When Arsenal bought Nicolas Pepe for the sum of £72 million, they were expecting a player who could finally replace Alexis Sanchez and even better his legacy at the club. In terms of talent, Arsenal surely put their money at the right place, however, Pepe hasn’t lived upto the expectations, yet.
That isn’t down to just him.
Under Unai Emery, most of the players were regressing and a young man who’s still gelling into a whole new environment, it wasn’t an easy task, yet Nicolas Pepe ended his first season with 18 goal contributions including 8 goals and 10 assists.
Obviously, he played under Mikel Arteta for most of the latter part of the last season, however, things weren’t all pleasant for the Ivorian as it were with the club as a whole. While Arteta did put a system in place which would make Arsenal more effective and solid, it came at a certain cost.
Most of the efforts were put in to create a solid foundation for Arsenal to shield their error-prone defensive unit with only an exception of Aubameyang, who was admittedly equally committed to his defensive duties, who had the most freedom.
Nicolas Pepe was used in a role which isn’t going to get the best out of him. Did Arteta know this? Surely he did, but there was only so much he could have done about it. However, Mikel Arteta did succeed in getting the best out of Pepe in terms of his creativity.
Mikel Arteta paid special emphasis on how he wants to supply creativity into the team even from the wings and Pepe was a big part of the plan as on the other wing he had Aubameyang who was more the goal scorer than a creator.
Nicolas Pepe ended the season with his second-best assists tally and his best assists per 90 ratio during his career. There seemed to be a pattern of play developing between Aubameyang and Pepe, where Pepe would find the former Dortmund man on the far post time and again allowing Aubameyang to apply a clean finish to rack up goals for Arsenal. Pepe then came up with a big performance against Chelsea in the FA Cup final, he ended the game with an assist to his name and a wonderful disallowed goal, however, these numbers don’t do justice to his performance.
He made a total of 3 tackles and that is enough to showcase how he turned up for the big match. That performance was expected to lay a foundation for Pepe and Arteta to build upon. However, Pepe ended up being benched by the 32-year-old new boy Willian.
Surely Pepe tips Willian in terms of ability, but again the Brazilian is more effective in terms of what Arteta is trying to implement. Willian doubles up as Winger and as a No.10 when required which in turns compensates for the lack of creativity that Arsenal experience due to their 3-4-3 setup compromising of usually one defensive midfielder and another deep-lying playmaker with limited freedom or two defensive midfielders. Willian provides something Pepe can’t and hence why he has been getting a nod ahead.
Regardless of everything, considering the price that Arsenal paid for Pepe and the talent that the player possesses, the former Lille man is surely being underutilized. He needs to play more to become a better player.
For Arteta to be able to successfully include Pepe into his side he needs to start playing a 4-3-3 which will allow enough men, in particular a No.8, in the midfield to supply the creativity hence allowing the wingers more freedom than they have in the current system.
This will decrease Arsenal’s dependency on Willian and allow more game time for Pepe and most importantly allow him the space to take up a more central position. With a three-man midfield, Bellerin wouldn’t be asked to join the midfield and he will be able to maintain the width allowing Pepe to cut inside more often. If you look closely at the heatmaps for Pepe’s breakthrough season at Lille and his first season at Arsenal, you can clearly see Pepe is playing more centrally in France.
Looking at Pepe stats it’s pretty clear why he hasn’t been able to reproduce his Lille output.
Pepe had an xG of 21 at Lille in the 2018-19 season in which he scored a total of 23 goals which meant he outperformed his xG by 109%. While at Arsenal he has had an xG of 5.1 in his first season in which he scored 8 goals, he outperformed his xG by 160%.
Surely he’s not finishing any worse than he was at Lille. If you’re gonna put him into promising situations more often you’ll get more goals out of him. It might sound easy but this is going to be Mikel Arteta’s biggest challenge.
However, if Arteta wants to leave a legacy at Arsenal which will match his ambitions, he has to unlock Pepe’s potential and the arrival of Thomas Partey will only help the Spaniard.