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Should Arsenal have gone for Wilfried Zaha instead of Nicolas Pepe?

3:47 PM IST 11/08/19
Wilfried Zaha Nicolas Pepe
The Gunners broke their record transfer fee for the LOSC Lille man, but the Crystal Palace wideman could easily have been their marquee signing

With the summer transfer window now closed – for English clubs at least – Arsenal have reason to be optimistic about the season ahead, given the smart business they engaged in, on the face of it.

For the first time in years, Gooners head into the campaign relatively pleased about their window and for good reason: the Gunners signed no less than six players, plugged some holes in the side and smashed their transfer record with the purchase of Nicolas Pepe from Lille. Not bad business for a club that had just £45 million to spend in the market!

The signing of Pepe makes sense too, especially as the lack of a natural wideman in Unai Emery’s team left the Spaniard limited in schemes he could execute last season. While their failure to end in the Premier League top four can’t be solely be due to the absence of a winger, it can’t be ignored that they suffered in that area last season.

Pepe’s acquisition solves that issue, but his Ivory Coast teammate Wilfried Zaha could have been the North London club’s major signing if negotiations between Arsenal and Crystal Palace went smoothly and, more importantly, if Emery’s team had qualified for the Champions League.

According to Sky Sports [via the Express], there exists an agreement in Zaha’s contract that mandates Palace to soften their stance if a club in Europe’s premier competition makes an approach to sign the winger. The Gunners, as well as Everton, aren’t going to participate in the continent’s major club competition this season, so the Eagles held firm with their reported £80 million asking price.

Arsenal signed Pepe for £72 million – with payments to be made over his five-year contract – therefore, on a financial front; they opted for the shrewder option.

While choosing not to sell their farm for one guy is sensible, the argument for Zaha being the better option of the two stands. The Palace man knows the league, having played in the English top flight for the last six years, so he wouldn’t have had to adjust to the nature of a new league, unlike Pepe.

The fact he also failed to pull up any trees in his spell at Manchester United six years ago gives him that extra bit of motivation to thrive at another big club after enduring a miserable spell at Old Trafford. He’s been itching for another big move since and given the fact that, at 26, he’s in his prime years, Emery’s team were certainly going to greatly benefit from Zaha’s profile had they pulled the trigger.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with Pepe’s quality that has shone through in the last couple of seasons in Ligue 1. While the French top flight is often considered the weakest of the top five European leagues, the right winger’s ability is certainly not in question.

He was the pick of the bunch in Lille’s anxiety-ridden 2017/18 campaign when they nearly suffered the embarrassment of relegation, before following that up with last season’s top class year which caught the attention of several top clubs in Europe.

Les Dogues’ talisman, who scored 22 goals and provided 11 assists, was involved in 48 percent of the three-time Ligue 1 champions' goals as they soared to a second-place finish, finishing 15 places higher than they managed a year before.

When it’s taken into account that Arsenal’s record signing missed an astounding 17 big chances last term, his aforementioned numbers could have been better than they were, and shows there’s even more room for improvement.

At 24, two years younger than Zaha, he’s likely got a higher ceiling than his compatriot, but there will be concerns if he takes a while to acclimatize to the style in England. While instant criticism would be harsh on the player, it’s something Pepe has to deal with given his astronomical transfer fee.

Be that as it may, the fact that many of the French imports to England have thrived in the Premier League should allay fears of the former Lille player failing to deliver if he gets off to a slow start.

Having ended outside the top four for three successive seasons, Arsenal need a significant improvement to return to the Champions League. Pepe’s performances, alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexander Lacazette, will be vital if they're to get back to the big time.

Only time will tell whether Emery was right to plump for the cheaper, younger wideman, or whether the seasoned Prem star Zaha would have been a better recruit.