Nicolas Pepe has not lit things up as a right-winger. However, while Arsenal’s record signing is overly dependent on his left foot, he should also not be switched to the left flank.
It has not been the greatest start to his Arsenal career for Nicolas Pepe. The £72 million man has shown glimpses of his outrageous ability, and there is certainly enough talent to invest in and be patient with. But the production on the pitch has not yet matched the obvious skill level.
Nevertheless, the Gunners would be wise to continue to invest in Pepe. He is capable of moments that few players in the Premier League are. His match-winning talent is such that the club should be looking to get the best out of him, rather than searching for his replacement after just one year.
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There are several ways to get the best out of Pepe. One is to simply wait for him to figure it out. Another is to drop him from the team and challenge him. Another is to change his surroundings, in particular the position that he currently plays. This is the idea of Arsenal analyst Adrian Clarke, who produces the superb Breakdowns, studying the tactical side of the Gunners’ performances every week.
Speaking on The Chronicles of a Gooner Podcast, Clarke said:
“I was a winger that played on both sides, primarily left-footed, but a lot of my first senior appearances for Arsenal were on the right-wing. I was comfortable going on the outside and using my right. I wasn’t as so predominantly left-footed as Pepe. It’s [moving Pepe to the left wing] something worth considering”
The theory makes sense: with such a dominant left-footed player on the right side, the Arsenal attack is imbalanced as every player tends to drift towards the left side of the pitch, thus shrinking the space that they have to play in without a right-back making overlapping runs to maintain the offensive width.
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However, the solution is not to change Pepe’s position. The Ivorian’s game revolves around cutting inside onto his left and unleashing shots on goal or playing passes into teammates. On the left flank, he becomes extremely predictable, always looking to go down the outside, never able to get shots on goal as he does not trust his right foot. Moving him to the other flank takes away his most potent asset.
Now, the imbalance of the attacking set-up is a concern, and it is something that Mikel Arteta must look at in the coming months. But a more suitable approach would be to alter the roles of the full-backs, releasing the right-back to push forward into wide areas. This would mean a more orthodox left-back role, which the return of Kieran Tierney solves.
Ultimately, getting the best out of Pepe should be a priority for Arteta. He is arguably the most talented player in the squad, the only match-winner in the team bar Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and can reach a level that is worth waiting for. But while fixing his problems is important, switching flanks would only curtail what he is best at and make him entirely one-dimensional. That, then, would be an error.