Mikel Arteta has admitted that he has seen a ‘different’ side to winger Nicolas Pepe following his return from the Africa Cup of Nations and has backed the Ivorian to play a major role for Arsenal over the coming months.
A £72m signing from Lille in 2019, Pepe has failed to live up to expectations so far and managed just nine Premier League appearances in the first half of this season, with his last start coming in the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace way back in October.
He jetted off to AFCON with the Ivory Coast this winter and enjoyed an impressive tournament on a personal level, bagging two goals and an assist in four games as the Elephants were eliminated in the round of 16.
Now back at Arsenal, Arteta believes that Pepe has had a fire lit under him during his time away from the Emirates.
“Since he has come back from AFCON I think I have seen a different Nico as well,” Arteta said.
“I don’t know what it is, probably he has realised the importance of the end of the season for him. He had a brilliant end of the season last year. He can replicate that.
“We need him at his best because everybody is going to contribute. We are a really short squad at the moment and we need it and hopefully he has understood that we want to play him. I don’t want to have a player like him sitting on the bench and not using him and the moment I have chances, I want to give him a chance.”
When asked what specifically appears different about Pepe, Arteta said: “His attitude, his smile, the way he is communicating with everybody, his energy.
“The way he has trained. His efficiency in training, his application. His energy has changed. I don’t know what it is. I think he felt important again.
“Probably he felt like a proper football player that can win tournaments and felt: ‘Ok, this is me now’. And he needed that and I’m really pleased with that.”