The Ivorian is a hot topic among Arsenal fans.
Having broken Arsenal’s record transfer fee by a cold £20m, many expected Pepe to be the second coming of Lionel Messi, especially considering his 30 goal contributions the year before. And while he recorded 18 goals and assists in 2019/20, many deemed his overall performance a failure.
He almost tried too hard at many points last season, with an over-dependence on his left foot and enthusiasm going forward overcoming his potential. He also took quite a while to adjust to English football, after the comparative lack of physicality in France. And despite tallying the fourth-most appearances in the squad last year, he still didn’t pull through like we needed.
And while Willian pulled out the carpet from under his feet early this year, Pepe has opened his account with a Thierry Henry-esque finish into the bottom corner against Sheffield United, a stunning strike that eventually proved to be the match winner. Many Arsenal fans are clamoring for his increased creativity off the right-wing, especially given Willian’s visible productivity through the middle against the Blades.
If Pepe does make a regular reappearance in the starting role, he’ll have to perform well, and do so consistently, in order to retain that berth. He hasn’t shown himself capable of that thus far in his Arsenal career. So what comes next? How do we determine if Nicolas Pepe’s 2020/21 was a failure or a success?
First off, he must establish himself in the league. Five goals and six assists over 31 appearances isn’t awful, but it’s no better than Alex Iwobi was earning at the peak of his powers. Furthermore because one of those goals was a penalty, having your record signing score four goals from open play sounds, honestly, a bit s**t.
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Pepe needs to tally at least 16-20 goal contributions in the league in order to justify his price tag. Eight goals and eight assists sounds reasonable to me, no? Even if his participation takes a nosedive in cup competitions, that will free up space for Reiss Nelson to play and progress in his career. The Ivorian needs to become our go-to guy in the league.
Second, he needs to improve his crossing, specifically with his right foot. He’s so left-footed that his movements are incredibly predictable, and any decent full-back just has to show him the touchline to nullify his production.
And unless your name is Arjen Robben, just having a left foot doesn’t fly in the modern era. All the great left-footed right-wingers of this day and age – Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, Angel Di Maria, Messi – have a right foot that ranges from very functional to occasionally spectacular. The same cannot be said for Pepe.
Finally, and most importantly, he has to finish his chances. The hardest part of professional football is finding a rhythm, and chaining those standout moments of brilliance into a brilliant performance. Pepe’s best moments might fill a good YouTube highlight reel, but they’re sporadic.
His three biggest issues, as I see them, are as follows. He dwells on the ball in the box, looking for the perfect opportunity to shoot, as opposed to a good one. He does the same thing with crosses, taking too long to deliver what he believes is the perfect pass. Finally, he concedes possession while dribbling, typically around the halfway line, which can often tee up opposing counter attacks. In his fight for perfection, he forgets the good.
It doesn’t have to be a major change. Simply putting three more dangerous crosses into the box per game, or shooting on three more half-chances, will skyrocket his potential for goal-scoring and creating. Similarly, some of his best moments – often overlooked because they’re not flashy – come in holdup play, where he’s able to contribute to the success of his teammates. Allowing him the freedom to operate as Willian is now, in a free-roaming role, could do wonders for his confidence and production.
Pepe has learned how to work in English football. His defensive industry has increased tenfold over the past year, and he’s starting to flow more consistently within this Arsenal team. He’s learned how to fight in English football, and has begun to slowly take advantage of the opportunities granted to him. But the final step is that he needs to learn how to win in English football, to truly prove that he is cut above the rest.
And that is what defines success for Pepe this season. He must become a winner. That will involve an increased goal contribution – 16-20 – in the league, a lessening in his left-foot over reliance, and an increased capitalization on the chances he earns. If he doesn’t achieve that, his third year with the team could very well make-or-break his Arsenal career.