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Record signing to free transfer: Why Pepe failed at Arsenal

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After completing his £72 million move to Arsenal in 2019, Nicolas Pépé reflected on how he had “struggled a lot” and a big Premier League move was his reward.

As it turned out, his struggles had only just begun. On Saturday, the 28-year-old completed a journey from club-record signing to free transfer in a four-year downward spiral that reflects badly on everyone involved.

The days of Arsenal paying players to leave the club were supposed to be over. But such was the lack of interest in a winger who has badly lost his way, the Gunners ripped up the final year of his contract and allowed him to join Trabzonspor for no fee.

Pepe is the ninth player to leave in this fashion since Mikel Arteta took over as manager in 2019, and Arsenal will hope the Ivory Coast international is the last.

It is tempting with the benefit of hindsight to suggest Pepe’s career at Arsenal was doomed from the start. The inflated fee created its own burden. There was general surprise among agents working in the market that summer that Arsenal paid as much as they did, even if Pepe registered 22 goals and 11 assists in a prolific 2018-19 campaign for Lille.

Lille owner Gerard Lopez has subsequently claimed another unnamed club offered even more money than Arsenal as a total package including wages — Napoli were serious contenders at one stage — but the final figure was greeted with widespread scepticism — that began outside the club, but later spread through the confines of the Gunners’ London Colney base.

ESPN reported in August 2020 that the deal was scrutinised internally as part of a review of the club’s decision-making processes, which led to cost-cutting measures. Although the club denied any formal investigation, head of football Raul Sanllehi left later that month with no official explanation given.

Sanllehi had been a key figure in negotiating several deals, including the pursuit of Pepe — who was not the first choice of then-manager Unai Emery — to strengthen their attacking options. Emery admitted in January 2021 that he in fact wanted to sign Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha instead. Ironically, both players are now in Turkey with Zaha joining Galatasaray earlier this summer.

Nicolas Pepe joined Arsenal in 2019 and struggled to make the impact expected of his then-record transfer fee before leaving as a free agent last month. David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Emery stated his preference was predicated upon the idea Zaha would need less time to adapt to English football; Pepe certainly struggled in that regard, a process not helped by a change in the dugout. Arsenal sacked Emery in November 2019 and appointed Arteta a month later, triggering a radical overhaul of the playing style and the squad itself.

Even amid the transition, Pepe had his moments. There was his brilliant goal in Arsenal’s June 2020 defeat to Brighton and an assist for the winning goal in August’s FA Cup final win over Chelsea. In fact, he had a superb goal ruled out in that final by a tight VAR offside call — perhaps a sliding doors moment in a career that never quite took off.

Pepe was all about moments: a fine free kick, a smart piece of skill, a flurry of goals in the Europa League. But he lacked the consistency Arteta craved.

Some questioned his commitment, too. Sources have told ESPN that Pepe spent a lot of time with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, forming a clique that Arteta increasingly believed was stifling the squad’s progress. Aubameyang was later stripped of the captaincy after repeated bouts of ill-discipline and jettisoned to Barcelona while Lacazette faded in influence and left on a free transfer to rejoin Lyon last year.

Sources suggested Pepe gained a reputation for rarely being one of the first on the training pitch, often hanging back with Lacazette and Aubameyang as the squad made their way out from the changing room. He was also said to often neglect acknowledging staff around the training ground who weren’t closely connected to first-team operations.

By his own admission, Pepe had problems with authority growing up. On his first day at his first professional club, Angers, the manager told him to shave off his showy blond-dyed mohawk. He defied the instruction, only belatedly doing so when marginalised in preseason training. Pepe also once shouted back at his coach during an under-19s game. He was immediately substituted and forced to apologise to his teammates.

Many young players go through such learning experiences and, in his defence, there were certainly signs at Arsenal that Pepe had grown up. He was not an aggressively corrosive figure, or the “mole” Arteta sought to identify after news of a training ground bustup involving Dani Ceballos and David Luiz was leaked to the media in January 2021.

In fact, when Pepe’s partner gave birth to a baby boy in February last year — a seismic moment in anybody’s life — he told Arteta that despite missing training as a result, he still wanted to be considered for selection in their next Premier League game against Wolves because the squad was short of attacking options. Pepe came off the bench to score one and make another as Arsenal came from behind to win 2-1.

“I see a different Nico,” Arteta said after that match, referencing “his energy, his happiness, his all-round play, how he’s training” as evidence Pepe could soon turn a corner. But it proved another false dawn. Arsenal evolved under Arteta, and Pepe’s stock diminished further, the flickers of quality receding into darkness.

To his credit, Pepe agreed to take a 25% pay cut to join Nice on loan last season, ensuring the move happened rather than taking an easy option of remaining on a higher salary without any responsibility of playing. He left Arsenal for good with a record of 27 goals in 112 games, agreeing a compromise on the final year of his contract to join Trabzonspor.

Ultimately, Arsenal simply did not know what version of Pepe they would get, and Arteta is a manager who craves clarity in that regard. Defensively, Pepe did not work hard enough, but regardless it did not help his cause that at the same time, Bukayo Saka rapidly developed into one of the most consistent and dangerous right-wing players in Europe, adored by Arsenal fans.

The Gunners have since overhauled their transfer approach with significant success as the acquisitions of Martin Odegaard, Ben White and Gabriel Jesus. among others, indicate.

Meanwhile, Pepe seeks to rebuild his career in Turkey, and the struggle continues to be real.

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F1 great Hamilton kept his Ferrari move so quiet even his parents didn’t know

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Formula 1 great Lewis Hamilton kept his Ferrari move so closely guarded that he didn’t even tell his parents until the day it was announced.

The British driver rocked the F1 world when it was announced on Feb. 1 he was joining the Italian manufacturer next year, despite signing a new contract with Mercedes last summer.

“I didn’t speak to anybody. I didn’t tell my parents till the day of it being announced. So, no one knew,” Hamilton told a BBC podcast. “I really wanted to do it for myself. Ultimately, I had to find out what would be the best for me.”

It then emerged that the two-year deal penned with Mercedes and announced last August was actually for one year with an option for a second year, which Hamilton did not take.

Hamilton informed Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff of his decision to leave only the day before over breakfast at Wolff’s home. They have become close friends over the years after Hamilton joined Mercedes from McLaren in 2013.

The 39-year-old Hamilton and Michael Schumacher have a record seven F1 titles each, and Hamilton is the outright leader with 103 race wins and 104 pole positions.

Hamilton has spoken in the past of the lure of racing with Ferrari, where Schumacher won five of his world titles.

“I mean, the opportunity just popped up and I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to think for a second,’” Hamilton said. “(But) I didn’t have a lot of time to think and I had to just go with my gut feeling and I decided to take the opportunity.”

Hamilton begins his last season with Mercedes on Saturday at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

His last win was at the Saudi Arabian GP in the penultimate race of the 2021 campaign, where Max Verstappen won the first of his three straight titles with Red Bull.

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The nominees for 2024 Laureus Sports Awards

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Manchester City star Erling Haaland, athletics speedster Sha’Carri Richardson, and Ivory Coast football star Sébastien Haller are among the nominees for the 2024 Laureus Sports Awards.

The Laureus Sports Awards is the most prestigious honour given to sportsmen and women in recognition of an iconic season, and those shortlisted for this year’s honours have done exceptionally well in their various fields.

Football star Haaland, in contention for Sportsman of the Year, scored 52 goals in 53 games during his debut season as City completed the Treble by winning the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.

Track star Richardson is shortlisted for the Sportswoman of the Year after an exceptional season that saw her become the world’s fastest woman by winning the 100m title at the World Championships in Budapest.

Tennis youngster Gauff made the nomination list for Breakthrough of the Year for her gallant efforts last season, highlighted by winning her first Grand Slam title at the US Open.

Also in this category is Real Madrid football star Jude Bellingham, who at age 20, has become a key player for Real Madrid following his 103m euro (£89m) move from Borussia Dortmund last summer, scoring 20 goals in 29 games this season.

Newly crowned AFCON 2023 champion Sébastien Haller is shortlisted in the Comeback of the Year category for his valiant efforts at fighting cancer and coming back to help Ivory Coast become African Champions for the third time in the country’s history.

Here’s the full list of nominees for the 2024 Laureus Sports Awards.

Sportsman of the Year

Novak Djokovic (Serbia) – tennis

Mondo Duplantis (Sweden) – athletics

Erling Haaland (Norway) – football

Noah Lyles (USA) – athletics

Lionel Messi (Argentina) – football

Max Verstappen (Netherlands) – motor racing

Sportswoman of the year

Aitana Bonmati (Spain) – football

Shericka Jackson (Jamaica) – athletics

Faith Kipyegon (Kenya) – athletics

Sha’Carri Richardson (USA) – athletics

Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) – skiing

Iga Swiatek (Poland) – tennis

Team of the year

European Ryder Cup Team – golf

Germany men – basketball

Manchester City – football

Red Bull – Formula 1

South Africa – rugby

Spain women – football

Breakthrough of the year

Jude Bellingham (GB) – football

Linda Caicedo (Colombia) – football

Coco Gauff (USA) – tennis

Qin Haiyang (China) – swimming

Josh Kerr (UK) – athletics

Salma Paralluelo (Spain) – football

Comeback of the year

Simone Biles (USA) – gymnastics

Sébastien Haller (Ivory Coast) – football

Katarina Johnson-Thompson (UK) – athletics

Siya Kolisi (South Africa) – rugby

Jamal Murray (Canada) – basketball

Marketa Vondrousova (Czech Republic) – tennis

Sportsperson of the year with a disability

Simone Barlaam (Italy) – swimming

Danylo Chufarov (Ukraine) – swimming

Diede de Groot (Netherlands) – tennis

Luca Ekler (Hungary) – athletics

Nicole Murray (New Zealand) – cycling

Markus Rehm (Germany) – athletics

Action sportsperson of the year

Rayssa Leal (Brazil) – skateboarding

Caroline Marks (USA) – surfing

Kirsten Neuschafer (South Africa) – sailing

Bethany Shriever (GB) – BMX

Filipe Toledo (Brazil) – surfing

Arisa Trew (Australia) – skateboarding

Sport for good

Bola Pra Frente (Brazil) multi-sport & employability

Dancing Grounds (USA) – dancing & social integration

Fundacion Rafa Nadal (Spain) – tennis & education

ISF Cambodia – football & education

Justice Desk Africa (South Africa) – multi-sport & human rights

Obiettivo Napoli (Italy) – multi-sport & inclusion

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South Africa boss Ellis sets sight on Super Falcons clash

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Banyana Banyana of South Africa head coach Desiree Ellis has warned her side against complacency as they bid to set up a clash with eternal rivals, Nigeria.

The Super Falcons defeated Cameroon 1-0 in Abuja on Monday to earn a place in the final round of the 2024 Olympic Games qualifiers.

The African champions will take on Tanzania in the return leg of the third round fixture on Tuesday (today).

Banyana Banyana defeated Tanzania 3-0 away in the first leg last Friday.

Jermaine Seopesenwe, Thembi Kgatlana and Hildah Magaia were on target for the reigning African champions in the game.

The reverse fixture is expected to be an easy affair for South Africa but Ellis is not ready to take anything for granted.

“We have to finish the job back home. We don’t want to become complacent. The next goal in the match could change things,” Ellis told CAFonline.

 

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