunday’s home game against unbeaten Marseille, which is third.
Favre’s side has mustered only two goals so Pépé could be thrust straight into the starting lineup at the Allianz Riviera stadium against the club’s bitter southern rival.
Last season’s encounter was abandoned following fan violence.
Marseille refused to restart that game after home fans threw projectiles and invaded the field. Veteran Marseille midfielder Dimitri Payet was hit on the back by an object and Marseille players even confronted some of Nice’s Ultras.
Security has improved this season so soccer — and perhaps Pépé’s arrival — should be the major talking point on Sunday night.
When Pépé joined Arsenal three years ago, following a career-high 22 league goals and 11 assists with Lille, the fee well eclipsed the 55 million pounds ($67 million) spent on striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Although Pépé did reasonably well in his second season with the Gunners, netting 10 Premier League goals and 16 goals in all competitions — even scoring two free kicks in one European game — his overall return of 27 goals in 112 games fell well short of the price tag paid.
Nice must help him get his confidence back, and fans will hope he can show the undoubted talent that prompted Arsenal’s huge splurge.
He was presented to the fans on Thursday evening, wearing the home jersey and giving a thumbs up shortly before the return leg in a playoff against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa Conference League.
The 27-year-old is extremely fast and a skilful winger equally comfortable on either flank. But he is at his most effective when cutting in from the right and using his left foot to finish with low or curling shots. Under former Lille coach Marcelo Bielsa, he also learned how to play as the main striker.
That could suit Favre well.
For Pépé’s versatility gives Favre the option of either using him as a winger in a 4-3-3 formation or as a central striker in a 4-2-3-1 when he gives Andy Delort — last season’s 18-goal club top scorer — a rest up front.
With lively forward Amine Gouir i failing to recapture his form from last season, and Denmark striker Kasper Dolberg nursing a shoulder injury, there is an opportunity for Pépé to start many games in an attack that needs reinvigorating.
If he does well, then Pépé could get another chance to impress in Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta’s rejuvenated side.
For it is a telling sign that Arsenal loaned Pépé out without an option to buy him.
Perhaps Arteta is still hopeful that next season is when Pépé finally delivers on his huge promise with Arsenal.
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