As the 2019-20 season got under way, I think there were two main things that Arsenal fans were excited about. The clutch of Hale End academy products, as the club communicated clearly that the likes of Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles would form a core part of the first-team squad.
Matteo Guendouzi and Gabriel Martinelli added an international flavour to this youth explosion [though, in truth, we have probably all been surprised by the speed of Martinelli’s ascension]. The plan to integrate younger players was partly financial necessity dressed up as a “core value” by the club suits, but it makes sense to give bit-part roles to young players when building a squad.
The second cause of excitement was the wave of activity in the transfer market. Kieran Tierney, David Luiz and Dani Ceballos arrived. Tierney and Ceballos’ seasons have been interrupted by injury, while Luiz was one of many players to appear discombobulated in the final months of Unai Emery’s reign. No transfer created the frisson of excitement caused by the £72m capture of Nicolas Pepe.
Pepe has taken time to settle into English football and into life at Arsenal. Emery, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta have all started him on the bench at some point, citing a lack of effervescence at London Colney. However, again, he was far from alone in struggling during the autumn months as Emery’s reign drifted into a fog of confusion.
Under Arteta, Arsenal have quickly improved the structure of the team. No longer do they cough up shots on goal in the hundreds and the players don’t look like a team of ringers that met in the car park ten minutes before the game. It feels like the first half of the season was a long, drawn out false start for Arsenal, or some interminable VAR delay as Raul Sanllehi and co deliberated for far too long over the relatively simple call to show Unai Emery the red card.
Essentially, Arsenal are just leaving the starting blocks they ought to have been galloping away from last August. Within this new framework, it feels like a fairer context against which to judge the players. David Luiz has looked more like a Premier League and Champions League winning centre-half since Arteta’s arrival, Granit Xhaka is in danger of becoming a cult figure with the Arsenal support while Mesut Özil has been seen doing some serious pressing.
So what of Nicolas Pepe in this brave new Arsenal world where the players know where to stand and can pass to one another cogently? In the opening week of Arteta’s reign, he urged the Ivorian to show greater dedication in training. “The problem is confidence will only come when he plays, but he has to train well enough to convince the manager I am confident enough to play him.”
Six goals and five assists from 17 starts is not bad for Pepe, but Arsenal didn’t pay “not bad” money. At this stage of his Arsenal career, I have come to view Pepe as a luxury player, which isn’t intended as a pejorative. He is a high-risk / high reward type of winger and the price you pay for a player that tries to make high-level interventions is that they will frustrate from time-to-time.
Alexis Sanchez was absolutely in this mould, he often lost the ball in the final third attempting the difficult, which drove some Arsenal fans to distraction. He also directly contributed to around 30 goals a season, which rather negated the odd overcooked through ball. Neymar is a luxury player, he will not chase back and protect his full-back, neither will Lionel Messi, whose running stats in recent years have not so much declined as reclined.
Özil is very much a luxury player too. When you are a luxury player, you need the regular end-product to justify a lack of contribution in other areas, or the occasional lack of accuracy. It’s easy to see that Pepe has an elite talent for dribbling, he has that kind of slow-motion lilt with the ball that puts me in mind of Kanu, lulling his opponents like a snake charmer.
Pepe is playing relatively well and his acclimatisation period is essentially starting again from the New Year, so he remains in a grace period. His end-product will need to increase in the coming months, but he has also been assigned a tricky, yet important task by his manager. Arsenal have looked to create overloads on the left hand-side of the field under Arteta’s tutelage.
Granit Xhaka drops back into a quasi-centre back role on the left side, the left-back pushes up the pitch and allows the left-sided forward to move inside and support the striker. In Arteta’s opening games, it was Kolasinac and Aubameyang that dovetailed in this manner, but in recent games Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli has struck up an excellent understanding in these roles.
Arsenal have effectively put one side of their formation on stilts and tilted it towards the left side. Part of the plan has been to sucker the opponent over to the right, before hitting them with the quick switch-a-roo to the left, where the left-back and left-sided attacker lie in wait. Meanwhile, on the right, Hector Bellerin or Ainsley Maitland-Niles have not been instructed to be as adventurous.
As Adrian Clarke points out in the Breakdown of the Bournemouth game, Arsenal often attack with five players strung across the front-line; from left to right; the left-back, the left-sided attacker, the centre-forward, the number 10 and then the right-winger. The right-back tucks inside in a more defensive position as an extra safeguard against the counter-attack. This means that Pepe has no overlap to avail of.
It makes sense for Arteta to put his best dribbler into this situation, he is best able to handle being crowded by opponents without an immediate exit to his full-back available. He does have the number 10, be it Özil or, as it was on Monday evening, Willock. Building up this relationship further is key for Pepe, to be able to bump the ball in-field and pull defences out of shape with his dribbling and the spectre of his dribbling, which can be just as important in wrong footing the opponent.
As the right-winger, Pepe has been handed one of the more difficult tasks of the Arsenal front five. Likewise, the centre-forward role is not an entirely glamorous one, as the striker acts as something of a pivot, allowing space for the left inside-forward to move into dangerous areas. Arteta has, sensibly, given Martinelli and Saka the more attractive roles as the junior members of the unit.
Pepe and Lacazette have lots of responsibility and will occasionally plough a lone furrow to help the team pick the lock. That said, the time is approaching for Pepe to produce more. Robert Pires and Alexis Sanchez were luxury players Arsenal could afford due to their end-product. Andrey Arshavin and Lukas Podolski were luxuries that the Gunners could not afford because they did not produce consistently enough. Time will tell which of these categories Nicolas Pepe falls into.