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Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season?

Arsenal tremendously broke their transfer record in the summer of 2019 by signing Ivory Coast international Nicolas Pépé for a mouth-watering fee of £72m. The 24-year-old forward had a fantastic breakout campaign for Lille in the previous season scoring 22 goals and contributing 11 assists in Ligue 1 from right-wing. Having been linked with some of the biggest clubs in the world such as Bayern Munich and Manchester United, the Gunners were able to secure the signing of Pépé – one that was supposed to help propel Arsenal back into the Champions League.

However, Arsenal had a turbulent 2019/20 campaign as they had three different managers at the helm. They are in a dismal 9th place in the Premier League, out of both the Europa League and the EFL Cup with the only chance of a trophy being the FA Cup. Coinciding with Arsenal’s poor form was Pépé’s underwhelming debut campaign wherein he only contributed to 14 goals in 32 games in all competitions. Having arrived with much fanfare, he has only shown glimpses of his superb quality albeit in an unbalanced squad and a team that lacked a clear playing style under Unai Emery.

Former Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta was hired to lead Arsenal in a new direction and having worked with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City as his assistant, the Spaniard has already implemented a structure and a philosophy in a limited number of games. This will undoubtedly help the whole squad perform better in the upcoming season and hopefully maximise Pépé’s quality. This tactical analysis will take a look at the 24-year-old’s scout report and how he excelled at Lille, and then we will discuss the tactics that Arteta can implement to help Pépé flourish in England.

Dribbling 

First, we will take a look at Pépé’s playing style and some of his best traits to understand what makes him tick at a deeper level.

One of the Ivorian’s best attributes is his electric dribbling. He ranks 5th in the Premier League in dribbles attempted per game with 7. However, he does only complete 40% of his dribbles, which is a low percentage especially given his quality in this area. It is worth noting that he did also have a relatively low success rate of 44% at Lille. The reason why his success rates have dropped compared to last season is due to the slight change of role at Arsenal and the difference in playing style between the two teams. Under Christophe Galtier, he was predominantly tasked with attacking in the final third and thus, opposition players were under greater pressure to get the tackle correct. Lille also played a counter-attacking brand of football meaning that Pépé had much more space to work with. At Arsenal, he usually progresses the attack from a deeper position and the Gunners usually come up against teams playing a deep-block, which results in less space for Pépé to get past the opposition defenders. 

Dribbling, when used correctly and within context, is a powerful tactic in all stages of the match. When analysing Pépé, we can see that he uses his dribbling in different situations and with a different purpose. With that in mind, we can see him dribble to either fuel the build-up and progress the play or create chances and be a direct threat to the opposition’s goal.

In the example below, we’re taking a look at Arsenal’s game against Newcastle, where Pépé is taking two players on. Just before the image was taken, Pépé beat one of the players with his speed forcing a defender to step out from the defensive line. Eddie Nketiah was making a great run in behind but the defender stepping out was able to cut off that passing lane. This meant that Pépé had to go alone and get past the defender who stepped out too.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

Pépé can get past both players somewhat easily and attack the space and, thus progress the play. Nketiah continued to make the run, but since he was in no shape to receive the ball, his run acted as a decoy to create space for Pépé. Unfortunately for Arsenal, the Newcastle defenders were able to defend this with one focusing on Pépé and the other on Nketiah. Pépé continued to hold off the two players with great ball control but got bogged down when trying to take on a third man as there was no viable passing option or shooting opportunity. Even though the attack did not pan out as it could have, they were able to get on the edge of the box when they were severely outmanned in the opposition half, thanks to Pépé’s brilliance in his dribbling.

Later in the same game, Pépé showcased his close control much closer to goal. Having made a run in the box and received a pass from Mesut Özil, he was facing a Newcastle defender, who had followed his run, in a 1vs1 scenario. The Ivorian thrives in situations like these given his dribbling style.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

As he receives the ball, he slows the play down almost to a standstill. This is a trademark in his dribbling style as he looks for the defender to make the first move before going the other way. However, in this case, he drags the ball with his right foot onto his stronger left foot with the defender expecting Pépé to cut inside. Instead, he drags the ball onto the outside leaving the defender a step behind into the open space. He delivers a great cut-back into the path of Nketiah who should do better as he skies from close-range.

Finishing and off the ball movement

Pépé is a player that always has an eye for goal whenever attacking but has struggled in finding the net at Arsenal, only scoring four times in 24 Premier League appearances. His shot numbers since coming to North London have also dropped from 3.1 to 1.8 shots per game, which is down to his change in role and perhaps the step-up in quality in the Premier League compared to Ligue 1.

He still has room to improve in the finishing department as shown by his xG values in the last two seasons. At Arsenal, he has only managed to have an xG of 4.81 and in his last season at Lille where he scored 22 goals, he had an xG of 21.23. Elite finishers tend to overperform their xG values consistently, which Pépé has yet to have done. This could be seen as a positive as it means that he could score more goals in the future. It should be noted that in his last season in Lille, eight of his goals came from the penalty spot meaning that replicating such a huge goal tally at Arsenal would have been a tough task.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

Above, is the 24-year-old’s shot map from this season in the Premier League. As expected, most of his shots are coming from the right-hand side given that he is a forward that likes to cut inside and shoot with his favoured left foot. The issue for Pépé is the lack of shots inside the area. He has been unable to get into the box and find promising shot locations like he did at Lille.

This can be seen below in his shot map from his last season at Lille. The chart showcases the increase in shots in the box and a key reason for this was his off the ball movement, which enabled him to find good goal scoring positions.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

At Arsenal, there have been glimpses of his great movement. However, due to the Gunners’ attacking structure, he has been unable to make good runs on a more consistent basis and this will be discussed later on. Pépé is a very instinctive and intelligent player and is thus able to make superb runs or either find space in a crowded area.  

In the example below, Pépé was able to get Arsenal’s second against Newcastle thanks to his ability to exploit space.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

He runs in from a wide area in the right-hand side into the box whilst Arsenal are trying to attack from the left side with Bukayo Saka. He takes advantage of Newcastle’s inability to reduce the space in the box as the distance between the defence and midfielders is too big. In addition to that, Pépé’s run is a blind one to Rose who is late to react to the Ivorian and is unable to get close to him. This allows Saka to play an easy pass for Pépé who scores comfortably. 

Later in the same game, Arsenal’s great combination play allows Pépé to attack the space in behind the right-hand side.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

Pépé plays a pass into Héctor Bellerín and immediately starts to make a run. Allan Saint-Maximin does not follow his run nor does he warn Danny Rose of his threat. Rose is tight to Bellerín as he tries to win the ball back but the Spaniard plays into Özil. Rose is now caught in between Bellerín and Pépé with the latter able to use his pace and a running head start to sprint past the defender into space. Özil finds the Ivorian with a simple pass putting Pépé through on goal. He finds Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the box but he is not able to get a shot off. Regardless, it was a great move by the Arsenal players involved and one that needs to be done more often.

Chance creation

An underrated trait of Pépé’s is his passing ability and his quality in chance creation. As mentioned earlier, he was able to tally 11 assists before his move to the Gunners, which is a great indicator of his quality in creating for his teammates. That tally was no fluke as his xA from that season was 10.38. He is also second in the team for key passes per game in the league with 1.4 – only Özil has more at 2.1. His pass accuracy is quite low at 80.7% but that is expected since he is a wide player who looks to play difficult passes in the final third.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

Here, the Ivorian showcases his quality in passing. He has two easier options, represented by the black lines, but chooses to pass inside into a crowded area for Alexandre Lacazette. The pass has to be perfectly weighted and just ahead of Lacazette’s feet otherwise Arsenal’s attack will likely collapse. As the ball awkwardly bounces up, Pépé is able to do exactly that and find his French teammate despite being under pressure from several Tottenham players. Lacazette controls it brilliantly before firing into the roof of the net to hand Pépé a well-deserved assist.

The 24-year-old has become a great crosser of the ball. Out of the six assists this season in the league, four of them have been from crosses whether it’s from a corner or open play. The example below is of Pépé’s assist to Aubameyang against Newcastle, which is via a cross.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

Before this image was taken, the winger is able to use his brilliant dribbling skill to get out of the double team on him. This gives him space and he shifts the ball onto his strong foot so that he can cross the ball. He has three options in the box but opts to cross the ball into Aubameyang, who is also tightly marked, and lifts the ball above the defender perfectly for his teammate. The striker produces a great header for a goal. The variety in his passes accompanied by his electric dribbling and finishing quality makes Pépé a dangerous asset in the final third. It makes him a huge threat on both the goal scoring and goal creating side.

Lille under Christophe Galtier and Pépé’s role

To see how Arteta can get the best out of Pépé, first we need to look at how Pépé was used at Lille in his outstanding final campaign for the club. 

In the 2017/18 season, Lille finished in 17th place in Ligue 1 but only a year later, they made a remarkable turnaround. Galtier was able to steer his team into second place with Pépé being the star man in a supremely talented attack. The team usually lined up in a fluid 4-2-3-1 that allowed the attackers to use their individual qualities.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

The image above showcases how Lille play in the build-up phase. The full-backs in the system pushed up high to provide width. This allows the wide players in the attacking trident, usually Pépé and Jonathan Bamba, to join the central and inside channel. The full-backs remain high and wide to stretch opposition defensive blocks apart. This allows Pépé and the other attacking midfielders to take up positions that enable them to receive forward passes from either the centre-backs or defensive midfielders in between the lines. They then can progress the play by either combining with each other, the full-back or the lone striker. They could also turn and dribble at the opposition defenders given their proficiencies in that department.

Lille were superb in attacking transition, with Pépé playing a key role in this too. Only Paris Saint-Germain scored more on counter-attacks than Galtier’s side. Lille were able to use the pace and skill that attackers such as Pépé had to exploit the space that the unorganised defences had left. Galtier’s team sat in a 4-4-2 mid-block and as soon as the opposition lost the ball, the two wide players, one of which is Pépé, and one of the strikers made runs and looked to play forward and penetrate immediately. When one of the strikers dropped deep, Pépé and his teammates were able to exploit the space behind the opposition’s backline.

Under Galtier, Pépé starts as a right-winger but is given the license to roam and affect the game in different ways. The Ivorian usually positions himself either in the right half-space offering a penetrative passing option or stays wide to combine with the overlapping full-back. The winger also regularly switches position with the full-back and receives the ball from the centre-back as shown below.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

From this deeper position, he can get on the ball without much pressure from the opposition which can allow him to progress the play much easier. He has several options including passing to either the midfielder or full-back or dribbling past the opposition.

As the play progresses higher up the pitch, Pépé can form triangles and rotate with the full-back and the attacking midfielder on the right-hand side. He then regularly cuts inside on to his left foot using his great footwork and has plenty of options. There are three main ones: 1) cross the ball into the box; 2) switch the play, taking advantage of the runs from the striker and left-winger, to find the left-back; 3) dribble and shoot from range. In essence, Pépé was the team’s chief creator and goalscorer, as he had to provide and get on the end of final balls. This is evidenced by his numbers in his last season at the club.

Pépé’s role at Arsenal

For Arsenal, Pépé’s role changed a little bit and unfortunately for the 24-year-old, there is a stark contrast in how Arsenal play compared to Lille. The Gunners are a possession-based team and will often face off against teams in a lower block – something Lille did not have to do as often. This meant that Pépé would have less counter-attacking opportunities at Arsenal than he did in France.

When Pépé signed for the North London outfit, Unai Emery was the manager of the club. The former Sevilla manager played a 4-2-3-1 formation throughout the 2019/20 campaign, with Pépé taking up the right-wing position. The Spaniard favoured way of creating chances in the past was to utilise the wide channels, having overlapping full-backs supporting the wingers. However, at Arsenal, he was unable to implement this style. Aubameyang deputised as the left-winger and Pépé naturally liked to cut inside from the right-hand side, which reduced the width of the attack. Even though the Ivorian thrived in this scenario at Lille, he was unable to do so at Arsenal as was unable to forge a partnership with the right-back. With Bellerín out with injury, Ainsley Maitland-Niles filled in and did a decent job, but often failed to recognise when to provide an overlapping option. This meant that left-back Sead Kolašinac provided the best attacking output for crosses into the box. Thus, Emery decided to overload the right-hand side before switching the ball to Kolašinac who was free, as shown below. 

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

This reduced the effectiveness of Pépé and limited his output. He no longer creates final third opportunities as that role was given to Kolašinac and he also rarely got on the end of the final ball. This is because the left-back either opted to cross it to the near post or cut the ball back for a late runner. This style of attack often became predictable and reduced the amount of shots Arsenal were taking, affecting not only Pépé but the rest of the attackers.

Under Emery’s replacement, Mikel Arteta has also deployed Pépé as the right winger in the 4-2-3-1 formation. The ex-Arsenal midfielder has used Pépé well to structure Arsenal’s build-up play. Arteta’s team looked to build in a 2-2-4 formation with the centre-backs acting as the ball progressors. In the front four, the two central players, usually Özil and Lacazette, drop in between the lines to receive a line-breaking pass from the defence. Both Aubameyang and Pépé go high and wide to stretch the opposition and to help give their team more diagonal passing lanes to help progress the ball.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

As they transition into the attacking phase, the team lined up in either a 2-3-5 or 3-2-5 shape similar to that of Guardiola’s Manchester City team. The front five often consisted of Saka, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Özil and Pépé. Saka held the width as the nominal winger, Aubameyang acted as the inside forward in the left half-space and Lacazette was the team’s false-nine. Özil became the advanced playmaker in the right half-space and Arteta tasked Pépé to be the inverted winger holding the width on the same side.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

Both Saka and Pépé were tasked with being the creators in the final third. The team used underlaps and through balls to get both players in behind the opposition’s defence. The wingers would then pump either low crosses or cut-backs into the box for the other attacking players. This has led to the team creating more chances and having more passes into the final third per game. This has also led to an upturn in Pépé’s form. Under Arteta, Pépé directly contributes to a goal every 117 minutes. While that could be better, it is a good start under the new coach especially considering under Emery his contribution to a goal was every 201 minutes.

There have been some slight teething problems though for Pépé under Arteta. This is largely due to the positioning of Özil and Bellerín. Bellerín moves from the right-back position into the midfield three as the inverted full-back. They look to overload the right side of the pitch and create with combinations between the three or via Pépé’s dribbling.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

Both Özil and Pépé often roam from their positions in this dynamic to get on the ball. This is a problem as the move to be successful relies on fluidity due to the angles the players have to work with and thus is not reliable for chance creation. In theory, this could allow Pépé to push inside and make runs in behind and get closer to goal. However, Özil doesn’t hold his position for long enough for the 24-year-old to make a run. When Özil does drift into the right-hand side, the opposition midfielder follows him thus reducing the space for Pépé to work with. In addition to that, the method is not rigid due to the tendency of both players to roam. Bellerín’s positioning also leaves a lot to be desired as the centre-back can only find him before the ball goes to either Pépé or Özil. If the Spaniard was more inverted, it would open up a passing lane to Pépé at the very minimum. With two central players, Pépé and Bellerin, and Pépé being the wide player, it makes combination play much easier because of the angles it creates but also the quality of central compactness it has. Strict positioning is important in these kinds of situations as it makes actions repeatable and reliable, which allows players to have constant conditions to complete these moves.

Tactical changes Arteta can make

So what changes does Arteta have to make to get Pépé firing to his full potential?

In terms of structure, Arteta has lined Arsenal up very well so the main issue lies personnel-wise. There are also question marks on the long-term futures of both Aubameyang and Lacazette whose contracts run out soon meaning Arsenal could have both their best goalscorers in the past couple of seasons leave the club.  

There are a few changes Arteta could try out. He could make a change at right-back since he did start off his managerial campaign by playing Maitland-Niles as Bellerín was out with injury. The Englishman showcased a better ability to play the inverted full-back role than the Spaniard, given that he is a midfielder by trade. Therefore, this made Arsenal a much better force in terms of chance creation.

Despite Özil’s positioning affecting Pépé, he plays an important role for Arsenal in the build-up play and his ability to find pockets in between the lines is something the team lacks. Thus, if Arteta is able to coach the German to keep his position, a line-up with Pépé and Özil will be hugely effective in the attacking phase. This would keep Pépé being a creator for the most part. However, it should be noted that his two goals under Arteta have come from him coming in from wide areas into the middle of the box, via his blind-sighted runs, to score from a cut-back. The rigid positioning will also allow Pépé to have more touches in the box and his brilliant dribbling will undoubtedly create more goalscoring opportunities for himself.

If Özil is unable to improve on his positioning, Arsenal will have to make a permanent personnel change which could benefit them offensively and defensively. Phillipe Coutinho could be a short-term option as Barcelona are looking to offload the midfielder, which would mean Arteta would have to flip the way Arsenal play and this is shown below.

Nicolas Pepe: How can Mikel Arteta get the best from him next season - tactical analysis tactics

Coutinho will take up the advanced playmaker role in the left half-space with Pépé becoming the inside forward – the role that Aubameyang played. The striker role could be played by either Martinelli, Lacazette or Aubameyang even though the latter is not a false-nine by trade. It can also push Bellerín higher up the pitch which would mask his defensive frailties and also his inability to play the inverted full-back position. This could be beneficial for Pépé as well as it would allow him to be closer to goal and become a goalscorer rather than be one of the team’s creators. Pépé has great off the ball movement but is some way off Aubameyang’s level. Arteta will have to coach him on how to make better runs inside the box and movement around the edge of the area. With his age and Arteta’s history of improving wingers, most notably Raheem Sterling, Pépé could become Arsenal’s permanent replacement to their current top goalscorer. There are several long term options such as Christopher Nkunku or Kai Havertz but both seem unrealistic targets for Arsenal given their hype and potential price tag. Or, they could wait for academy graduates Emile-Smith Rowe or Reiss Nelson to develop and hope they can fill that role.

Pushing up Bellerín to the point at which he is further up than Pépé could also be a possible solution. This would force opposition defenders to pick up Bellerín leaving time and space for Pépé to affect the game. It also increases the passing options that the Ivorian would have.

Final Remarks

Hopefully, this analysis has shown that Arteta’s tactics have already helped Pépé to perform and that slight tweaks in both his skillset and the personnel at the club can get the best out of him. The Ivory Coast international has a huge future ahead of him given his incredible talent and there is no need to panic that he had a tough debut season with the Gunners. With the brilliant tactics and coaching that Arteta has already displayed in such a short time, Pépé could become one of the best wingers in the world under his tutelage and a fee of £72m will be seen as a bargain in the future.