herald

Sunday 17 November 2019

Pepe hopes he has hit watershed moment

KICK ON: Nicolas Pepe. Pic: Reuters
KICK ON: Nicolas Pepe. Pic: Reuters

Nicolas Pepe admits he has struggled to live up to the high expectations of becoming Arsenal's record signing but praised head coach Unai Emery for trusting in his ability.

The Ivory Coast international moved to the Emirates Stadium from Lille for £72million in the summer but initially failed to justify that hefty price tag during a difficult start to life in England.

That all changed on Thursday night, however, as he came off the bench to score two free-kicks and secure the Gunners a 3-2 Europa League win over Vitoria.

The Portuguese side looked on course for a shock win at the Emirates Stadium before Pepe twice bent home inch-perfect set-pieces, the second of which came in stoppage time.

The result eases the pressure on both Pepe and Emery - who has come in for criticism for his tactics and team selection in recent weeks, especially after a 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United on Monday.

But the 24-year-old revealed the faith Emery has shown in him has been key in his adaptation to Premier League football.

"The manager trusts me," he said. "Even if I hadn't been decisive for a while, I always had the manager's trust. It is always important to have the manager's faith. Of course (I knew it would be hard moving to England). It is a league totally different to Ligue 1, with a different intensity.

"For me, I had to adapt quickly because expectations were high. Unfortunately, it is not what I did at the beginning but I have always had the manager's trust and the players have supported me.

"I keep working hard to perform well and adapt to the Premier League."

Before his match-winning cameo on Thursday Pepe had scored just once in his first 11 appearances - converting a penalty in another 3-2 comeback win, this time over Aston Villa.

Now he is hoping his brace of free-kicks against Vitoria can mark a watershed moment for both him and the club as a whole this season, starting with the weekend visit of Crystal Palace.

"Scoring two goals is good for the confidence," he said.

"The most important though is that there is a win at the end. It shows our mental strength and our character.

"We had already done it against Aston Villa where we were behind and came back. Now, we can focus on the Crystal Palace game which will arrive very quickly.

"I am not at my best physically because I didn't have a proper pre-season like the others.

"I was at the African Nations Cup. I started little by little and the manager knew about it. I am trying to work hard to be stronger physically to perform well."

The prospect of seeing Pepe link up with fellow attacking talents Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette would have had Arsenal supporters excited before the season began.

But, mainly due to a troublesome ankle issue for Lacazette which required surgery, the trio have started just once together since Pepe's arrival.

"We have played very little together," he added. "But we get on well, we all speak French. I hope we will play more together."

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