What Arsenal Need to Do to Help Pepe Succeed? (Hopefully)
I am sure that the majority of you, were like me, when you saw the starting eleven for the match against Southampton in the FA Cup. You felt a distinct lack of confidence in their ability to get the win which is odd as the majority of the players have shown that they can perform at times this season. This shows that while individual players are important, it is the blend of them that is more so, and this team was definitely less than its constituent parts. But this does not mean that these parts don’t, and won’t have an important part to play in the rest of the season. As we try to finish as high up in the league as possible and go for Europa league glory, we can’t just rely on eleven players. One who could be important for the rest of the season is the man I will look at today, and one who divides opinion, Nicolas Pepe.
I will be honest with you all and say that I am one of the few left that believe there is an asset still in Pepe. And while I understand the frustration with him, I have seen him compared to Gervinho and put in the same bucket as Willian which to me is very harsh.
Nicolas Pepe joined in the summer of 2019 for a club record £72 million, and when viewed through the prism of this fee it is hard to argue that he has been anything other than a disappointment but I believe this is not solely down to the player. If you look at the top 12 transfer fees involving Premier League clubs very few have been complete successes. There are always numerous factors as to why but one is that players go from a system that suits and enhances their skills to one that may not. Or from a team set up around them to one that isn’t, In the summer of 2019 Arsenal needed a wide player who could score, assist and beat players and while the club went and signed a player that fit the criteria, little thought was given as to how to get the best out of that player.
It’s hard to argue that Arsenal have had a functioning attacking unit at any point in Pepe’s career. Until now that is and it is clear that the team benefits from having a player play in the number 10 position who understands how to play in those spaces. Last season when we didn’t have a number 10 the team benefited from Aubameyang’s prolific scoring, this season when he hasn’t scored the team tends to not score or not score enough.
That is until Emile Smith-Rowe came in against Chelsea. So far Pepe has only played 76 minutes with Smith-Rowe, but from what I saw against Newcastle having someone to link with like a Smith-Rowe would benefit Pepe immensely. In fact in his first season he only started ten games in the league with Mesut Ozil, but amongst them were some of the best performances or results that were seen. The 3-1 away at West Ham, 2-0 at home to Manchester United and 4-0 versus Newcastle.
The other change that I think could benefit a player like Pepe is the signing of a player like Thomas Partey. He has not featured too much so far but it is clear that one of the biggest attributes he brings is his ability to get the ball forward quickly and accurately. This was shown in the league game against Newcastle where he got the ball to Aubameyang in space twice and he was able to drive at the Newcastle defence; the second of which was the first goal. There are a few players in the squad who tend to take too many touches and slow the game down, which does not help our attacking players.
The majority of the time when Pepe receives the ball it’s with his back to goal, tight to the touchline and surrounded by opposition players. So with nowhere to go. This is not how you get the best out of a Pepe. But where Pepe frustrates everyone are situations like Saturday where he finally got the ball in space and he fluffed his first touch and then slipped over. He should have done far better but he reminded me of a striker who is in a goal drought and starved of chances, when the chance came he snatched at it.
Apart from being so stupid and damaging, the reason why Pepe’s red card at Leeds was so disappointing was it looked like he would finally get a little run in the team. This season the focus has been on Willian, and we can debate the merits of that another time, and so Pepe has only started two league games in a row all season. It’s hard for any player to find a rhythm when they are in and out, and when you look at how many starts other underperforming players have got it doesn’t feel like he has been given the best opportunity to succeed. In fact in recent matches when the game is won, like West Brom and Newcastle, Willian is bought on, and Pepe only gets brought on when we are chasing the game, like against Palace and he is expected to make something happen.
The reason why I have the belief that there is an asset in Pepe is that despite all his struggles he still creates chances, provides assists and scores goals. Even on Saturday he created five chances for team mates while the rest of the team only created three between them (stat courtesy of Orbinho). He is also one of the few players who can score a goal from nothing. If not for a tight offside call his first season would be remembered for a stunning FA Cup final goal.
I would like to see him get a run in a team that has Partey and one of Smith-Rowe or Odergaard in to see if we can unlock Pepe’s full potential but am aware this is unlikely to happen. Saka’s emergence as an option on the right side means that unless there are injuries or suspension Pepe’s role is likely to be a bit-part player for the rest of the season. But we need to work out how to get the most out of him and choose when the best games to use him are. For instance rotating him in for a game like Leeds at home makes more sense than for a game against a team employing a low block.
Here’s hoping we get to see the best of Pepe at some point in the next few months, as getting the most out of the squad is what will dictate how well we perform. And then in the summer it will be decision time on him and a quite a few others.