Nicolas Pepe’s £72 million summer arrival at Arsenal caused uncontainable excitement and pride as Arsenal fans finally saw their team splash out on a player deemed to be one of Europe’s brightest talents. Pepe was reportedly being courted by some of Europe’s biggest teams, many of whom were in the champions league. This only added to the unbridled joy for the Arsenal faithful. It also prompted many scout reports and analysis pieces to be written about whether Unai Emery would get the best out of him.
This scout report will analyse Nicolas Pepe’s arrival in the Premier League, whether Unai Emery’s tactics suit him, and if they are going to get the best out of him. By providing thorough tactical analysis, we will also provide analysis of what Emery may have identified in Pepe and how he will maximise this in the Arsenal team.
Last season in all competitions for club and country, Pepe scored 24 goals and assisted 13 times throughout the campaign. So far this season, Pepe has 3 goals and 2 assists. Emery has used Pepe as a wide right midfielder cutting in on his left foot when attacking. In defence, Pepe has been tasked with tracking back and covering his full-back. Is this getting the best out of him? If not, how can Unai Emery change this so that he does?
Expected goals is a universal measure for how clinical a player is in front of goal. So far this season, Pepe has played 12 matches in all competitions for Arsenal with a total of 761 minutes. This season Pepe has a total XG of 0.24 for Arsenal with three goals coming as a result of this. If you compare this to his first 12 games of last season in which he had an expected XG of 0.59, you can see a significant drop-off. Last season he had scored seven goals by this point. He had however played 293 more minutes in those 12 matches. The XG implies that this season, Pepe has a 24% likelihood of taking his chance in front of goal, and this could be down to the quality of chances afforded to him and an increase in opposition quality.
In his first 12 games in all competitions last season, Pepe averaged 4.2 shots on target per 90 minutes. If you compare this to this season, Pepe is averaging 2.8 shots on target per 90. Again, Pepe has played 761 minutes this season and 1054 at the same match week last season. This is however, still quite a drop-off, given the nature of Pepe’s perceived playing profile. Pepe has less than half the number of total shots on target this season than he did last season. He has had 24 and 49 shots on target last season and this season respectively, and this is symptomatic of the positions he is picking up for Arsenal under Emery.
Pepe’s lower XG could be down to the stylistic change from Lille to Arsenal – Emery has added more defensive responsibility to Pepe’s game. Pepe has made 47% of ball recoveries in his own half, compared to 39% last season. This shows that more of Pepe’s work under Emery is coming in his own half, whereas last season he was pressing higher up the pitch. Last season, Pepe lost the ball 137 times in 1054 minutes and 19% of these losses were in his own half. This season, Pepe has lost the ball a total of 87 times, however 28% of this was in his own half. He has lost the ball less than last season (however has played 293 fewer minutes), but it clearly shows what areas of the pitch he is in. At Lille, he was attacking the opposition in their final third, whereas at Arsenal he is deeper.
Another telling stat about what Pepe’s role at Arsenal so far has been is the interceptions he has made. A player tasked with pressing high and attacking the opposition is likely to have a higher interception rate than a player tracking back protecting his full-back. Pepe has made 9 interceptions this season and made 23 last season. This could be down to the fact that, because Pepe was in a higher pressing team last season he was therefore making more interceptions through pressuring opponents and cutting passing lanes. This season he is tracking his opponent and covering his full-back.
Positionally, Pepe is taking up a wider berth when attacking aiming to take the defender on and either play a cross or pass to a teammate, rather than attacking at pace and skill, looking to score. At Lille, it was more about finding Pepe in the best situations and maximising his attributes to get the best out of him. He was very much the teams “magic” player. The team gave him the ball as much as possible in the best areas and then adapted and compensated around him.
The main difference between these two images is that for Lille as shown in the first image, Pepe is attacking the man in the inside channel. His aim is to take him on with his weak foot running back towards his own goal, and either set up a teammate or score. He scores. In the image below that with Arsenal, Pepe is in the widest channel looking to cross or pass to an teammate. He is further away from goal and in a less comfortable position to maximise his talent. The defender John Egan knows what he wants to do and is trying to prevent it.
Liverpool and Sheffield United
The heat maps above indicate Nicolas Pepe’s positions for Arsenal. Against Liverpool he was told to attack in behind Andy Robertson and use his pace to catch up with long balls into the space when the full-back had advanced to attack. In the Liverpool match, there were moments when Emery instructed Pepe to help quell the overloads and drive the team up out of their own half by attacking the space left by the full-back. Against Sheffield United you can clearly see that Pepe had greater defensive responsibility and needed to track back towards his own goal. A lot of his positioning also came further away from the goal than it was against Liverpool. This would have been down to Sheffield United’s defending. Sheffield United in defence used a low block with as many of their players as possible behind the ball in order to kill the space.
If you compare this to Lille’s game against Lyon last season, where Pepe was subject of a goal-scoring performance, you can see that Pepe started in a wider berth, coming inside on his left foot attacking Lyon’s final third. The aim for Lille was to stretch Lyon’s defensive line and then attack with quick movements on the inside. There are similarities to what he is doing at Arsenal, although Nicolas Pepe doesn’t join the defensive phase until Lille drop to a low block. He remains in a high attacking position waiting to counter-attack until he is instructed to help with the defence. When he does defend, he doesn’t track players but he protects and kills space. You can see this from the interception numbers – when defending space you will make more interceptions. This is because you will be more focused on cutting passing lanes and using your cover shadow.
Build-up play – Dribbles, Crosses and Passing
Last season Pepe had completed 88 dribbles with a 44% success rate. This season he has had 76 dribbles with a 39% success rate. It is impressive that he only attempts 12 fewer dribbles in 293 fewer minutes of football at a new club. It just shows how much of a key part of his game dribbling is. The reason why his success rates may be rather low, certainly when compared to last season, is because he was attacking in the final third and players were under a greater pressure to get the tackle correct. This season, his success rate may be a little lower than you would expect because he is being tasked with carrying the ball up and out of defence. In the process, he will in most cases have to contend with a strong counter-press and be swarmed by opposition players trying to tackle him.
It is clear that Unai Emery wants Pepe to become more of a creative player for Arsenal with him putting in significantly more crosses this season than last season in fewer minutes. So far, Pepe has played 25 crosses into the box with 6 of them being successful, whereas last season he had only played 13 crosses with 3 being successful. Last season in its entirety, Pepe put in 68 crosses with 21 successfully finding a target. This shows that last season, whilst putting in a good number of crosses, he was more responsible for taking on players, beating them, and having shots at goal. Perhaps Emery feels that with Aubameyang and Lacazette as the two natural strikers, Pepe can be more creative than a scorer.
Passing is very important for attacking players like Pepe. Last season he had a pass completion rate of 81% out of 1392 passes. Given that most of his passes will come when attacking teams are in their final third, this is quite impressive. For long passes, Pepe attempted 42 throughout the season and successfully executed 52% of them. This is not Pepe’s strength. He is better being the player receiving the long pass/switch of play. He is about attacking players and creating moments for his team. His pass completion so far this season is very similar at 268 passes attempted and 82% accuracy. After 12 games last season, Pepe’s stats are similar to this season: 384 passes made with an 81% pass accuracy.
In conclusion, Emery wants Pepe to carry the ball out of his own half and relieve pressure on the defence. At Lille, Christophe Galtier used him to attack in their final third and positioned the team around him. Emery wants Pepe to be a creative outlet for his team with the goals coming more from Lacazette and Aubameyang. Pepe is meant to be more of the lynchpin between defence and attack. He is also there to protect his full-back and track players. Last season, Pepe was part of a team which focused on counter-attacking and winning the ball high up the pitch. They played the ball into space and it allowed him to attack the full-back. Emery’s tactics won’t get the Pepe that was playing the way Christophe Galtier tactics had done, and Arsenal might not see that Pepe under Unai Emery.
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