'People are always going to target you' - Thierry Henry backs Nicolas Pepe after tough Arsenal start

Nicolas Pepe hasn't had the smoothest of starts to life in north London. (Credit: Getty Images)

Thierry Henry is a man that knows a thing or two about high expectations after a big move. 

Arsenal’s record-goalscorer will forever be adored at the club but things didn’t exactly get off to a flying start in north London. 

Back in 1999, questions were raised over the then-record £11m fee as Henry famously failed to score in his opening eight matches, finally breaking his duck with fantastic long range effort against Southampton in a 1-0 win at the Dell. 

Twenty years on, the Gunners have spent big again, with 24-year-old Ivorian forward Nicolas Pepe arriving at the Emirates in August for an estimated £72m.

A stuttering start has seen similar murmurs and grumbles to those Henry faced during his early days at the club, and speaking exclusively to Yahoo Sport UK, the Arsenal legend had some words of advice for the new man. 

“When you arrive like that, you’re always going to be talked about, and people are always going to target you,” said Henry.

“He needs to make sure he doesn’t listen to that and go out and perform.”

22 goals in Ligue 1 for Lille last season piqued the interest of a number of top clubs around Europe but it was Arsenal who eventually secured his signature, smashing their transfer record and making him the joint-fifth most expensive player in Premier League history. 

Such a hefty fee automatically invites scrutiny, and for a team like Arsenal who rarely spend big, a marquee signing, rightly or wrongly, will be under pressure to deliver straight away. Something Henry believes is unfair. 

“People need to forget about the price tag,” he added. “He didn’t ask to be bought for that amount of money himself.

“It’s not always easy to arrive in a team, adapt to a new style of play. The Premier League, as we know, is not the same as the French League or any other league, by the way.  So he needs to adapt to that. We need to give him time.”

Pepe is still finding his feet in London after joining Arsenal for a record fee. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
Henry went on to become an Arsenal legend despite a slow start. (Photo by Mike Egerton/EMPICS via Getty Images)

At just 22, Henry arrived with an already impressive CV. The previous summer, he was France’s top scorer with three tournament goals as Les Bleus lifted the World Cup for the first time. This coming off the back of a run to the Champions League semis with Monaco, in which he scored seven times. 

A big move was inevitable and following a very brief spell with Juventus, Henry’s former manager at Monaco Arsene Wenger, came calling. 

Nicolas Anelka’s departure for Real Madrid prompted Arsenal to break their transfer record to bring his compatriot to the club and Highbury would, eventually, have a new hero to worship.  

Despite his slow start, eight years, 226 goals, numerous team and individual awards later, Henry would depart for Barcelona. Leaving, in the minds of many, as the greatest ever to play with the famous cannon on his chest. 

It’s not unfair to point out that Pepe doesn’t have the credentials of Henry prior to his arrival and even the staunchest of Gooners wouldn’t expect him to hit similar heights in red and white but signs of a good player have been evident since his arrival.

After a bright start, Pepe, much like Arsenal, have stuttered. His only league goal so far coming from the penalty spot in a 3-2 win over Aston Villa, although two brilliant free kicks in the Europa League win over Vitoria de Guimaraes more than demonstrated his ability. Something with which Henry concurs.

“It’s kind of funny because when we lost against Liverpool away, everyone was going ballistic about how well he played even though we lost the game.

“I know people will tell me he still hasn’t scored from open play but the other day he saved the team coming on in the Europa League, he’s scored a penalty [against Aston Villa] so hopefully he can find a rhythm to perform for the team.”

Nicolas Pepe scoring a free kick against Vitoria Guimaraes. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
Henry has backed Pepe to improve. (Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Outside the south-east corner of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Henry is immortalised in bronze. Sliding on his knees in celebration after scoring one of his best goals for the club in a 3-0 win over arch-rivals Tottenham in 2002. The serious, unsympathetic frown on his face emblematic of the ruthless player he had become and would continue to be following that somewhat awkward start three years prior. 

Henry’s ascension to superstar status was no fluke. As a player, he always strove for improvement, recognising both what he needed to do as an individual and what was best for the team. This is no more evident than the fact that alongside his goalscoring feats, he also holds the record for most assists in a Premier League season with 20.

The emphasis on working with your teammates is something he believes is something at the heart of Pepe’s indifferent form thus far.

“People like to highlight the player but if the team were playing a bit better, maybe he would be playing a bit better.

“At the minute, it’s not a Pepe thing, it’s an Arsenal thing. Hopefully he AND the team can get better so we can get in the top four again.”

The use of ‘we’ is telling. Henry’s time at the club coincided with one of their most successful periods. Playing a role in two league title wins including the historic ‘Invincibles’ campaign of 2003/04, as well as lifting the FA Cup three times, Henry’s contributions created the kinds of memories that will never be forgotten by those fortunate enough to witness them. The player and club have an unbreakable bond. 

Henry has his own statue outside Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. (Adam Davy/PA Wire)
Henry celebrates with the Premiership trophy. (Photo by Mike Egerton - PA Images via Getty Images)
Thierry Henry, Global Heineken® Ambassador with the EURO 2020 Trophy and UEFA Champions League Trophy at Wembley Stadium, London to announce Heineken’s sponsorship of the EURO 2020 Championships and renewal of the UEFA Champions League Sponsorship.

Things have changed dramatically since those days however. The Gunners haven’t won the Premier League since that famous unbeaten campaign, failed to qualify for the Champions League for the last three years and even parted ways with Arsene Wenger after twenty-two years.

Unai Emery led the club to a fifth place finish and a Europa League final in his first season but rather than any visible improvement this year, the club looks to have at best stagnated, and at worse, slowly regressed. 

“For me, as a fan, I would like us to get back into the top four and get Champions League football back at the Emirates.” Henry says on the current predicament. “Right now, it looks like not just us who are struggling but also United and Tottenham are struggling, so you have to hope we can go on a run.”

Henry is currently a global ambassador for Heineken, who recently extended their partnership with the Champions League, but returning to Europe’s premier competition is going to be a tough task for his former club. 

The Gunners lost their most recent match - their third of the season - against high-flying Leicester City and currently sit eight points off the top four with speculation mounting and increasing demand for a rapid improvement. 

“What do they need to change?” Henry considers. “I’m not in the dressing room every day to know what is happening in training. That’s the job of Emery or whoever is in charge. 

“As a fan, I would like to see them back in the Champions League, that will be a start because catching Liverpool at the minute seems very complicated. Even for Manchester City. Let’s see where we can finish at the end of the season.”

HEINEKEN has announced it will become ‘Official Beer Partner of UEFA EURO 2020™’, and in a separate agreement has extended its UEFA Champions League partnership by another three years, from 2021-24. The new UEFA EURO 2020™ agreement means that Heineken® will be a partner of Europe’s most prestigious club and international football tournaments. Heineken®’s global ambassador Thierry Henry, has previously won both the EURO Championships with France in 2000 and the UEFA Champions League with Barcelona in the 2008/09 season.

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