Rewind back to the end of the 2018/19 campaign and into the summer transfer market. Many areas within the squad needed to be addressed in order for us to compete against the top sides in the division. We all knew that a top quality centre back was an absolute must, which we unfortunately didn’t address yet again. But I was also crying out for us to sign a creative, ball carrying wide player. One thing, in my opinion, we lacked in Emery’s first season was a player who could carry the ball from deep, relieve our defence from countless attacks (particularly away from home), take players on and provide a goal threat. Alex Iwobi showed encouraging signs but his decision making in the final third was his achilles heel and it was evident to me that we needed an upgrade.
Strong rumours surfaced that Arsenal had bid £72 million, for one of Europe’s hottest prospects, Nicolas Pepe. After beating the likes of Napoli for his signature, I for one was extremely excited with this acquisition. As we are coming towards the end of Pepe’s first season in England, it’s safe to say that he divides opinion amongst the fan base.
My thoughts : Promising signs
First and foremost, i’ll put it out there that I believe that Nicolas Pepe has a very high ceiling and has so much more to offer. We’ve seen glimpses of what he’s capable of but we have to ask ourselves the question ‘Has he really been given the tools to succeed? When you have a season like he did at Lille, scoring 22 goals and assisting 11, fans will demand the same level of performance especially considering the amount of money invested in him. But I always like to look deeper into the issue as to why he’s not been able to replicate that form rather than simply placing the tag ‘he’s a flop’.
Firstly, it doesn’t matter what the price tag is, it’s not his fault! Players coming from abroad need time to adapt. In comparison to Ligue 1, the culture, pace and intensity of the premier league is far more aggressive. Some players adapt instantly and hit the ground running whilst others like Pepe need more time to adjust to the tempo of the football. Bobby Pires, was no different and look how he turned out!
On top of this, the management team across the season have to be accounted for and must take responsibility. The system and style of football implemented under Emery was far too negative (on many occasions starting three defensively more minded midfielders) for Pepe to flourish. If you put players of the calibre of Salah, Mane and Sterling under that system, they would also struggle to have a significant impact. Slow, lethargic, players taking far too many touches on the ball meant Pepe was continuously receiving the ball with his back to goal and always isolated with minimal support down the right. That’s not his preferred game.
For Pepe to be at his explosive best, he needs the ball played in front of him in space for him to run into, creating 1 v 1 situations which he thrives on as shown at his time in France. Dribbling and successful take-ons are two great traits of his and statistically it shows. Pepe ranks 6th in terms of successful take-ons in the league, with all the players above him playing more minutes barring Newcastle’s Allan Saint Maximin. Then we take a look at Ljungberg’s short stint at the reigns.
One of my problems with Freddie was that he didn’t give Pepe a consistent run of games to show what he’s capable of. Remember West Ham away. Pepe was a big reason we broke our winless run and collected the three points, scoring a beauty and assisting Aubameyang for the third. The next game, against Manchester City at home, was one of his poorer displays in an Arsenal shirt but you tell me, apart from Leno, who really had a good game. He’s then taken out of the side for the next three games. It’s very difficult for a player to provide consistency in his performance if he’s not given a run of games , especially for someone who’s new to the premier league and looking to prove to why we paid the money for him.
He has, however, shown a lot more consistency as the season has continued with some good performances under Arteta, such as Newcastle and Everton at home. I think overall Arteta has handled the Pepe situation well. Initially, he opted for Nelson on the right wing ahead of him for his first two games in charge. To me, It’s clear he wanted to get a positive reaction out of him by leaving him on the bench and once brought back into the side against Manchester United, he definitely reacted to his dropping in a positive manner. He caused Luke Shaw all sorts of problems, took his goal well before his corner led to Sokratis getting the second which was enough to win the game.
The glimpses of quality he showed early in the season were coming slightly more regularly. Despite a poor start since the premier league has resumed for the Gunners, and whilst it was a quiet game for him against Brighton ,he again showed his quality with a trademark finish. I believe it will work out for him and while I’ve defended him a lot here, there are aspects he must work on in his game in order to persuade all Gooners that he’s the long term solution on the right wing. But remember, he’s only 25!
Weakness/things to work on
There’s still plenty for Pepe to work on for him to maximise his full potential. I think a notable weakness in his game is that he’s very left footed. Arteta’s recent comments stated that ‘he needs to open more doors to be more unpredictable for the opponent and give more options as well offensively to us’. It’s clear to me that he’s referring to his predictable nature of cutting inside and that improvement on his right foot ability will open more avenues. Having said that, there wouldn’t be as much discussion over this topic if he could develop a stronger relationship with the right back in an attacking sense.
As mentioned before, Pepe has been left isolated far too much in possession, with minimal support from our right backs this season (Chambers, Bellerin and Maitland Niles). Whether it will be Cedric or Bellerin as first choice right back, they will be key in enabling Pepe to have more time and space on the ball through their overlapping runs and occupying players out wide.
What gives me optimism that Artera can elevate Pepe’s game is through his success with Raheem Sterling. Pep Guardiola spoke publicly about how Arteta had huge involvement in improving his goalscoring record, which was a huge criticism in Sterling’s game initially. Arteta spoke about how he cut out Sterling’s ‘bad habits’ and improved certain aspects of his game in terms of body angles when receiving the ball, utilising his pace etc
From what I’ve seen of Pepe this season, I think an aspect he should work on is consistently putting himself into more goal scoring positions. Under Arteta, we’ve been very left sided dominant, with overloads. Pre COVID-19, the clear pattern of play was that in possession, Xhaka would fill in at left back allowing Saka freedom to stretch the left hand side. Aubameyang would tuck in, playing closer to the centre forward like a left forward, occupying the right back, which gave Saka space to create width and put balls into the box. With Saka providing good quality deliveries, Pepe wasn’t gambling enough for me and placing himself in and around the box on a regular basis. Simply putting himself into these positions when we attack from the left hand side will enable his goal scoring tally to increase, rather than hovering around the edge of the box in these instances. We’ve seen what Tierney’s capable of in an attacking sense particularly in the Europa league, when fit, possessing good crossing ability and I want to see Pepe take more goal scoring positions in the near future when either Tierney or Saka are on the ball in the final third.
A more notable aspect Pepe has to work on is his defensive contribution out of possession. Whilst our right back choices this season haven’t provided him with enough support offensively, he certainly has to help them more, which Arteta demands.
If we simply look at the stats in the league and compare it to other high profile premier league established wingers in their first season, it’s not as bad as some people believe.
- Pepe: 25 games, 5 goals and 6 assists (11G/A)
- Son: 28 games, 4 goals and 1 assist (5 G/A)
- Mahrez: 27 games (first season with Manchester city) 7 goals and 4 assists (11G/A)
On top of this, in the 9 premier league games we have won, Pepe has started 7 of them contributing 4 goals and 5 assists, showing his big influence in the few positive results we have achieved.
You are probably aware by now that I’m a big fan of his. He’s got bags of ability and it’s Arteta’s job to implement a fast paced, possession style system which enables him to become our lethal weapon for the future. I’m really intrigued to know your thoughts.
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22 years of age, 22 years as a Gooner. Arsenal runs through my veins and it pains me to see the current position and state of the club. Reading many football articles over the years has inspired me to write blogs containing Arsenal analysis. I’ve always wanted my fellow Gooners to be aware of my thoughts and opinions of ‘The Arsenal’ and thanks to Dave and Paul, I now have a platform which makes this possible.