£72m buys you a lot, but it doesn’t buy you patience. After an impoverished performance against Manchester United on Monday evening, the whispered anxieties over Nicolas Pepe have broken into a concerned murmur. There have been flashes of his obvious talent- the Ivorian is a highly giffable player, with his penchant for feints and dummies. His close control has drawn gasps of appreciation on occasion.
Closer look at Pepe's nutmeg pic.twitter.com/CwHp9H5R0J
— ArsenalGIF (@ArsenalGIF) August 17, 2019
This piece from Oscar Wood does an excellent job of illustrating Pepe’s qualities and what he could potentially bring to the Arsenal party. I want to look at why Arsenal and Pepe have not yet hit it off in the honeymoon period of this burgeoning relationship. Pepe has one goal and one assist since joining.
This contribution is set against a backdrop of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang carrying the Gunners on his back. Meanwhile, footballing infant Bukayo Saka has impressed with his performances on the opposite flank. Comparatively, Pepe’s performances set against the other players in the front line makes for an unflattering contrast.
Firstly, there will be a number of ‘soft’ or intangible aspects at play. Nico played at the African Nations during the summer, meaning the 2018-19 season finished for him on 11th July. Add in the facts that Pepe has moved to a new country, with a new language to master in a new league to the mix. He is also being inducted into a team that changes tactics and personnel from game to game.
“It has not been easy, I must tell the truth,” he said earlier this week. “My stats have not been good enough or my usual performances, it is not the same as Lille or the Liverpool game earlier in the season.” One can understand why it’s not easy for Pepe. Indeed, fellow new boys Dani Ceballos and David Luiz have also yet to look as though they belong in the red and white.
There are also young players being absorbed into the team who, though not new to the club, are new to the team. It’s an unstable environment to try to settle into. The language factor ought to be diminished by the fact that his attacking partners Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are French speakers. However, the latter has been plagued by injury so far this season, which has delayed the tantalising prospect of the PAL partnership.
The absence of Lacazette potentially offers up mitigation for Pepe’s performances thus far, but it’s too early to say because we’ve not seen enough of Pepe and Lacazette in the same team. Pepe has played closer to Aubameyang and taken up more central positions, which hasn’t allowed him to take the ball in wider areas and move towards the half-spaces as he prefers. Instead his starting position has been the half-space where he has often been crowded out- especially as Arsenal haven’t really played with a support player behind the forwards.
This is not a problem that has hampered Aubameyang quite as much because we don’t really look for all-round performances from Auba, we look for goals. He does not become involved in the build-up play. The position behind the attackers has been a consistent problem since Emery’s arrival. Mesut Özil has been sidelined because, among other reasons, he cannot execute what the coach wants from a player in that position.
Salah and Sterling wouldn't be effective or score goals in our current system and set up. Drives me mad how many people blame individuals for what is a clear failure of management and coaching.
— CD14 (@c_d_14) October 1, 2019
At the beginning of his first season in charge, Emery tried Aaron Ramsey as a number 10 and quickly dropped the idea. Joe Willock has struggled with the demands of the 10 position compared to the relative freedom afforded him as a number 8, while Dani Ceballos’ contributions have been fitful so far. At Old Trafford, Lucas Torreira’s played ahead of Guendouzi and Xhaka before his moonfaced substitution in the second half. Nobody has been able to get a firm grip of the coach’s demands for the advanced midfield position.
This has affected Pepe’s supply line. A winger like Pepe likes to commit players and try difficult through balls, he’s going to have a lot of misses before he strikes gold. An irregular supply exacerbates this issue. Players that like to commit opponents need regular contact with the ball, to exhaust their opponents with repeat actions, to cause stress and feel the rhythm of the game.
A disjointed Arsenal side that cuts the umbilical cord between the midfield and attack is just not able to supply Pepe with that kind of oxygen. Now, it must be said that Nico’s technique has been found wanting too often and he will know that he is responsible for that. He has gotten himself into good positions, he’s Arsenal’s second most frequent shooter and has the highest number of key passes in the team. But too often the finish or the final ball haven’t quite been there.
Arsenal are also scoring lots of goals in transition this season. I think Emery is deliberately trying to turn the team into one that is more efficient in counter-attacks and transitions and part of this has, in my view, been driven by Pepe’s arrival. He has yet to really capitalise on this accommodation of his attributes (assuming my estimation of Emery’s intentions are correct).
Pepe has taken up more central positions at times and he has also been deployed in a more central role at Liverpool and Watford. This has denied him opportunities to forge more of an understanding with Ainsley Maitland-Niles at right-back. Emery played Pepe in a wider role at Old Trafford but (understandably) opted for Calum Chambers behind the Ivorian. It’s a small factor, but a factor nonetheless.
Perhaps the return of Hector Bellerin will help. That Emery was willing to play Pepe in a wide role away from home may also suggest that the record signing may get more of a run in his favoured position. Bukayo Saka’s performances could see the same front three picked together for a run of games too, all of which could assist Pepe’s acclimatisation as he builds understanding with his teammates.
Arsenal have been here before, of course. The likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg and countless others have taken their time to settle into the Arsenal attack. That, of course, doesn’t guarantee that Pepe will settle eventually to the same effect- this fallow period might prove to be terminal. There has been a lot of new blood introduced into the team this season and my best guess is that Pepe will settle once the environment settles.