Nicolas Pepe has had quite the uncommon beginning to his life at Arsenal, but given the snippet, how high might his ceiling go?
Nicolas Pepe’s first season at Arsenal was anything but customary for a player joining a new team. He entered the season as Arsenal’s most expensive transfer in its history, consequently ushering in some high expectations along with him. His record season at Lille the year before brought the prospect of an immediate game-changer to an Arsenal team that was seeking an identity.
His arrival also coincided with the downfall of Unai Emery, the manager that has taken the blame for much of Arsenal’s struggles in both winning and roster structure.
When he arrived in North London, he was coming off a remarkable season at Lille. His 22 goals and 11 assists were enough to land him on a 4-player shortlist for League 1 player of the season. He didn’t win that award, however, Kylian Mbappe’s 33 goal season could be to blame.
Pepe had been steady in production for the French side in his two seasons. 35 goals and 16 assists in two years is impressive in any league, but that kind of production in France’s premier competition is superb. He helped propel them from 17th place in the 2017-18 season to 2nd place in the 2018-19 campaign.
Nicolas Pepe has had quite the year at Arsenal in a lot of ways
Once he got to Arsenal, Pepe started the season on the bench. As expected, he quickly broke into the starting 11. His first start for Arsenal came in their third Premier League game, an away loss to Liverpool. Although it was anticipated that his impact would be noticeable right away, he struggled to produce early on. Other than a penalty kick given up by Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang to Pepe to help spur his confidence, the winger from Ivory Coast didn’t score a Premier League goal until mid-December. This came after Emery’s firing, during Freddie Ljunberg’s short stint as interim manager
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Pepe’s production at Arsenal thus far has been shallow compared to his contributions to his previous side. He scored six goals and tallied eight assists in all competitions during his first year with the Gunners. His numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, but they are still good enough to make him the fourth-highest scorer and the top in assists for Arsenal’s 2019-20 season.
Pepe finally began to show consistent artistry at his right-wing position under Mikel Arteta. Before Arteta’s takeover, Pepe was not living up to his massive hype. Two free-kick stunners in a Europa League matchup versus Vitoria exhibited the player’s potential, but his 2019 production was minimal. It was not until a major change in his role that Pepe’s influence was seen.
His game changed from a do-it-all winger under Emery to a penalty-area authority under Arteta. He is doing far more with far less in the new manager’s system.
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Arteta’s tactics include throwing more into Arsenal’s front line. During attacks, he pushes the left back up to the left wing and overloads the left channel. This allows for Pepe to get wide on the opposite side, and once the ball is set up near the left penalty area or just outside he cuts across the top of the box for a cross. This has proven to be perfect for Pepe’s deadly left instep, whether he is setting up a teammate or rifling a shot on net.
In just the few months that Arteta has been at Arsenal, Pepe has already begun to see his new manager’s changes affect his game. He has taken only three shots outside the box since Arteta’s debut, compared to 11 before. None of these has made it into the back of the net, however, his play within the box has been amplified.
Pepe’s touches per 90 within the box have shot up from 3 to 4.71, and his progressive runs have gone from 3.07 per 90 to 4.25. His usage has shifted to inside the box, where he has shown his impact on the result of a game.
Carrying the ball on his own, Pepe has proven his quality. He can take defenders one on one down the right-wing, which he showed when he bullied Luke Shaw for the full 90 minutes in Arsenal’s victory over Manchester United in January. Arteta wants to make the most out of this, like he did with both Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane at Manchester City.
Joining a new league can be tough for any caliber player, and the physicality of the Premier League is something that not all players are accustomed to. Pepe showed struggles with massive defenders in the league, and he became frustrated at times when calls weren’t going his way. He also relies heavily on his left foot, and certain defenders left him annoyed when they took that away.
Pepe’s style of play is elegant rather than barbaric, but that doesn’t mean he can’t find success in this league. Playing to his strengths — close control dribbling, technique, and pace — can allow him to find his niche. Also, he can exploit the aggressive defenders of the Premier League by relying on his balance and his run timing.
Although he is still a work in progress, Nicolas Pepe’s first year should be seen as a promising first step to a fortunate Arsenal career. Pepe’s sound 2020 showed that he has more to offer to the club. Under Arteta, Pepe has shown that he is not only willing to take steps to improve his game but capable of doing so. The crafty winger could be the Gunner’s marquee player in the near future.