It’s fair to say Nicolas Pepe has endured a less than convincing start to his Arsenal career. Having arrived off the back of an incredible 2018/19 season that saw him finish behind only Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe in terms of domestic goal contributions (33) across the Big 5 leagues, and for a club-record fee, expectations were high for one of Europe’s hottest talents to hit the ground running and help deliver Champions League football.
Fast-forward to December 2019 and Head Coach Unai Emery had been relieved of his duties as Arsenal lay closer to the relegation zone than their pre-season ambition of 4th place, during which time Pepe had only shown glimpses of the brilliance that had lit up France football the previous season.
The Ivorian had a lot to deal with, like settling in to a new country, a new language and reporting to a third manager in less than six months, not to mention that new boss Mikel Arteta insists on a brand of football and a level of intensity he’d never had to contend with. Nevertheless, he still managed to finish the season as the club’s second-most productive player, contributing 10 goals and 8 assists across all competitions. However, question marks still remain as the mercurial winger is yet to truly convince and his ascension to superstardom isn’t as pre-ordained as his price tag suggests.
Lille, much like Pepe himself, had come a long way in a short space of time. Having just escaped relegation, finishing 17th during his first season in 2017/18, they stormed to 2nd place the following year, implementing a fun brand of football built around young, exciting talent. The Ivorian was directly involved in half of their league goals (68), providing 11 assists and scoring 22 – winning 6 of the 9 penalties he put away. The goals he scored from open-play go a long way to help explain what is currently missing from his repertoire in English football and can be broadly split into four categories:
The goals against Newcastle (A) and Manchester United (H) last season give clear examples of his poacher-like ability to snaffle up cut-backs with a single strike, but we’re yet to see his off the movement being fully utilised in front of goal. During his time in France, Pepe often arrived late from deep and into space before collecting the ball and beating the keeper. Three of the four two-touch finishes illustrated above were scored in this fashion.
Worryingly, it’s taken the record-signing some 48 appearances (home to Sheffield United three weeks ago) to finally replicate the kind of brilliant move that was almost synonymous throughout his tenure in Ligue 1 – time and again driving at the opposition before coolly slotting home. While there is a (questionable) case to be made for a more competitive league resulting in fewer of these solo goals being scored, it’s a cause for concern that Arteta’s current system, or at the least the personnel within it, aren’t yet utilising the 25-year-old to his maximum.
Pepe was instrumental to Christophe Galtier’s counter-attacking system, a team tuned to understand his strengths and exploit space during attacking transitions. On paper, he was Lille’s right-winger, but in reality, he was given licence to roam and drift between the right-flank and half-space, forming triangles and linking-up to good effect with right-back Zeki Çelik, as his teammates consistently looked to give him the ball.
I’ve purposely picked Lille’s toughest away fixture in 2018/19, a narrow 2-1 defeat to PSG (a game which Pepe scored in, no less) to illustrate his role and importance within the team.
Compare that to last weekend’s defeat at the Etihad and there is a stark contrast between his involvement and the on-pitch relationships formed with positional equivalents Dani Ceballos and Hector Bellerin, with the latter often choosing to go back to David Luiz or inside to Willian, instead of combining with the winger. Ceballos spent large portions of the game drifting towards the left just to be involved and passed to left-back Tierney more than any other on-field player.
This isn’t necessarily a problem. Aubameyang has made a formidable career from hardly touching the ball – but Arteta’s blueprint of retaining possession at the back, in a bid to commit the opposition, is a sequence of play designed to exploit space for the Gabonese. This has been demonstrated to tremendous effect on multiple occasions since Arteta’s short time in charge as illustrated below.
However, bringing the best out of Aubameyang from a wide position hugely influences the way Arsenal move the ball forward. This is shown statistically as 42% of their attacks under Arteta take place down the left-hand side, similar to the 43% right-hand-side emphasis that Pepe’s Lille attacked with.
A deeper dive into the statistical profile from last season versus the winger’s final year in France shows an indication of his willingness to learn under Arteta, that manifests within the boost to his defensive metrics. However, those improvements cannot mask the areas where his performance has dipped.
There were significantly fewer shots being taken last year (49) compared to his time in France (110) and there is an equally wide margin for passes into the final third too (87 to 24). The decline is highlighted further in the disparity of shot-creating actions during his first year at Arsenal (66) as opposed to 173 in Ligue 1.
Not every aspect of football is statistically measurable, and looking at individual stats within a team sport only gives part of the picture, but they help explain some of the challenges he’s faced adapting to life in North London.
It’s my opinion that Mikel Arteta and Pepe is a marriage of convenience. I don’t think Pepe is a transfer Arteta would have targeted nor do I believe that if Pepe had the choice and Arteta’s style of management was on the table, it’s the kind of system he’d choose to play in.
But if Arsenal do not want to go through an expensive divorce, both player and manager need to figure out a solution.