Bagging a goal and an assist against Molde, Nicolas Pepe is now Arsenal’s top goal contributor so far this season with five goals and four assists in 12 games — already reaching half his goal contributions from last season.
It sounds wrong…
But there was something very familiar about his performance against the Norwegians that could explain why.
Lots of trying and prying, lots of dribbles, lots of energy, but Pepe made no significant mark on the game until his goal in the 69th minute and assist in the 88th.
That is the enigma of Pepe: Inconsistent, through 90 minutes or 9 games, but flashes of his obvious talent always emerges. Arsenal fans have seen this before in Andrey Arshavin and Mesut Özil, neither reaching the heights we expected.
Consistency, consistency, consistency
That oh-so valuable consistency in football is what petrol is to a car, and what Mikel Arteta demands from Pepe, the record £72m signing, if he is to get into the Premier League starting lineup.
“(He needs) consistency. Throughout the game, throughout 90 minutes, every ball in every action and every time he is on the ball in the final third he needs to make a difference. And do it more and more and more,” Arteta told the press after the game on Thursday.
Pepe has a clearly lit path to becoming Arsenal’s new unwanted luxury player after Özil in front of him if he doesn’t meet Arteta’s demands. Inconsistency is a killer. But pressure is on the manager, too.
Costing the club £72m and with almost four years left on his contract and with no resale value, finding the answer to the Pepe conundrum, how to facilitate him tactically, is one of Arteta’s biggest tasks going forward. Arsenal can’t afford another flashy, million pound car sitting in the garage most of the year.
Unlocking Pepe’s consistency is essential and it could be the answer to Arsenal’s attacking issue.
Breaking the door down
Arsenal have been longing for a creator, an opener of doors, this season. Pepe isn’t a playmaker but he can create chaos, like he did at times against Molde and in the past. And it sounds like that is what Arteta’s vision for the Ivorian is, ultimately.
The Gunners are very competitive against the top teams and have found a way to win points against the best with a 3-4-3 counter-attacking system, usually without Pepe.
But against defensive, low block teams, Arsenal have been left knocking on the door, struggling to create clear scoring chances. The Gunners have escaped with narrow one-goal wins this season against Rapid Vienna, Sheffield United and West Ham (25% of the their games so far).
This is when Arsenal need Pepe. This is when Pepe has to break down the door.
Pepe can be the key to Arsenal’s attacking issue
When Arsenal play against defensive teams it’s evident that Arteta rely on overlapping wingbacks to create the width and crossing opportunities, with the wingers tucking in centrally, to playmake more. Pepe is a traditional winger out on the flank, however, and playing him centrally has been a tad awkward so far.
If Arteta finds a way to tactically facilitate Pepe in that more central role — and Pepe adapts to finding himself in more situations where he can cut in and curl it in the opposite corner or dribble through the middle — he could find that missing consistency and create the mouth-watering front three of Aubameyang, Lacazette and himself Arsenal fans have been waiting for.
Arsenal’s agent of chaos
Pepe can be Arsenal’s “agent of chaos” with his dribbling and unpredictability, opening up those defensive teams. That’s Pepe’s biggest value to Arteta and this Arsenal side and why Arteta wants more of it.
But making something happen with ones unpredictability and creativity is perhaps the most difficult thing to do in football: When you’re isolated against two opponents and have to get out of it with the ball, when passes must be inch perfect, when you have a split second to act, let alone think, when it is on you to make that play which opens the door.
Pepe isn’t going anywhere and Arsenal do struggle to create scoring chances. Adding the club’s investment in him and tough financial times, a lot lies on Pepe’s success in Arteta’s system. Aubameyang can’t shoulder that responsibility like he has for the last year.
But considering his 9 goal contributions in 12 games so far this season despite the consensus of his inconsistency, one can only imagine the player Arteta gets and the problems Pepe can solve if they find the answer to the Pepe enigma.
Further reading: A chat with Arsenal Twitter’s youth expert
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