During last week’s chastening defeat against Olympiacos, few Arsenal performances confused more than Nicolas Pepe’s. In a microcosm of his Gunners career so far, the Ivorian looked, simultaneously, like Arsenal’s most dangerous and most frustrating player. In many ways, he put me in mind of Theo Walcott, he made me clack my tongue in irritation but I absolutely didn’t want the coach to substitute him lest he produce a match-winning moment.
In many respects, this is part of the deal you do when you enlist a wide player with good end-product. Players like this frustrate because they attempt the difficult and attempting the difficult tends to have a high rate of attrition. At this point, it is fair to say that he has blown hot and cold since his arrival from Lille in the summer. I do wonder how we would judge him had Arsenal paid, say, £36m instead of £72m for his signature.
Pepe is very one-dimensional in that he always has to cut inside – which he is very good at – but at the same time, he’s got this unorthodox dribbling style and gait that exposes the ball such that he doesn’t seem to be fully in control of it.
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) February 27, 2020
His dribbling skills and his delivery are at elite levels, but sometimes his decision-making leaves much to be desired and he often rolls passes agonisingly slowly to teammates, drawing the sting from attacks. However, the responsibility for Pepe’s inconsistency does not rest entirely at his door. The player is at least partially a victim of Arsenal’s ‘buy now think later’ approach to recruitment.
The entire attack has been poorly constructed. The decision to buy two £50m centre-forwards for a one striker system in 2017-18 typified the scattergun philosophy of the late Wenger era. The £72m signing of Nicolas Pepe appears to have been informed by the same school of semi-thought. As the tifo football video below shows, Pepe thrived in a free role at Lille, who were largely a counter-attacking side.
Arsenal are pretty much the exact opposite. However, it is not just a lack of counter-attacking opportunities that has inhibited Pepe- he has less tactical freedom than he had in France. Like many coaches, Arteta likes for one of his wide players to hold the width of the pitch and play close to the touchline and for the other to play more like an inside-forward.
The problem for Pepe is that the only player in the Arsenal team that can absolutely pull rank on him is Pierre Emerick Aubmeyang. The Gabonese plays on one of the flanks and if you want one wide player to hold width and one to move inside, it’s not Aubameyang’s boots that are going to get chalky. As a result, Pepe is asked to stretch the pitch and it’s a role that doesn’t entirely suit him for a number of reasons.
His strength is cutting inside onto his left foot from the right flank, but he needs a right-back to overlap to introduce that level of jeopardy into the play. In Arteta’s system, the right-back doesn’t overlap, he tucks in to erect a barrier against the counter-attack. To successfully shift the ball onto his left-foot, Pepe ideally needs an overlapping player to provide a decoy and make his feints and shimmies more effective.
With no overlap, defenders don’t have to worry about the prospect of a reverse ball to the right-back, so they can just continue to track Pepe inside. Mesut Özil tends to operate on Pepe’s side to offer interchange; the problem is that Özil is as much a southpaw as Pepe, which limits the panorama of their play, often slowing things down to a walking pace on Arsenal’s right touchline.
At Portsmouth on Monday evening, Reiss Nelson played on the right wing and though he is not on Pepe’s level in terms of talent, he is far more suited to that touchline-hugging role. As a right-footer, he was also more easily able to fire crosses into the area for both Arsenal goals. Though, in fairness, Pepe has assists in his last two Premier League appearances, lofting left-footed crosses onto the head of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang from the right.
The big problem for Pepe is that there are two senior players adopting the roles that suit him the best. Özil is the player with freedom to roam between the lines. I don’t think Pepe is a number 10 per se, but at Lille he moved in-field often in the defensive phase, ready to pick up the ball in the half-spaces when the team forced opposition turnovers.
The number 10 performs a rough approximation of this role for Arsenal, with Pepe asked to stay wide. The issue with staying in wide positions is also that there is more debris to clear before you possess the ball closer to goal. Essentially, when Pepe has the ball, he has a full-back and the opposition winger in his immediate vista. Even if he manages to beat them, there is a centre-half and possibly a defensive midfielder to negotiate before he even hits the penalty area.
With Özil drifting over to the right, he brings the cavalry with him too, meaning Pepe is often asked to operate in a very crowded area of the field. This is part of the reason that Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Aubameyang are having more joy in the Arsenal attack at the moment, because there is a little less traffic on Arsenal’s left. They attract the opponent to their right in order to free up their left hand side.
Arsenal paid the money for Pepe without properly asking the question as to how he would fit into the attack alongside Lacazette and Aubameyang. In his recent, ‘it wasn’t my fault’ media tour, Unai Emery made it very clear that the signing of Pepe wasn’t his choice. “Nicolas Pepe, who was a choice of the club, clearly needs time to adapt. But I accept the rules, it would be a mistake to criticise it because I have also benefited from this judgment in the past.”
The upshot is that the club have wasted the first season of their record signing at least and given the relatively parlous state of their finances, they literally cannot afford for this move to fail. Yet it needn’t be a failure in perpetuity. Pablo Mari could be an interesting addition for Pepe, having a left-footed defender capable of raking diagonal passes from left to right could result in him receiving the ball earlier and at more favourable angles.
Luiz and Mustafi are both capable of penetrating passes, but both are right-footed, which means their longer passes usually sail over to Arsenal’s left. Aubameyang might not be longed for the club after this summer, which should mean that the coach can [try to] build a new attack more suited to the attributes of players that represent the club’s medium-term future, like Pepe and Martinelli.
There are other ‘soft’ factors at play too, of course, like adapting to life in London, the culture of a big club and, of course, learning to speak English- all of which are considerable challenges. He needs to sand the rough edges off his technique and decision-making at times. Most of all, his mercurial first season ought to convince the Arsenal hierarchy, once and for all, of the need to think before you buy.