Getting the best out of Nicolas Pepe: Part two
Earlier this week, we took a look at what Nicolas Pepe can do himself, in order to extract the sort of performance he was churning out weekly at Lille last season.
This piece will take a look at what Unai Emery and the Arsenal coaching staff can do to aid their club-record signing in his development.
While Pepe was an expensive acquisition, he is far from the finished product, requiring a series of minor tweaks in his game, as well as a more rounded tactical education, in order to become a more complete player.
How Emery approaches Pepe’s development and management may well define the Spaniard’s tenure at the Emirates, particularly if Pepe can propel Arsenal to a top-four finish this season.
A quicker build-up play
Arsenal have been criticised this season for the manner in which they have attacked. The football has been monotonic and slow, characterised by a sleepiness off the ball that has made the Emirates, once famed for its swashbuckling matches, more of an afterthought in a neutral fan’s weekend.
This sort of football has had a detrimental effect on Arsenal’s attacking players, Pepe included. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang aside, no Arsenal player has more than two goals this season, and this style of football appears to be inhibiting Pepe in his adaptation.
Lille’s football last season was characterised by their absolutely lethal counter-attack, something Pepe was a huge factor in. Pepe can outthink players in situations where both parties have virtually no time to react, but the slower the build-up, the more this advantage is lost.
With the lethally quick Aubameyang and the expansive Alexandre Lacazette for company, Arsenal, particularly in transition, could do with being a more vertical, direct side, utilising their attacking trio against a defence caught without cover.
A top-level tactical education
Pepe’s football life has been, as mentioned above, characterised by playing in quick, direct teams who hit the opposition on the break. While Arsenal undoubtedly need to do more of this, given the playing style of their attack, they will continue to have the ascendancy in possession in many matches they play.
While Emery and his staff have been quick to insert Pepe into the starting line-up, he is yet to receive the education required to instinctively understand the differences in Arsenal’s build-up compared to Lille’s and how it affects what decisions he must make.
As such, he can look lost at times, always looking for larger areas of space (often at the expense of the correct position to take up), and taking that extra half-second to know where to move off the ball. More often than not, these factors lose the Ivorian the opportunity to contribute decisively.
If Arsenal are to properly integrate Pepe, he must be coached in the art of being an explosive player in a dominant team: how to use his skills in tighter spaces, in shorter and more subtle moments.
Pepe could do with viewing footage of Arjen Robben, a player of similar invertedness and explosiveness, but one who found ways to contribute in a system he often wasn’t suited to.
Emery was known for his tactical education when he was appointed at Arsenal, as well as his use of video analysis, and there’s never been a better opportunity to help grow Pepe into a player with elite skills, but who also has matured enough to apply them in a way that will most benefit the team.
Of course, management isn’t just about systems and tactics. It still requires the age-old concept of ‘man-management’: managing players off the pitch to prime them to perform on it. Despite his declaration that he’s “not too worried” about his form, Pepe is obviously down on confidence and needs his manager to help build him back up.
The Ivorian is a player who relies on confidence to fully express himself on the pitch, and it’s up to Emery and his team to provide the platform for him to do this.
Football management requires managers to navigate some extremely fragile egos of all different varieties. Emery’s handling of Neymar at PSG and Mesut Ozil at Arsenal suggest that this isn’t his natural strength, but a more passive, obviously committed character like Pepe should present a different challenge, one which Emery might find more reasonable.
Arsenal fans will be hoping the Spaniard is already in Pepe’s ear, backing his man in. It could be the spark Pepe and Arsenal need to fully realise their obvious attacking potential.