Zaha/Pepe 2019-20 splitGetty

Former Arsenal boss Emery: I wanted to sign Zaha instead of Pepe

Former Arsenal manager Unai Emery has admitted he would have rather signed Crystal Palace star Wilfried Zaha than Nicolas Pepe.

The Gunners smashed their club transfer record in August, signing Pepe from Lille in a £72 million ($87m) deal.

Pepe, though, has endured a mixed debut campaign with the Gunners, taking time to adjust to a new league. The 24-year-old scored six goals in 32 appearances in all competitions for Arsenal in 2019-20 prior to football's suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

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Emery, who was appointed Gunners manager in May 2018 after Arsene Wenger left the club, was sacked in November after a season and a half in charge, eventually replaced by former Gunners midfielder Mikel Arteta. 

According to Emery, Pepe's slow start in north London damaged his job prospects, with the Spaniard preferring to bring in a different player who already proved himself a Premier League star.

“We signed Pepe," Emery told The Guardian "He’s a good player but we didn’t know his character and he needs time, patience.

"I favoured someone who knew the league and wouldn’t need to adapt. 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 Pepe 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."

Emery admitted that signing Zaha wouldn't have been simple, with Palace determined to keep hold of their top player.

“It’s also true he was expensive and Palace didn’t want to sell,” Emery said. “There were a series of decisions that had repercussions.”

Emery recalled the end of his tenure with the Gunners, which ended with a seven-match winless streak. That run of poor results, Emery said, created a snowball effect that he was unable to recover from.

“It’s difficult," Emery said. "The energy slips, things drift; everything does, everyone does. Some support you but you feel the atmosphere, relationships [shift].

"And that transmits to the pitch. Losing leads against Palace and Wolves reflected our emotional state: we weren’t right. It wasn’t working. 

"I told the players: ‘I don’t see the team I want.’ That commitment and unity wasn’t there any more. That’s when I see I’m on my own. The club left me alone, and there was no solution.”