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.

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Daveo

Great article, and great graphics to show just how left side dominant we are. It’s just not really working though. We simply don’t create enough, so why not mix this up a bit and shift things around To support pepe’s strengths. Playing auba through the middle would seem to support his stregths too and going to a 433 would Balance us much better… Hope we do this soon

Naked Cygan

I agree, we really need to mix up our attacks. We are too predictable and give the opponents an advantage.
With Pepe, we have to admit that there is a big gap between the quality of the French League and the Premier League. If a player gets 25+ goals in France, chances are he will get 40-50% of those goals in England. I just feel with Pepe that he doesn’t like the pysicality of EPL.

Daveo

we’re doing basically nothing to support him. By not playing a forward midfielder (AM) teams can send another player to cover the inside against pepe and prevent him cutting in. And for some reason we rarely, if ever see bellerin overlap pepe to create outside him. Both things would lessen the amount of pressure and numbers teams can send at pepe and let’s not kid ourselves he gets double teamed basically every time he gets the ball… What do we expect?? A super hero that can score 20+ goals in such a system that exposes and isolates him like that?… Read more »

Futsboller

Well said!

Heavenly Chapecoense

Pépé is an underperformer and not a natural fighter.

Homer

That’s some top analysis there HC. As usual. Do keep it up!

Naked Cygan

Yes, we definitely need to give him more support. We do lack that attacking mid helping him out, but in games when he is one on one he still get beat quite easily. He need to be a bit more pysical and brave with his runs.

Anonymarse

I’m not sure we can really judge any of our attacking players at the moment. Most of them are underperforming.

Cranky Colin

“A marriage of convenience?”
Sometimes these type of unions lead to the best outcomes. Until our frontline starts firing , and becomes settled , ( sane firmino salah for eg) we won’t know fully what Pépé can do.
We are not clicking upfront yet…… my belief is that when we do, we will see more Lille type stats for this guy.
Brilliant article by the way!

goongot

Nah.. I like the optimism but pepe’s a flop signing. He might be a good player but he is to us what de-maria was to manchester united. Manu were able to sell di maria for decent fee bcz of his madrid reputation. I think we wont be able to fetch anywhere near the fee we paid for him if we want to sell.and hence it’s a marriage of convenience.

Anonymarse

He has had some good games. Was outstanding in the FA cup final

Biggles

An interesting piece. According to several press reports a while ago we substantially overpaid for Pepe’s services – for reasons that are still not clear – and if we’re honest he hasn’t lived up to that massive fee so far. As we’re getting ever closer to removing one hugely expensive player who hasn’t lived up to expectations next June – no names, no pack drill – it would be more than bad luck to replace him with Pepe. However,I’ve a feeling that we will see a better and more consistent level of performance from Pepe but we shouldn’t kid ourselves… Read more »

Atom

I do think a big part of the Issue is how Arteta sets the team up to almost exclusively attack down the left. If you notice no one is particularly convincing on that side as they never see the ball. Opposing teams have figured it out and it’s causing real issues. Auba down the center really would help with that and having Pepe and Saka on the wings would make more formidable. I really like Arteta but if feels like teams have figured his system out so he needs to evolve.

RedHotHornBlower

42% left versus 38% right doesn’t jive with your statement “Arteta sets the team up to almost exclusively attack down the left – that would look more 90% left versus 10% right.

Espen

Good observation.

Cultured Determination

interesting. how about playing auba up front and pepe on the right, with saka on the left. partey, ceballos and saka to provide the creativity to help auba and pepe make runs to score.

ozymandias

I like that idea. Maybe in a 4-3-3 with Ceballos ahead of Elneny and a Box to Box Partey.

Leno

Bellerin Luiz Gabriel Tierney

Elneny Partey

Ceballos

Pepe Saka

Auba

I’ll have a bit of that.

Charles

Don’t think we’ll see Luis in a 4 again anytime soon.

Naked Cygan

I like your team selection and cant wait for 4-3-3, or 4-5-1, but I have to agree Charles that we might not see a back for anytime soon. i think Arteta is trying to play it safe at the back.

SantaClausola

Pepe can go past anyone, At the same time he could fall over the ball and lose possession. When he has no time to think on the ball, like it’s arriving to his feet just as a player tries to win it from him, he can turn them easily. Quick thinking, seems to do well. When he has time on the ball and runs at a player, the majority of the time it goes wrong. Whether he second guesses himself or can’t decide what to do, I’m not sure. There is a good player in there. But at some point,… Read more »

Sancho

Sell now. He wiil bring nothing to our chances for a top4 and we need to recoup as much money as possible.

Merlin’s Panini

This analysis sounds very much like that of another Ivorian forward we had a few years ago. The one with the massive forehead. Pepe is much better than that though. His finishing is really good. You never see him completely miss the target. It’s always on point or very close. His set piece deliveries are mostly great too. It just seems that we need to get more link up play going on the right. We have the players to do it so I don’t really get why we always end up going down the left channel. I also want him… Read more »

Kaligate

Give the dude time men and everything will be alright.

Toni

This is very interesting. It is also quite noteworthy that our right central midfielder always tends to move play to the left. While I don’t doubt Arteta’s tactics, I think it’s good to introduce balance and some kind of unpredictability to our play so we can expect goals from all sides.The instructions for Bellerin should also help move play forward on the right wing. That way, we won’t have to necessarily depend on Laca or Nketiah to hold the ball up (they don’t seem good at it anyway), but can fully enjoy their poacher attributes.

Hurensohn

Pepe for me is more of an Auba mirror image than anything else we have in the squad. His problem is that Auba is better and we play like we know it. If we could switch to a system that affords Pepe a similar focus we might get a better return from him but there’s a risk he wouldn’t deliver that isn’t there with Auba.

I also think Pepe can work harder for the team without the ball and that would help cement his place in the team and give him the game time he needs to push on.

Good points. I have noticed Pepe’s defensive contribution has improved and the article suggests it.

If you watch the Rapid Europa highlights, you’ll notice that when Partey makes the last ditch tackle with their striker on goal, Pepe is the last defender between Leno and everyone else.

That’s something I never saw last season.

arsenal fan

if only we had someone like Ozil who wasn’t Ozil…

Top Bins

In most of the training ground videos posted by Arsenal you’ll see Pepe lose the ball frequently in one on one challenges. His decision making seems to be too risky which either comes off and leaves the defender trailing or he loses possession putting the already suspect back line under pressure. It doesnt seem at this point in the Arsenal revolution that we can afford the risk hence Arteta’s caution that’s so visible in his tactics and formation. We could play the 0-100 type counter game like Lille that Pepe thrived in but it’s not the Arsenal way, we’re a… Read more »

Kostas

I would try him as a No 10 in the middle to see what happens. In a more attacking 4231
Leno
Bellerin Luiz Gabriel Tierney
Ceballos Partey
Willian Pepe Saka
Aubameyang.

Neil Bamford

One of his main problems is that he always always always bring it back in to his left foot when running the line. It holds up the play too much and I’m screaming at the TV for him to cross it with his right. I think he would be an asset with 2 feet but he’s not got that in him. I honestly would prefer to cut our losses and stretch using Nelson more on that side

Harry Sunderland

I think when Auba gets on and isn’t as productive or when he moves on, Pepe can step in and be that kind of goalscoring inside forward. It’s almost impossible to have both inside forwards be goalscoring and not as involved with the buildup (Mane and Salah are the only two that come to mind and they have Firmino to help with buildup.) I see no reason why we can’t switch sides and take Pepe the Auba mantel. He just needs the right system to fit into to have the most impact. Our current midfield is so poor at creating… Read more »

fmikel

Now that we have Partey to give balance on the right side, I expect to see (Pepe coming inside as goal threat) + (Bell overlapping outside of him) more often. We also need to have a third central b2b midfield making good runs from deep to make us have more goal threat in and around the box, making us less predictable whenever we attack.

Merlin’s Panini

Ah yeah. We used to have one of those but he was let go to Juventus.

Cobwebs

The link up play with Bellerin is almost non existent. If that was better it would provide more of a problem to defences who currently know Pepe will cut inside and Bellerin won’t overlap. More positively Pepe’s dead ball skills are great. Apart from recent corners. As someone else suggested how about letting him just run at centre backs down the middle. Try it next week – Maguire will be sent off in about 10 minutes. (horses for courses)

RedArmy

At the risk of sounding stupid if Pepe turns into the next Henry all of a sudden, we should move him on. He’s not the player they thought he was and he looks like a player who price tag is going to weigh him down until he can move on. I’d cut our loses and move him on in the summer unless he really turns it around. If nothing else maybe they could get enough to pay off the rest of the fee to Lille

What a fantastic breakdown. It looks AS if we change our formation and system to add another midfielder, Pepe should benefit from having a RCM closer to him that he can exchange passes with if things aren’t clicking with Bellerin.

Leftfootcurler

Interesting article. I didn’t watch him play at Lille. I saw about 5 matches of his lille days when arsenal were linked with him. But from what I have seen from him at arsenal: His biggest qualities are: 1)Dribbling 2) ball striking- he has wonderful ability to curl the ball beyond the gk with minimal backlift. Biggest negatives- 1)he is extremely one footed 2) he is a bit light weight,needs to bulk up 3) his off the ball positioning and movement is rubbish. His dribbling is nullified because he is a bit lightweight, often loses control of the ball under… Read more »

Goodly morning

Part of being a top manager is getting the best out of your players and adapting your system to do that. I’m loving Arteta but feel he’s looking a bit dogmatic at times with his way of doing things. Klopp will mix it up more in my opinion and maybe that comes with experience. Pepe needs to step up a bit as well but I’d like to see more combinations up the right with Hector. Hopefully Partey will bring him into the game more as well.

Tanned arse

The irony to me seems to that pepe can do on the right what arteta asks auba to do on the left probably but with greater levels of variance(there are more things he does well). Auba can offer far more down the middle than any alternative(no one plays well and holding and linking the play there for us so what’s the point?). And over on the left saka is clergy the best creator in the team with direct assists of pre assist passes. He can also get in shooting positions and finishes well.

adriano

beautiful stats but cannot agree with the depressing conclusion you’ve reached. let’s give arteta and pepe a bit more time together before assuming it’s never going to flourish

Tarik

Superb article.

footiemagic

Can you tell me how you make these data visuals mate ?