Three games is too small a sample size to declare Nicolas Pepe’s redemption complete but the curve has arced pleasingly upwards in the last fortnight. Outstanding performances on both flanks against Southampton, Manchester United and Wolves have shown Arsenal fans the range of his talent.
In fairness, I think most of us have always recognised the talent in the player. His influence in the final third has always been there for all to see. He has seven goals and three assists in 24 appearances this season (15 of those have been starts). Last season he had eight goals and ten assists across 42 appearances.
Those are good numbers, they are not £72m numbers- but good nonetheless. It’s not Pepe’s fault that he cost so much and his fee is bandied around so much that some of us have begun to wonder whether “£72m Nicolas Pepe” is his full name but it is entirely relevant to the conversation around him.
Value dictates our assessment of absolutely everything. Your expectation of a £100 meal at an upmarket restaurant is different to your expectation of a doner kebab. The issue in analysing Pepe is not, strangely, whether he can provide goals and assists, we know he can. It’s the in between parts that have been so sorely lacking.
It’s all very well being able to riff your way through Crosstown Traffic but sometimes you just need to be able to strum Wonderwall. There were times where I began to wonder whether Pepe had played football with other people before. His ability to strike a football is, in my view, unrivalled in the Arsenal squad.
Yet oftentimes he has looked so out of kilter with his teammates- like a man who has come to a rap battle armed with a triangle and a harmonica. His appreciation of tactical basics has been subpar and sometimes he seems to lose concentration so easily, allowing the ball to wriggle under his studs after being distracted by a pleasing looking nimbostratus cloud in the afternoon sky.
Before we touch on the tactical nuances of his recent improvement and the heatmaps and so on, the first thing to say is that he has drastically improved in the fundamental aspects of the game. We all watch football in different ways; but we can all tell when a player’s intensity levels rise. It is innate to the football watching experience, you can perceive conviction and we can all see that Pepe just looks more convincing.
Pepe seems to be an introvert and introversion is often mistaken as a weakness in the uber machismo environment of football- but introverts are capable of transmitting intensity and we can all see that in the Ivorian recently. He had five ball recoveries against Manchester United and seven against Southampton. His goal against Wolves emanates from a ball recovery inside the opponents’ half.
That said, he managed four ball recoveries in an otherwise impoverished display in a 2-1 defeat at Goodison Park in December. His shot and key pass metrics have not notably increased in the last three games, they have always been steady. Pepe looks visibly more engaged and whether he has had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment or not is probably his business but the environment he is operating in has changed.
As Andrew wrote in Thursday morning’s blog, I think it is quite possible that Pepe’s confidence was damaged by the signing of Willian after a strong finish to last season. That is not to absolve Nico, of course, one needs to rise to the challenge of competition at a big club.
The signing of Willian hasn’t worked thus far, to phrase it politely and Willian’s presence not only limited Pepe’s opportunities but when the two wingers are played together, one of them has to move away from their preferred right flank slot. Pepe has a little more to his game than Willian because he is capable of running in behind defences off the ball. In fact, he really has the qualities of a second striker with his presence in the area and ability to connect with the ball cleanly. We can see how much better he looks in Arsenal’s improved tactical framework.
A lot of that improvement has been driven by Emile Smith-Rowe, who knits attacks together brilliantly because he often drifts towards the winger in possession and makes himself the spare man. Saka has also improved notably since Smith-Rowe’s introduction and it’s because he has that out ball available to him now. He is no longer required to beat two or three men before he can advance with the ball.
Pepe has benefitted for the same reason, it is more difficult to gang up on the Ivorian with Smith Rowe often available for a pass inside of him. Smith Rowe is also very good at filling in on the flanks when Saka or Pepe move inside. That partially explains why Pepe has looked effective on both the left and right flanks of late.
The introduction of Thomas Partey into the midfield has also made a marked difference with his ability to spread play to the flanks. Simply, this has enabled Pepe to take up more threatening positions more regularly. Below are Pepe’s heatmaps from games against Aston Villa and Everton (where he was a second half substitute) before Christmas. In these matches, where he was less effective, he spent more time glued to the touchline, where his influence is reduced.
Now look at his last three heatmaps below. He drifts in field far more regularly, which makes it more difficult for opponents to pick him up and also puts him into positions where he can be more dangerous. Pepe made his name as a counterattacking inside forward at Lille. His success there was not built on dribbling past banks of defenders, it was built on quickly breaking into central spaces with out to in runs.
Mo Salah hasn’t scored over twenty goals for four consecutive seasons by playing on the touchline. Robert Pires wasn’t the oil in the Arsenal engine because he was stood next to the Highbury ball boys. Arsenal have found a way to get Pepe into positions where he can be more dangerous more often.
Whether his improved engagement levels are a result of playing in a more fluid attacking outfit or whether they were down to some personal soul searching is open to debate. However, it is fair to say that a rising attacking tide has lifted this particular boat. For now, of course.
Arsenal haven’t played in this style for a long period yet. Opponents will be collecting more data and will look more closely at the likes of Saka, Smith Rowe and, in light of his recent form, Pepe too. I would wager that Dean Smith is showing his players plenty of clips from Pepe’s last three performances as they try to conjure up a way to nullify his influence on Saturday.
That is the Ivorian’s next challenge- to respond to the response. We know he has match winning moments in him but his concentration and engagement levels must hold. He has to continue to build on the fundamentals, perform to a six or seven out of ten level each week and the moments of inspiration will take care of themselves.