It’s fair to say that Nicolas Pepe has struggled since becoming Arsenal’s record signing in the summer. The forward, who moved for £72 million from Lille, has scored just one goal and made two assists from six starts under Unai Emery, far below his numbers for Lille last season.
The Ivorian has looked a little lost in Emery’s system, bereft of the instinctive tactical knowledge needed to function in such a monotonic style of play, particularly in attack.
Getting the best out of Pepe remains a work in progress, but the relies on a combination of tactical alterations, man-management, and some style changes by the player himself.
This piece, the first in a two-part series, looks at what the Pepe himself can do in order to unlock his undoubted talent.
Getting into more dangerous areas
The 24-year old has looked promising in a series of short spurts – think of his cameo against Burnley, his first half at Anfield (albeit with a shocking miss that may have otherwise given the Gunners a result), and his performance against Bournemouth.
All of these have a common factor: Pepe was playing in more dangerous areas of the pitch. As an inside forward, the touchline isn’t as much of Pepe’s friend as a more traditional winger.
He does his best work not only cutting inside – which Arsenal fans have seen him do in some of his better moments at the Emirates – but by altering his starting position to be more central when he receives a pass.
With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Bukayo Saka all players who prefer to finish opportunities rather than create them, Pepe needs to be positioned between the left-back and centre-back, and between the midfield and defensive line, to truly be of consistent influence. Here, he’ll have three passing options: to the overlapping fullback (that his inverted position has allowed), back towards a central midfielder, or into the feet of the striker.
Importantly though, these passing options will be spread over 360 degrees, not the 180 degrees that a wider position towards the touchline allows for.
A more dangerous position when receiving the ball will not only help the Ivorian’s offensive actions contribute to a more quantifiable end product but aid his unpredictability by giving him more options, which is a key facilitator for great performances for a player like Pepe.
Improving combination play
The 24-year old’s quick feet have been on display at times this season – a mazy dribble against Bournemouth was a rare highlight to an otherwise dull encounter.
However, these feet have mainly been used in solo actions so far at Arsenal, such as dribbles, long-distance shots and lung-bursting runs chasing down longer passes.
Pepe’s understanding with his teammates, particularly the striker to his left and central midfielder situated behind him, will improve as he further adapts to life at the Emirates. In order to take this understanding and make it quantifiable in games though, Pepe must improve his combination play with his teammates.
Arsenal’s build-up has been notable for how stagnant it is this season, and Pepe is the one player in the team that isn’t a striker from Gabon, who’s off-the-ball movement can alter the speed and outcome of build-up moves Arsenal embark upon.
Quick one-twos with teammates, as opposed to his more individual work, might be the key that allows Arsenal to move the ball quicker, which suits Pepe’s other strengths and adds a new dimension to the Gunners’ attack.
Keeping that chin up!
The former Lille player spoke recently about how his confidence has been affected by his slower than expected start to life at the Emirates.
“I’m not good enough in my stats or my usual form, it’s not the same as in Lille or during the Liverpool match early in the season,” he said in an interview after a poor performance against Manchester United.
A slow adaptation process can knock a player’s self-assurance, particularly when there’s such high expectation, with Arsenal very publicly targeting a Champions League place and the Ivorian being their club-record signing.
However, there’s no reason to suspect that the obvious talents of Pepe won’t come to the fore at some stage. He’s an elite dribbler, averaging 2.4 a game so far at Arsenal, and his goal and assist numbers at Lille show that there’s end product to match his fits and starts this season.
Luckily, it seems Pepe understands this and is keeping himself in check. “The confidence must come back. I am not very worried. People may be worried about statistics, but I’m not.”
“I have to keep working because the level is different, so is the language. It’s a new championship for me. I have to adapt quickly but it will not be long.”
These are wise words for a player who has got into his own head at times on the pitch this season. For such an instinctive player who relies on confidence to do extraordinary things on the pitch, this can be highly detrimental.
A strong mentality is just as important as tactical and stylistic adjustments, and if Pepe can maintain his level-headed mindset, coupled with a couple of small stylistic tweaks, he’ll go a long way to paying back such the hefty price-tag Arsenal forked out for him in the summer.