Arsenal travel to Manchester City on Wednesday evening. Nicolas Pepe will be crucial to everything the Gunners’ do offensively. Here is why.
Only a trip to Anfield is as daunting as Arsenal’s next fixture. An away match against champions Manchester City, who have dominated English football since Pep Guardiola arrived and, when on-song, are comfortably the best team in the Premier League, is not an easy way to resume your Premier League season. But that is precisely what Mikel Arteta and his players face.
City pose a specific issue for the Gunners. They are, in essence, what Arsenal have tried and failed to be for many years. A possession-based team that dictates the game to the opponents due to their superiority with the ball. Arsenal struggle to adapt. They try to play at their own game. Invariably, they lose.
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Those that have upset City in recent seasons have stemmed from two rough tactical ideas: the first is the Jurgen Klopp approach to press high, prevent City from building out of the back, and attempting to disrupt their long periods of possession; the second is what Manchester United mastered this season, beating City in both Premier League fixtures this year: the counter-attack. Of the two, it is the latter that Arsenal will likely look to employ on Wednesday.
There are several crucial elements to executing an effective counter-attacking strategy. The team must be defensively well-organised. Space must be compacted in central areas, the midfielders have to chase after the ball throughout, and the centre-backs must be focused and confident. You must also get a little lucky at times, too.
These, of course, are all defensive elements of the game. They are critical because the counter-attacking team is defending for the majority of the match. Against City especially, they will likely have around 30% possession, meaning they are defending for 70% of the time.
However, while being defensive secure and disciplined is vital, so is providing a threat at the other end. And as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said after his United team beat City earlier this year, it was the speed and directness of play on the counter that can offer such a danger. In the first of those victories, Marcus Rashford was the best player on the pitch. His dribbling, speed, and direct play were integral to United’s vicious attacks.
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Arsenal do not have a player like Rashford in the squad. But if they did, it would not be Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is a tremendous goalscorer like the Englishman, but rather Nicolas Pepe, who’s dribbling skills and explosive acceleration is much more akin to the United star. Because of this, the Ivorian is key on Wednesday night.
Receiving the ball in space, Pepe will have opportunities to drive at an exposed City defence on the break. City pour players forward. They leave their centre-backs with an entire half to defend. If Arsenal can feed Pepe with sufficient service, he will have acres to drive into. This was where Rashford made hay, including winning a penalty, ripping Fernandinho to shreds, and causing utter havoc. Pepe has the quality to have the same impact.
Unlike United, the Gunners are not a natural counter-attacking team. They want the ball. But against City, they will be forced to adapt, and Pepe’s offensive influence on the counter-attack will go a long way to determine how well they can change their style.