When Nicolas Pepe joined Arsenal from Lille in the summer of 2019 for a club-record fee, fans were understandably ecstatic. Here was someone who tore up Ligue 1 the previous season, scoring 22 goals and assisting 11. The club had fought off interest from Europe’s elite in order to bring the Ivorian to the Emirates. The signing of Pepe was a statement of intent.
Fast forward 14 months, however, and it’s fair to say the Ivorian hasn’t lived up to expectations. His first season in England, if I had to describe it in one word, was frustrating. While he racked up the second-most assists in the team last season, five goals and six assists in the league was a disappointing return for the £70 million man.
Pepe had his moments of brilliance, such as his two free-kicks against Vitoria, as well as performances against Manchester City and Chelsea in last season’s FA Cup run. Other than that, he’s largely not lived up to expectations. Why is this exactly?
Pepe is undoubtedly one of Arsenal’s best players in terms of pure footballing ability. Despite this, something is yet to click for the winger. His first season was disrupted, to say the least. Three managers and a three-month shutdown, plus a new language, culture and vastly different style of play did not help him adapt to English football.
What also did not help Pepe was a right-back who could overlap, meaning Pepe couldn’t drift more into the middle, where he is the most dangerous. Hector Bellerin was injured for last parts of the season, and a switch to a three-man backline didn’t come until after the lockdown. Despite these set-backs however, many expected Pepe to kick off this campaign.
Pepe’s start to this campaign has been arguably more frustrating than last season, however. Willian’s arrival from Chelsea meant that the Ivorian has started the majority of Arsenal’s league games of the bench. The winger has only started one game this season, and was dropped for Aubameyang on the right.
When Pepe has played this season, it’s usually for thirty minutes a game as an impact substitute. While he did change the game against Sheffield, grabbing a goal in the process, he hasn’t been able to have an impact.
Under Arteta this season, most of Arsenal’s attacks have been focused down the left-hand side. This is due to Arteta wanting to overload parts of the pitch. While the likes of Aubameyang, Saka and Tierney are good attacking players, there’s too much responsibility being placed on them. This has made Arsenal become predictable this season in attack.
The result is Pepe getting isolated out on the right. He doesn’t receive much of the ball, and when he does, it’s normally in bad positions. Take the recent Leicester game for example, the Ivorian got hardly any time in possession, and when he did, he had several Leicester players marking him, ready to win the ball.
This limits his effectiveness down significantly. The same can be said of Aubameyang, who’s largely disappointed on the left this campaign. If you look at the FA Cup final against Chelsea, Pepe was arguably Man of The Match, causing havoc all game, and even racking up a fantastic (albeit disallowed) goal. Why was Pepe so effective? Because Arsenal’s build up play happened through the right as well as through the left. Hector Bellerin overlapped Pepe, which allowed him to drift in centrally.
If you look at the Leicester game however, Pepe largely had Dani Ceballos behind him. The result was total ineffectiveness down the right, as both players didn’t do anything of note. At Lille, Pepe played on the right-hand side of a 4-2-3-1 under Christophe Galtier, with the fullback required to overlap.
It seems that Pepe shines in a system where he’s on the right side of a flat three. A good example is when Arteta first took over. The Spaniard deployed a 4-2-3-1 multiple times before the lockdown and Pepe put in good performance after good performance, most notably in the 2-0 win over Manchester United in January.
The case of Nicolas Pepe is an interesting one. He’s a player with bag loads of potential and the ability to turn over any defence on his day. After a frustrating first season for factors out of his control, many agree he has to kick on now. While the Ivorian hasn’t been used effectively, it seems a change in tactics is close. Whatever happens, it’s seemingly now or never for Nicolas Pepe.