The money spent on Arsenal’s record signing and one of the league’s most decorated players is weighing heavily as neither has performed consistently
Martin Odegaard’s imminent arrival at Arsenal is an exciting one, but it raises as many questions as it does answers.
The Norwegian playmaker has been brought in to help add some creative spark to a squad that was lacking any sort of invention this season prior to Emile Smith Rowe’s impressive emergence since Boxing Day.
It’s a signing that certainly looks to improve Arsenal for the short-term, but it’s one that also brings the struggles of Willian and Nicolas Pepe firmly into focus once again.
What does it say about two-time Premier League winner Willian, who was handed a three-year £200,000-a-week contract in the summer, that a 22-year-old is being brought in from Real Madrid for a few months to try and add some guile to Arsenal’s attack?
And what does it mean for Arsenal’s club-record signing Pepe?
The £72 million ($98m) man was already finding opportunities difficult to come by due to the form of Bukayo Saka and now he could have Odegaard in front of him as well.
Odegaard may be more at home operating in the central attacking areas, but he has shown to be more than comfortable playing on the right.
And with Willian and Pepe so horribly out of form, it would be no surprise to see him quickly installed as the man Arteta turns to whenever Saka needs a breather during the second half of the season.
With each week that passes, the plight of Willian and Pepe is becoming a bigger and bigger problem for Arsenal.
In transfer fees and wages, the Gunners have invested well over £100m ($136m) to bring both players to the club in the past two years, but so far the return has been minimal.
There have been flashes of quality from Pepe, especially towards the end of last season, and a return of eight goals and 10 assists from his first campaign in England was far from terrible.
But the Ivory Coast international has been unable to build on that during his second season in England. Of his five goals, only two have come in the Premier League and he has started just four of Arsenal’s 19 games in the top flight.
Such are his struggles at the moment, Pepe has failed to even make it off the bench in three of Arsenal’s last four league games.
Willian, meanwhile, has yet to score a goal for the Gunners since his high-profile switch from Chelsea in the summer and of his three assists in all competitions, two of them came on the opening weekend of the season at Fulham.
The Brazil international’s return has been way below what was expected, with this three-year contract looking more like a costly mistake by the week.
“They’re entitled to ask for anything,” said Arteta, when quizzed about whether the Arsenal fans were right to demand more from Pepe and Willian after Saturday’s 1-0 FA Cup defeat at Southampton.
Both players started at St Mary’s, with Willian in the No.10 role and Pepe on the right, but both failed to make much of an impact once again as the holders crashed out of the competition at the fourth-round stage.
“They tried to give their best,” added Arteta. “You see how hard they tried, sometimes with more or less quality but the intention and the willingness was there. This is what we demand them to do.
“After that the decision making, the final pass, the final ball, the opportunities they have – it’s the end product. It’s the hardest thing in football.”
But whilst Arteta is right when he points to end product being the hardest thing to find, he is talking about one of the most decorated players in English football in recent years, as well as Arsenal’s club-record signing.
When you invest as heavily as Arsenal did in players like Willian and Pepe, you expect to see immediate results.
Willian was brought in to hit the ground running having played in the Premier League since 2013 and with him already living in London. The three-year contract he was handed was justified by the fact he would need no time to settle.
Arteta said it himself after the Brazilian’s debut against Fulham back in September.
“Willian knows the league and the country, so I knew his performance would settle straight away,” said the Arsenal boss.
So there can be little excuse for his lack of return in the final third and the lethargic performances he has been turning in since his move across the capital.
The fact that both he and Pepe are being kept out of the side at present by the 19-year-old Saka and the 20-year-old Smith Rowe speaks volumes, as does the fact Arsenal have been forced to bring in 22-year-old Odegaard on loan from Real Madrid to improve their attacking options.
The north London club have spent the January window looking to move on the so-called dead wood in the squad.
Sead Kolasinac, Mesut Ozil and Sokratis have all departed and there is a possibility Shkodran Mustafi could join them before the end of the month.
Arsenal have found it incredibly difficult in recent times to get unwanted, highly-paid players off their books, so they will be delighted with the work they have managed to do in the past few weeks.
But now they find themselves in a similar position with Willian and Pepe. Given the length of Willian’s contract and the money he is receiving, they will find it very tough to find a taker for the 32-year-old, should they decide to try and cut their losses.
And whilst you would think there will be a market for Pepe, there is no chance Arsenal would receive anything like the £72m ($98m) they paid to bring the winger to London from Lille less than two years ago.
“I want to think positively and think they (Willian and Pepe) are going to reach their level very soon,” Arteta said ahead of Arsenal’s Premier League meeting with Southampton on Tuesday night.
“The way they train every day is to reach that level and we are here to support them and not to think in a negative way.”
Arteta may want to think positively, but there is no doubt that Arsenal have a major problem when it comes to Willian and Pepe.
And whilst the capture of the immensely-talented Odegaard may be an exciting one, it’s a signing that shines an even brighter light on the struggles of two of the club’s biggest – and most costly – attacking stars.
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