As they look to secure a Champions League spot next year, Arsenal have acquired one of the in-form attacking players in Europe by signing 24-year-old Nicolas Pepe.
Pepe was sensational in Ligue 1 last season, with 22 goals and 11 assists in 37 appearances, guiding Lille to a surprising 2nd place finish. Playing as a right-winger in a 4-2-3-1, Pepe excelled in a highly fluid attacking system that was based on rapid counter-attacks, fluid interchanges between attackers, and individual skill.
He blends strength, dribbling, pace, good combination play, and finishing to formulate a well-rounded attacking repertoire. Pepe would often position himself in between the lines to receive the ball before turning and either linking with other attackers or driving at the defense himself.
He normally occupies the right half-space, where his movement allows him to receive the ball in space and isolate defenders. He can then use his pace and dribbling to drive into the box and engage in quick interplay with other attackers to create chances.
Pepe has a poise on the ball that makes him more than a reckless dribbler, and his close control enables him to be a lethal attacking force when combined with his solid passing and accurate shooting ability. He has a dual role of creator and goal-scorer, making him a unique and unpredictable attacking force, which is one of the reasons he attracted interest from the likes of Napoli, Manchester United, and Liverpool.
At Arsenal, Unai Emery will be hoping that Pepe will bring much-needed dynamism and skill to the Gunner’s attack. Emery’s 4-2-3-1 is predicated on the creation of overloads out wide to generate chances. By encouraging the fullbacks to push up and allowing the wide attackers to operate as inside forwards, Arsenal can achieve numerical superiority out wide, creating a 2 v 1 situations against the opposition fullback.
This disorients the opposition defense because it forces them to pursue one of two options. They can either react to the wide overload, which creates space in the center for other players to exploit, or they can hold their position, allowing the winger and fullback to maneuver the ball and create crossing opportunities with ease.
However, Arsenal often failed to create opportunities from these situations last season. Lacking the necessary dynamism to move the ball forward through the creation of the overload, the Gunners attack sometimes settled into a stolid build-up that entailed aimless triangles of passing out wide that failed to move the ball up the pitch.
Emery tried to address this towards the end of the season by playing two strikers and starting the energetic Aaron Ramsey, which helped Arsenal generate the necessary skills to take advantage of the overloads they created. Ramsey’s dribbling allowed Arsenal to actually progress the ball forwards through pushing the defense back and creating space as opposed to keeping the ball in one area out wide.
His off-ball movement meant that when the defence attempted to disrupt Arsenal’s numerical superiority, they had a late-arriving threat in the center that disrupted the opposition defense and created scoring opportunities. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang possesses similar abilities, but can only perform the same role if partnered with Lacazette. If he is the lone front man, Arsenal lose a central goalscoring presence and become much easier to defend.
Should Emery look to employ the 4-2-3-1 consistently, he will have to find ways to create more dynamic movement both on and off the ball in order to make his attacking style work more effectively. The acquisition of Dani Ceballos on a one-year loan from Real Madrid should help fill the void of Aaron Ramsey in the central attacking midfield role.
In pre-season, Aubameyang has been used in the wide roles of the attacking midfield trio, indicating Emery could use him in this position when the season starts. For the right wing-berth, Pepe should fit reasonably well within this system and make Arsenal a more unpredictable, exciting, and dynamic attacking force.
Pepe’s ability to run at opposition players means that should opposition defenses allow Arsenal to maintain overloads out wide, the Ivorian could consistently create chances for others through his ability to get past defenders in one-on-one situations. His dribbling prowess also means that he will command significant attention from the defense, meaning he could create space for the overlapping fullback out wide.
Given that Hector Bellerin will be the first choice right-back barring injury, Pepe’s ability to draw defenders towards him could provide the attack-minded Spanish fullback with more opportunities to impact games. Surrounded by better teammates, Pepe will also get more and better chances to score from.
Most importantly, Pepe’s willingness to get on the ball and makes things happen will provide Arsenal with a level of unpredictability and trickery out wide that will make them a more potent attacking force. He will allow Emery’s system of attack to be more fruitful, and make Arsenal a more complete attacking side.
As with any transfer though, there are risks. Pepe is also not an active presser, although given his athletic ability, he should be able to adapt to a more active role out of possession. Also, he will not get as many counter-attacking opportunities at Arsenal given their tendency to dominate possession.
This means he will need to become more effective against compact defensive blocks, something that could take time to adjust to. Pepe will not be Arsenal’s main attacking focus as he was at Lille, which would mean that he would need to adjust to getting the ball less. But the most worrying element to Pepe’s signature is not his qualities as a player and how he fits at Arsenal, but his cost.
Having missed out on Champions League football for the past two seasons, Arsenal’s reported transfer budget was a meager £45 million. Their outlay of £72 million for Pepe means that they have to spread out this payment over subsequent windows. This would be fine should Arsenal qualify for the Champions League next season, but that’s an uncertainty.
With the selling of the 21-year old Kyristian Bielik, Laurent Koscielny reportedly wanting out, and William Saliba not coming till next year, Arsenal are woefully short at center back. The left-back position is also a concern, and while Bernd Leno did impress in his first season, he failed to show he can maintain that performance year upon year in the Bundesliga, so whether he will do it for Arsenal is unknown.
With these weaknesses in mind, it’s difficult to clearly say that Arsenal will finish in the top four and make the necessary revenues to be able to continue to build their squad. Should they not finish in the top four, Pepe’s fee will eat into future transfer money and hinder their capacity to build a squad capable of competing in the Premier League.
Add into this that Arsenal have young, promising attacking talents such as Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith Rowe, and Joe Willock, one could wonder if Arsenal would have been better off, in the long run, had they not signed Pepe and instead attempted to address their most pressing weaknesses and rely on youth
Pepe is a risk. As a player, there’s enough upside to be encouraged that he can perform at a high level for Arsenal. But for the fee that he commands, he may hinder Arsenal’s ability to progress as a club in the future. Only time will tell if Arsenal’s gamble on Pepe is worth it.