There appears to be a consensus in the appraisal of Nicolas Pepe’s first season as an Arsenal player. For most of the club’s fanbase, eight goals and 10 assists represents a creditable return for a wide player, and there is little doubt more is in the offing next season.
Those who disagree with this tend to do so on the basis of the ginormous transfer fee the club spunked on the player. In the interest of full disclosure, while I consider Pepe a good footballer, it is my belief that Arsenal grossly overpaid for a player of his ability. In spite of this though, I do agree his numbers represent a respectable return; what I disagree with is the notion that next season will necessarily witness a spike in productivity.
It might very well be the case that a better-adjusted Pepe will proceed to rack up eye-watering numbers in 2020/21. Stranger things have happened. However, I believe that what has held him back, even more than a lack of physical adaptation, is predominantly (there is a tactical element that is not entirely on him) his own limitations as a footballer.
Perhaps one of my favourite footballer quotes is by Thierry Henry. When asked to explain the thinking behind his famous backheel goal against Charlton in 2004, he said he had simply done what the game asked him to do.
This, for me, is one of the most important things a great footballer should have: a feel for the game, what we refer to as ‘intelligence’. Top players have an appreciation of where their teammates are and where they should be in order to create an advantage; they execute based not solely on what they want to do, but on what the game around them requires of them.
This, in my view, is the biggest problem Pepe has as a footballer. He does not do what the game around him is asking. In fact, at times, it seems like he’s playing a different game from the rest of his teammates.
At his best, the former Lille man can be very entertaining to watch. It does not always look graceful, especially as, in many ways, he’s entirely the wrong body type for the way he wants to play: players that dribble by touching the ball a lot typically have a lower centre of gravity, while those (like Pepe, who is 6ft tall) who are taller tend to be more explosive over long-ish distances. However, what he is, essentially, is a maverick.
Pure mavericks mostly work best within smaller teams that punch above their weight, and this is for a reason. They often provide a release, and can function, to an extent, outside the overall structure. When required to function as part of a collective and combine with others, they tend to struggle because they have not been attuned to being a part of a whole (it is for this same reason that I am very down on the idea of Wilfried Zaha).
The pattern of Pepe’s play as an Arsenal player has been frustratingly familiar: some eye-catching dribbles, quite a few fouls suffered, the occasional spark, but also opportunities to pass the ball either ignored or simply not noticed, and simple runs not made.
Look, for instance, at the above still from the FA Cup Final. Pepe had a good game on the whole, but is there a reason why a winger doesn’t know he should be attacking the far post in this scenario? Is there an excuse for this complete lack of awareness? Why is he outside of the penalty area completely?
Perhaps the biggest concern with Pepe is that, at 25, his game is probably fully formed. There is a tendency with fans to underestimate just how much of a player’s career is tied to his development early on. If, at this stage in his career, he has not internalized certain images and impulses, it is difficult to see how he picks it up now.
Head Coach Mikel Arteta famously had success coaching Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, but it is worth noting neither of them was already 25 when they joined Manchester City. This may be blasphemous, in light of his alchemy with the Arsenal squad since taking over, but Arteta cannot teach every single thing.
Far more sensible (and certainly less likely to be an exercise in futility) would be devising the best possible means by which the qualities Pepe does have can be harnessed in such a way as to get the best out of him as well as out of the team.
For that, it might be necessary to alter Arsenal’s attacking emphasis altogether.
Contrary to what most seem to think, we are yet to gain any real clarity as to what exactly Arteta has in mind in terms of team shape. Beyond the understanding that the 3-4-3 (or any iteration of a three-man defence) was a stop-gap measure, no one really say with certainty what’s coming.
However, what is clear is that the attacking play is mostly focused on the left side of the pitch: overloading that flank with a view to switching the ball to the right and taking advantage of the underload on the far side.
In a previous blog, I referenced Arteta’s preference to fill up the five corridors in attack. In the current iteration (playing with a back four), Pepe occupies the lane closest to the touchline on the right, and so would be expected to hold the width and stretch teams, as well as attack the far post.
However, when asked to maintain width, the Ivorian, due to his one-footedness, is easy to defend due to his limited range of movement. Also, as has been illustrated, Pepe does not attack the far post.
The solution: emphasize build-up play on the right rather than the left, and play Pepe in a narrower position. Doing this would
(a) give Pepe more options to combine with (a n.8, the centre-forward, and the overlapping full-back)
(b) grant him greater freedom of movement and open up more of the pitch. Interestingly, he has tended to make better, quicker decisions when popping up in central areas or in the inside-left channel. Almost as though being tied to the touchline on the right brings out his worst habits.
(c) place him closer to goal. See his disallowed strike in the Cup Final. Observe the area of the pitch where he received the pass. Generally, Pepe has proven to be a decent finisher, so he needs to get into those positions more often.
As I stated earlier in this piece, there is a good chance Pepe will be just fine. It is not unheard of that, as a player becomes more comfortable in his surroundings and with his teammates, there is an upsurge in his output. However, I do not subscribe to the idea that more of the same would do just fine. If Arsenal are to make the most of their £72m asset, they will have to make some tweaks to get him into areas where he can be consistently dangerous and direct.
You know what they say about doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
Solace is a freelance football journalist, a tactics writer and an African football columnist with Goal. He’s also been an Arsenal fan since 2002.