There’s a common belief within the Arsenal faithful that the 20/21 season will be the season Nicolas Pepe truly finds his feet in England. After what can only be considered as an underwhelming first season in North London, it’s time for the Ivory Coast international to push on.
Lille President Gerard Lopez expects Pepe will realise his potential at Arsenal this season. He recounts that the former Lille talisman also needed a season to adjust to his former club’s style of play in France:
Talking to Sky Sports, Lopez said “They [Arsenal] have a player [Pepe] where people forget his age, and the fact he took one season to click within our system and then became the player which we all know.”
Lopez predicted later on in the interview that “the best is yet to come” for the 25-year-old winger at Arsenal.
Nonetheless, in his press conference ahead of our Monday night encounter with Liverpool, Mikel Arteta suggested things may not be as straightforward as many think. While our manager believes Pepe will remain with Arsenal for “many years”, he also accepts that the Ivorian needs to get to a stage where he can “perform at a high level consistently”.
This was always the major frustration with Pepe during his first season at Arsenal. We saw glimpses of what he could give us but we were never treated to an excellent run of games from our record signing. Arteta has inferred this may have been caused by the “extra pressure” caused by Pepe’s astronomical price tag.
Unfortunately, our manager’s proclamations regarding club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could indicate another tricky season could be on the cards for Pepe. Of course, Arteta announced “I want to build my team around” Aubameyang.
If the Gabon international continues to be deployed on the left flank, this likely means our attacking plans will be geared towards moving the ball out towards the left-hand-side. Music to Aubameyang’s ears, sirens to Pepe’s.
In his final season in France, where he racked up 22 goals and 11 assists with Lille, Pepe thrived in a very similar role to the one Aubameyang plays for Arsenal. However, as we know, Pepe was situated on the opposite flank. Over the course of the last three seasons, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpol have shown you can play with two inside forwards. Arsenal’s opening day rout at Craven Cottage indicates that might not be quite what Mikel Arteta is going for.
Willian’s performance that day inferred Arteta wants his right-winger to play a more creative role for his side. Now, I don’t think this purely due to the fact Willian played an instrumental role for us in the build up to all three of our goals at Fulham, I think this because of the positions he picked up over the course of our opening day victory.
Against Fulham and West Ham, Willian could often be seen popping up in areas a number 8 would normally find himself in. Offensively, the Brazilian was constantly interchanging with Hector Bellerin which meant our Spanish full-back was usually on the overlap whilst Willian frequently found himself in the half-space.
Clearly, there was an emphasis on getting the most out of Willian’s creative abilities. I doubt Pepe would be able to play such a role as effectively. In spite of the fact Pepe can deliver a wonderful cross and is something of a dead ball specialist, he is not an out and out creator. As Pepe conveyed during his 18/19 season in France, he is a goal scorer.
As such, the 20/21 season could represent another season of frustration. Pepe could well be kept out of Mikel Arteta’s side by Willian and when he does get opportunities the role he plays may not suit him particularly well. Ideally, Mikel Arteta will sought to ensure this doesn’t end up being the case.
One way he could potentially do this is by deploying a Liverpool-esque system. If we manage to land the signatures of Houssem Aouar and Thomas Partey, it’s likely that we’d have a strong enough midfield to be able to shift to a back four. With Partey and Xhaka shielding the defence, Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin would be a given a greater license to get forward.
Tierney has excelled in his unorthodox left-centre-back role. But, it has inhibited the Scot’s attacking potential. If Mikel Arteta can get the former Celtic defender marauding down the left wing, he could unlock Pepe’s goal scoring potential.
We are yet to have consistently seen Tierney’s offensive capabilities on a consistent basis. Nonetheless, when we have seen him get forward, he has shown his crossing is nothing short of exceptional.
When Tierney played left-wing-back away at Sheffield United in the FA Cup quarter-final, funnily enough, Pepe delivered his best performance in an Arsenal shirt to date. We got a sneak peak of what Tierney and Pepe working in tandem could offer us in the future.
So, if Mikel Arteta focuses on finding a system which is not only centred around shifting the ball right-to-left to find Aubameyang, but also looks to move the ball left-to-right to find Pepe, the 25-year-old could be in business this season. Of course, it would take time to implement such a system and it’s unlikely it’d work without Partey and Aouar. However, it shows that all hope is not lost for Pepe this campaign.
His limited minutes so far this season have indicated Pepe still isn’t quite where we would’ve wanted him to be by now. Nevertheless, once again, he has shown signs to suggest he could turn into a superstar at Arsenal. Without piling too much pressure on to him, let’s all hope that this will be Nicolas Pepe’s breakout season in England.
(Featured Image: Via Getty)