Tactical Insight: Why Arteta must look to Pepe’s past to get the best from the Ivorian

Tactical Insight: Why Arteta must look to Pepe’s past to get the best from the Ivorian

The price of failure

The £72 million signing of Nicolas Pepe from Lille was a signing which got fans excited. One of Europe’s hottest wingers from the 2018/19 season was making his way to Arsenal for a fee which Gunners fans thought impossible.

However, Pepe’s red card against Leeds United in a 0-0 draw displayed the total decline of a player being misused by a club who should arguably have never signed him. The myth that Arsenal do not spend has been thoroughly put to bed over the last 4 windows. The club has spent big fees bringing Pepe, Thomas Partey, Gabriel, Kieran Tierney, William Saliba, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka to the club.

Tactical Insight: Why Arteta must look to Pepe’s past to get the best from the Ivorian

ST ALBANS, ENGLAND – JULY 31: Arsenal unveil new signing Nicolas Pepe at London Colney on July 31, 2019 in St Albans, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

However it is how that money is spent which is often questioned. Whilst Pepe was a signing, in essence, Arsenal needed, the level of investment of the goal-scoring wide man took precedence over the central midfield and central defensive positions which had long plagued the Gunners.

Yet there is no point resting on the laurels of past mistakes, Pepe was bought and the club have yet to use him effectively.

Positioning

At Lille, Pepe was lethal and a nightmare for defenders. His desire to cut inside and also get into the box led to the Ivorian becoming one of the league’s best. However, his transition to the Premier League has left him facing a number of challenges. The style Arsenal have played under both Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta has been in contrast to what he was used to at Lille.

The French side were able to hit on the counter much more frequently and Pepe could use his pace to get in behind defenders to be one-on-one with the keeper. It is unlikely that Arsenal will become a counter attacking side on the whole. Whilst the club is capable of doing so, or rather has been in the past, Pepe’s role is very much pushed to the flank.

Nicolas Pepe Heat Map - 2018/19 (Left) 2019/20 (Centre) 2020/21 (Right)

Nicolas Pepe Heat Map – 2018/19 (Left) 2019/20 (Centre) 2020/21 (Right)

The most recent two seasons has seen Pepe get closer and closer to the touchline. The further Pepe is from the middle of the pitch the less chances are befalling the Ivorian. A technical and skilful player yes, however, Pepe struggles taking on players and beating them when against a low block.

Despite this, Pepe is one of the deadliest finishers the club has. It is clear that the further Pepe has gotten from the centre of the action, his effectiveness has continued to diminish.

Nicolas Pepe Shot Map - 2018/19 (Left) 2019/20 (Centre) 2020/21 (Right)

Nicolas Pepe Shot Map – 2018/19 (Left) 2019/20 (Centre) 2020/21 (Right)

It is clear from the evidence above that the Ivorian is most clinical when he gets into the box. As an inverted winger, playing out wide means the necessity to cut inside onto his stronger left foot makes Pepe more predictable and easier to defend against.

Were he positioned closer to the central striker, the opportunity to drive at goal and have greater options and routes of attack could be effective. Furthermore, his movements into the box have become less threatening. At Lille, Pepe would accelerate into the box, often to the back post to gamble on loose balls.

With the attack building down the left wing. Pepe attacks the far side of the box and into the area behind the keeper.

With the attack building down the left wing. Pepe attacks the far side of the box and into the area behind the keeper.

The ball is played across and Pepe's gamble pays off as he is able to reach the ball and tap home for a simple finish.

The ball is played across and Pepe’s gamble pays off as he is able to reach the ball and tap home for a simple finish.

Arsenal's best crosser of the ball, Kieran Tierney, is often seen driving towards the touch line to find a cross into the box.

Arsenal’s best crosser of the ball, Kieran Tierney, is often seen driving towards the touch line to find a cross into the box.

Pepe is seen visibly frustrated by the chance going astray but his positioning is much more passive. Instead of pushing towards the last man, he often takes up a position on the edge of the box.

Pepe is seen visibly frustrated by the chance going astray but his positioning is much more passive. Instead of pushing towards the last man, he often takes up a position nearer the edge of the box.

Another chance, Pepe is not in the current picture and needs to show greater aggression to push towards the box for chances.

Another chance, Pepe is not in the current picture and needs to show greater aggression to push towards the box for chances.

Whilst the chance created by Tierney was not successful, the gamble from Pepe needs to be more ruthless. His positioning in the box needs to give him the best possible opportunities to score.

Whilst the chance created by Tierney was not successful, the gamble from Pepe needs to be more ruthless. His positioning in the box needs to give him the best possible opportunities to score.

The quality was not mistaken. Pepe showed during his time in France he can be a world class talent, the club just needs to play their biggest investment to his strengths to get the best from him.

If Pepe’s continuation out wide, isolated and unthreatening, persists throughout his time at the club then it is unlikely that he will find success at the club. Arsenal’s recruitment has shown signs of improvement with Partey and Gabriel’s arrival. This season could determine for sure which side of the coin Pepe would fall on.

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