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.
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.
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