Analysis of Arsenal’s signing of Nicolas Pepe and where it all went wrong

What went wrong for Nicolas Pepe?

In the 202/21 season Nicolas Pepe scored 10 goals in 29 games, with only Alexandre Lacazette scoring more goals than the Ivorian in the Premier League for Arsenal. Although a modest return, Pepe was not a mainstay in the team and 2021/22 season represented Pepe’s chance to really cement himself as a starter in Arteta’s side, and to showcase the ability that made The Gunners break their transfer record to acquire his signature.

Instead, Pepe looks destined to leave the club, having fallen lower down the pecking order after scoring only one goal in his 20 premier league appearances. It’s a sad ending for Arsenal’s record signing, and although there are many explanations as to why it didn’t work out for the former Lille man, there are three major hurdles that Pepe could never overcome that summarised his time at Arsenal.

The wrong player for the right position

“I Saw 20 Zaha games, some incredible performances and I told them [Arsenal] that this is the player I want for this team… But the club decided that Pepe was younger, he was the one for the future. I said: yes, but we need to win now and this lad [Zaha] wins games. He did it to us.” – Emery on Pepe’s signing.

In a post Arsene Wenger world, Arsenal wanted to move away from the all-encompassing manager model towards a structured approach that included multiple figure heads and a head coach. What that meant is that there was now a recruitment system in place to identify signings and it wasn’t solely the choice of the manager. Now while that does have its benefits, especially when manager turn-over is so high, it can lead to issues when there is a disconnect between who the recruitment staff want at the club, and who the manager wants in the team. As seen in the case of Nicolas Pepe.

It’s clear from Emery’s comments that his preference was a premier league proven right footed winger in Wilfried Zaha. Zaha had just had a stellar season for Crystal Palace including a man of the match performance against Arsenal at the Emirates, to all but end our champions league hopes. Instead, Emery was given his Ivorian compatriot Nicolas Pepe, a player in a completely different profile to Zaha and one with no premier league experience.

Now we’ve seen in other players like Dele Alli, a manager can be won over even if you aren’t their preference at first, however Pepe had never shown the qualities on any consistent level that made Zaha so endearing to Emery in the first place. In fact, Nicolas Pepe’s signing was so perplexing that it led to an internal investigation, and while it’s never been proven fact, there is some belief that it played a role in the dismissal of Arsenal’s Head of Football Operations, Raul Sanllehi.

Spending big on a wide player was the right decision for Arsenal, however one that wasn’t calculated with any proficiency, as they brought in a player in the wrong tactical profile for what Emery wanted, and later Arteta.

The emergence of Bukayo Saka

Whether it’s sheer bad luck, or a reflection of his own failings, the emergence of Bukayo Saka, Arsenal’s best ever home-grown player since Ashley Cole, has played a role in Pepe’s lack of first team action.

Saka represents all the qualities that Pepe lacks, tactical understanding, positional versatility and technical security. Although he broke into the first team as a left-back, Saka has found his best form playing on the right wing, in Pepe’s position.

Saka and Pepe’s Arsenal careers have been a sad contrast where Saka’s stock has continued to rise and he has only grown in maturity and ability, while Pepe has gone from a decent attacking option to the peripherals of the Arsenal squad. If you watched both players play with no context, you would not be naive to assume that the Ivorian was the emerging academy player, while Saka is the record signing, such is the chasm in their performances for Arsenal, and a leading reason as to why Pepe finds himself close to the exit door.

Incorrect tactical fit for Arteta system

Although Pepe’s effectiveness as a football isn’t on the level of Bukayo Saka, his quality has shone in glimpses and isn’t the primary reason in why he looks to be leaving North London. The biggest issue for Pepe and the main reason why he has no future at Arsenal is not because of quality, but because he is the complete wrong tactical fit for what Arteta wants from a wide player.

Positional play requires players to operate in different vertical lines. To put it simply, If Saka tucks inside, Tomiyasu should provide width on the right to maintain balance. No two players should be standing on the same vertical lines on the pitch. Arsenal operate with an inverted right back in Takehiro Tomiyasu, and with the impending signing of Oleksandr Zinchenko, will have a similar set up on the left side. That requires Arsenal’s wingers to provide width and stretch the pitch to open up space in the opposition’s defence.

As mentioned earlier, Saka provides security. Whether it’s because of his lower body strength or technical ability, the England international doesn’t often lose the ball in possession and is adept at playing in a wide position near the touchline where he may find himself isolated often. Saka has the ability to keep the ball in these isolated positions and that makes him suited to Arteta’s system.

Nicolas Pepe made his name playing in a counter-attacking team at Lille, where his dynamism, ability to run in open space and finishing was at his most effective. Where Pepe doesn’t shine is when playing in a possession-based team against a low block. He may have superb quality as a dribbler, but his decision making is still poor and his inability to use his weak foot means he finds himself in awkward positions with the ball at his feet. Pepe needs open space to run and doesn’t enjoy playing in tight situations surrounded by defenders, his qualities aren’t suited to playing wide on the right-hand side of a front free when he has to provide width.

In the 2012/13 season, Tottenham manager Andre Villa Boas moved Gareth Bale from the left wing to the number 10 position. The thinking behind this was to give free licence to Bale to pop up in as many central positions as possible where he could shoot on his left foot, his greatest quality. Although Pepe is a different player to Bale, Pepe is at his best in front of goal with the ball on his left foot ready to play a through ball or shoot.  Unless he is put in a system which suits his talents, his lack of tactical versatility would always come through. The fact that Arteta never attempted to use Pepe in a central position even during Alexandre Lacazette’s failures, speaks volumes on Arteta’s lack of trust in the Ivorian.

What next?

Pepe’s signing, as is most record signings, is a lesson on throwing money to solve a problem without prior due diligence. It seems Arsenal have learnt their lesson from Nicolas Pepe’s time at Arsenal and have a much more clever identity in their transfer policy today. Although they have still spent big, there is now clear direction and tactical understanding of what the incomings will bring.  On Pepe’s personal future, a move back to France or Spain looks likely and hopefully he can find the right fit at a club with a trusting manager where he can show the qualities that made him so deadly for Lille.

Yusuf Malik


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  1. Yes, it’s quite simple really – gifted player with a lot of quality, but not able to adapt. Nothing I could see was wrong with his attitude or determination, it just didn’t work. It’s commendable that we’ve never heard anything really negative from him during what must have been a difficult couple of years.
    One thing that wasn’t mentioned is that he occasionally looked a better fit when starting on the left, possibly because it caused him to naturally move into positions that better suited the tactical systems as described – why he’s gone back to being a full time right winger, I’m not sure. It seems that we gave up on the idea of him adapting a while ago

    1. Hi Davi,

      You’re spot on about Pepe looking better on the left, I think when Pepe plays on the left and his role/responsibilities are much simpler and he performs quite well.

      However the fact that he hardly played on the left at all this season and that we’re in the market for another wide player probably says Arteta doesn’t trust him in any forward position.

  2. If Pepe was as technical/ skilled as Martinelli and Saint-Maximin, he would’ve reached the right byline more often. He could nutmeg his opponents occasionally, but he killed our attacks too often with his backward passes

    In my opinion, he has the potentials to be a CF or an LWB. But after watching Marquinhos in our new jersey on Arsenal’s latest promotional video, I think Pepe is being offered to other clubs

    1. I don’t think he’s that kind of winger. If you put Pepe one v one with the last defender, I think he’s usually going to skin the defender and score, but if there’s a block in front of him, he doesn’t really know what to do. It’s Iike was said in the article, he’s made to be the receiving player on a counter attack.
      On the other hand, someone like St maximin is very happy getting the ball from a deeper position and just running directly at several defenders to try and break through,and then just rolling with whatever happens.

      1. Yeah, I reckon Pepe to be more of an inside forward than a winger. Because he is quite good in nutmegging his opponents, but he can’t dribble longer on the right wing

        I agree with the author that Pepe is more suited for counter-attacking tactics. He could produce goals and assists if he is allowed to stay in the final-third, but I don’t think our team can afford a wide attacker who can’t carry the ball from our half

        1. He is great in dribbling when running with the ball but not from standing positions. Many players who can dribble aren’t as good when it comes to dribbling to actually create space.

          1. I think he isn’t as consistent as other high-profile wingers in tight spaces

            When I saw Jesus turn sharply on the right wing to get past his marker, I wonder why Pepe has never done it at Arsenal. I bet this is why Arsenal planned to replace Pepe with Raphinha

  3. When we signed Pepe I questioned myself if he was significantly better than Saint Maximin but then I knew Saint Maximin was an average finisher. Zaha was always the better player. He just played for a defensive side in Crystal Palace. Had he not signed that contract and came to Arsenal he’d be really great but it’s in the past. I don’t even see Pepe as a winger. He would be more effective upfront with support but in another team. Stats may make him look good but the eye test provides context and I don’t think he was ever that good and said so before we signed him.

    1. Bit harsh. I thought this was an well laid-out article. Out of curiosity, do you list not like the term “inverted fullback” or do you have a different definition than the author?

    2. Hi Declan,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I think if you look at Tomiyasu’s average position you’ll find he often tucks into the defence to provide an extra CB option and does often play in quite central (inverted) positions to help with build up play.

      Obviously that’s not his only responsibility and will contribute to the attack as well, but when you look at his size, two-footness and defensive ability, you’ll find he has been recruited with in mind that he will be have a more defensive role, than compared to previous RB’s like Cedric or Bellerin.

      I think when you think of inverted-full backs it’s easy to imagine Cancelo, and while Tomiyasu is a completely different player, that doesn’t mean he can’t also operate more in-field than compared to someone like Reece James.

      1. No, not at all, inverted means right footed playing on the left and vici verci, as per Pepé.

    3. Yes, but that apart Declan, I consider the article to be well constructed.The reluctance of Arteta to try Pepe as a conventional left winger, frustrates and disappoints me.He evidently does not rate the guy who has been exemplary in his attitude throughout his time at Arsenal, yet I would have thought any open minded Manager would have made every effort to try to get a meaningful return from such a costly investment.While I am not anti Arteta in most respects, I’m afraid his lack of imagination in the handling of Pepe is a black mark on his CV as far as I am concerned.

    4. I disagree!!in the case of Tomi,he has the versatility to play as a centre back anywhere across a back three, as well as the link-up ability and offensive potential to play as an inverted fullback or additional midfielder in the build-up and final 3rd of what seems to be Arteta’s preferred formation.
      Would you care explain to us how the author’s lost any credibility?

  4. I commend the writer for not speaking Ill of Pepe and calling him a flop. The above points are very valid but still cannot explain Nketiah getting to come in at Godison Park late in the game to play as a WINGER while we were DESPERATELY LOOKING FOR a goal and Pepe is sat on the BENCH. Once again, kudos to the writer for not attacking the player cos that would have been plain wrong

    1. Equally it was nice to see the blame not being placed at Arteta’s feet. I’m with you in agreeing he was underused last year in certain situations but overall think the gist of the article and the three reasons why his time at Arsenal hasn’t been great was spot on.

      1. Agreed. But as Grandad (who is an ardent Arteta supporter) pointed out above, Arteta has a very significant part of the blame to take for alienating the player, even when Saka was suffering from burnout and risking serious injury while Martinelli began to fully display his inner headless chicken to the world

        1. Agreed. Was frustrating to see, particularly as Pepe cam back from AFCON in good form.

          The over-dependence on Saka should be a big concern to all of us and is hopefully a thing of the past.

          1. First thing is to seriously hope and pray that Saka signs a new contract which for some unknown reason, I’m having a bad feeling about. His agent will demand high wages, maybe double what Nketiah is on. And I can bet my kidney that he.has his eyes on a move(in a few years time) to either City(to replace Mahrez) or Liverpool (to replace Salah) or maybe Madrid (to be the main right winger)

    2. A great mistake by Arteta is not trying Pepe as an auxiliary striker or even better still a LW player Like he did SANE at City. Pepe can olay exactly like Sane but Arteta didnt have the vision. Personally, I know Pepe is only good on a counter attacking team and I am will to bet he would explode in a Newcastle team along side ASM.

  5. Yusuf, the use of the word “inverted” to me and I suspect many other football fans , infers the playing of a right footed player on the left and viva versa.While Tomi is probably the most two footed player at Arsenal, tucking in beside the right CB is not an inversion.Nor is the concept new.Great defences of the past used a simple “hinge” system whereby the RB would stay back if the LB had ventured forward .The same sliding effect would be reversed if the RB bombed forward.In any event, I enjoyed your article.Keep up the good work.

    1. I agree that maybe using the word inverted might not have been the best choice of words but I think that understanding inverted full backs as left footed players on the right and vice versa is only one approach. There’s many fullbacks who play on the side of their dominant foot and still operate in central positions. As mentioned in the article Zinchenko is another example of a player who even at FB will probably play more centrally even though he’s left footed. Also I agree that in the past players like Tomiyasu have existed, Bacary Sagna being a great example, however the level of discourse and analysis today had developed and the different roles that players play is being discussed more

      1. Yusuf you were/are actually correct to have used the term”inverted” full back.the same way Tomi can slot in on the right of a 3 men defense ,he can also slot in as a midfielder hence the word (in)serted,from fullback moving inside mildfied.anyway,these are my 2 cents.

    2. Wrong!inverted Full backs are used when the wingers like to cut inside. They move the ball centrally and slot themselves as the third midfielder when having the possession of the ball,unless I’m mistaken.

  6. watched him last nite pure mule of a player,,partey couldnt pass the ball 2 yards shocking ben white my lord,saliba looked class

  7. Pepe is a great player, Arteta has never given him the chance, play him in the right places, he will be brilliant

  8. Emery twists the Zaha story. Palace wanted £100m up front but Pepe was available for less and on easier terms.

    Even though he has been here three years, it is hard to judge Pepe. The first season he played well and was an integral part of a side that won the FA cup, playing really well in the semi against City and the final against Chelsea. The next season he was mysteriously ditched for Willian but came back into the side late in the season scoring five goals in the last five games. Yet once again he was ditched at the beginning of last season but there was no way back due to the form of Saka and no European football. Saka’s style obviously suits us better but that does not make Pepe a bad player.

    Now we are back in the Europa cup, I would give him another go, try and raise his confidence. There also five subs in the premier league next season so he can get more playing time even if he cannot take Saka’s place.

    If we get a decent offer we should take it but do not give him away for peanuts

    1. No no no. 100m for zaha ? that was bluff. Of course they would have not sell him 100 but we asked for 40. He would have go for an in between price, probably 55/60.

      1. They were not keen to sell and he was ona long contract, still one more year left

        He has probably been worth £100m by keeping them in the premier league

    2. 👍 Nabilo. The preference that Arteta showed to Willian over Pepe in selections was one of his biggest misjudgements. As well it was a severe blow to Pepe’s progression at Arsenal.

  9. Where we wrong was thinking a player with just 9 (of his 22) goals in ‘18-‘19 from open play would translate to an accomplished PL goal scorer.

      1. According to some of the traditional “experts” on JA it’s all the manager’s fault that he has not reached his potential or delivered for Arsenal.
        Thankfully, we are now seeing more sensible contributors who have a sophisticated understanding of football.

    1. Maybe they were hoping he would make progress ? But yes there was already signs it would not be a 72m player…. Not even sure he was better than iwobi in the end.

  10. The plainly and catastroiphically wrong decision to buy thts deepolu ineffective and hugely expensive playewr was , STUPOIDLY, not made by tht manager at thr time Emery, but by SANLLEHI as it seems to have been .

    That costly mistake shows the foolishness of non professional true football people being marginalised when key transfers are sought and the stupidity of NON PROPERLY FOOTBALL QUALIFIED ADMINISTRATORS making decisions they have no right to make. Sigh!

  11. Certain fans on JA even now, , persist in trying to blame MA for Pepes lack of flexibility and clear unsuitednes to Prem football.

    Whatever those fans think, it ought to be plain even to THEM, that MA does not want Pepe and will not play him again.
    MA plainly, – as REALISTS can easily see , though non realists cannot – has made his opposition to Pepe staying very clear.

    REALITY, not daft theories is what actually MATTERS.

    Pepe IS going and all that remains is for what fee and where he goes.
    But he is NOT in MA’s plans, whatever you daft theorists try to make out.

    So either accept the truth and be realists , or forever be stupid and dull witted.

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