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Can Nico Pepe Force his Way Back into the Arsenal 1st XI?

By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)

Yet again, Nicolas Pépé has failed to carry his strong form from a prior season into a new one.

Heading into the 20/21 campaign, Pépé had enjoyed his then best set of Arsenal performances just weeks earlier, helping his side to 2020 FA Cup victory. He proceeded to score 3 goals between the start of the following season and January.

This season has been no different. Pepe ended last season fantastically, notching 5 times in 3 games. 2 of the goals were trademark Pépé finishes, seamlessly cutting in onto his stronger left foot and whipping the ball into the far corner. He was playing with real confidence.

That confidence hasn’t translated into his 21/22 performance. Granted, Pépé grabbed a goal and an assist against a depleted West Brom in the EFL Cup. He also played a crucial, yet chaotic, role in the build up to Arsenal’s first goal of the season against Norwich, technically grabbing an assist. However, the fact of the matter is the Ivorian has been displaced.

Manager Mikel Arteta has deemed Pépé’s form poor enough to drop him. As I outlined in an article a few weeks ago, Bukayo Saka is Arsenal's best option on the right-wing. Arteta showed he knows that better than anyone by starting him in arguably the most important match of his Arsenal tenure against Spurs a few weeks ago. Who dropped out? Pépé.

And Pépé’s problem is that he was the obvious contender to be omitted. Not only is he the second strongest option in his preferred role on the right flank, but he’s also a player who has visibly frustrated Mikel Arteta this season. His touch is often loose and he regularly fails to beat pretty average Premier League defenders 1v1. In the isolated right-midfield role in Mikel Arteta’s 2-3-5 (in possession), this is hugely problematic.

Pepe's visibly isolatated role in Arsenal's 2-3-5 (circled) Vs. Norwich

Saka is the more reliable option. Bar perhaps Martin Ødegaard, he’s the most technically secure player in the Arsenal squad. Meanwhile, his ambidextrousness has his opposite defender constantly in two minds. He’s a nightmare to play against. The same can’t be said of the one-dimensional Pépé.

So, what’s the answer for Arsenal’s £72 million man? Displaced from his favoured role, how does he force his way back into Mikel Arteta’s plans?

One option is to play him on the opposite flank. In early 2020, Pépé enjoyed some of his best Arsenal from to date playing on the left-wing. He was able to ghost inside into great goalscoring positions and he remembered he did possess a right foot by cutting in to strong effect at times. The issue is that this doesn’t appear to be a particularly viable option if Kieran Tierney starts.

During Pépé’s spell on the left last campaign, Çedric Soares was playing at left-back. This allowed Arteta to have his preferred combination of a right and left-footed player playing in tandem on the wing. Çedric drifted into the left half-space while Pépé primarily hugged the touchline.

Simply put, the role Çedric played at that point is not a role Kieran Tierney would suit. Furthermore, there is no way in which the Portuguese full-back would ever start ahead of Tierney if both were fully fit. Nuno Tavares is now the second-choice played at left-back, and his profile is much more akin to that of Tierney’s in an offensive sense.

While Arsenal persist with a 4-2-3-1, Pépé on the left is thus something of a non-option. However, in a 4-3-3, we could see the former Lille man break into the side in that position. If Tierney were to play more of a restricted role with Emile Smith Rowe operating on the left side of a midfield three, Pépé thereafter becomes a more viable option on that flank.

For now, however, that is the only way in which Nicolas Pépé’s reintroduction to the Arsenal first XI is foreseeable. Of course, football teams work within the format of meritocracy. If Pépé portrays to Mikel Arteta via cameos and training performances that he is a better option on the right-wing than Bukayo Saka, it’s only fair that he wins his place back.

So, if Nicolas Pépé is hoping for consistent starting roles in the coming weeks, he either has to hope for a systematic change or he simply must work as hard as he can to show his manager that he must be playing regularly. Otherwise, the 26-year-old will continue watching on from the substitutes’ bench.

All stats and visuals courtesy of Understat and SofaScore.

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