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Nicolas Pepe Must Master Close-Quarters Combat

Updated: May 11, 2021

By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)

Ever since his £72m move from Lille, an Arsenal record likely to stand for quite some time, Nicolas Pépé has come under intense scrutiny from Arsenal fans, for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes it’s because he seems to be trying too hard to do too much on his own, and sometimes it’s because he seems to not give enough effort, though that’s been less of a problem of late.

His passing can be sloppy, his pressing ineffectual, and his touch a bit loose, but on his day he’s veritably unstoppable. Most notably of all, he tends to isolate himself on the flanks of games, getting involved heavily in the final third, but less so throughout the other two phases of play. And of course, he’s criminally one-footed; as the saying goes, his right leg is mostly for standing on.

The stats back that up—Pépé attempts fewer than 38 passes per 90, 31.53 of which are with his left foot. He only commits 12.33 pressures per 90, although he tackles 35.3% of those who attempt to dribble past him, and he’s only dribbled past 0.8 times per 90. His pass completion percentage of 75% is relatively abysmal, but he is also the Arsenal player who takes the most risks, which automatically means he’s far more likely to lose possession, especially given his limited touches of the ball.

His statistical makeup suggests a player who rarely pressures, but is successful when he does, who passes poorly, but sacrifices accuracy for raw production of chances and opportunities, who is often isolated, but as a result is relied upon to create chances singlehandedly, and who generally runs rather inconsistent, depending on how involved he is in play. Sounds a whole lot like Pépé.

And true to form, he is at his best in the final third. He takes 30.47 touches in the attacking third per 90, compared to 19 in the middle third, and 6.15 in the defensive third. Of course, he is an attacking player, but it’s no secret he likes to play farther up the pitch. His 8.44 progressive passes received per 90 dictate that perfectly.

And it’s his production in the final third that really makes him a star. Per 90, he earns 2.91 crosses, 0.40 goals, 1.56 carries into the penalty area, 4.55 dribbles attempted, 6.51 touches in the penalty area, and a combined 0.65 goal-creating actions per 90, 0.11 of which come from shots, with a further 0.11 coming from dribbles. He even wins 47% of his aerial battles, at 1.71 per 90. Get him in the final third and he’s an incredibly valuable asset to this team, as his 10 goals and 5 assists in all competitions would suggest.

The problem is getting him there. I don’t mean for this piece to be a stats bomb, so I’ll cite three more. These aren’t as pretty. He completes 48% of his dribbles, a 12th percentile statistic. He is dispossessed 2.29 times per match, at 24th percentile. He attempts 3.2 passes with his right foot per 90, at a whopping 5th percentile. Why do these matter, you might wonder? Well let me tell you.

Nicolas Pepe, above all, relies on having space to operate. Give him room to drive at a defender and he’ll likely work wonders. But he doesn’t have Bukayo Saka’s center of gravity and positional sense, nor Emile Smith Rowe’s deft double touch he so loves using to escape pressure, nor Martin Ødegaard’s swift feet on the half-turn. He needs to face up his man, and if you catch him under pressure, he’s a goner.

Think back to the Fulham match a few weeks ago, the 1-1 draw that felt a whole lot like a loss. He came on for Mohamed Elneny in the 68th minute, and played a very restricted role on the left wing that harkened back to his early days under Unai Emery, where he would be surrounded by three or four players, and expected to create chances with little to no support.

In essence, he has yet to master close-quarters combat. The Ivorian struggles mightily in tight spaces, and more often than not, is unable to wriggle out of them, ceding possession to his opponents, mangling attacks, and freezing momentum in its tracks. And in part, his struggles manifest because of how one-dimensional his play is.

When you’re expecting him to go left eventually, all you have to do is herd him onto his right foot, then trap that side of his body. When he looks to turn back, all the original defender has to do is poke the ball loose, and Bob’s your uncle, the ball is yours. And yes, Pépé will occasionally draw a foul or beat you with a clever nutmeg, but unless he has immediate support, he’s mostly useless with his back to net, and in tight quarters.

If he really wants to cement himself a more permanent role in this team, and really begin to challenge for a starting spot, he must take this next step, and master close-quarters combat. Pepe has grown as a player in many regards, going from an inconsistent fireplug to a player who rarely performs lower than a 6/10, and who has begun to find some consistency not contingent on constant playing time like he received last season.

You think of the best wingers in the Premier League—Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Christian Pulisic (I’m biased), Bukayo Saka (I’m not biased)—and they all share the same ability to shimmy out of tight spots, to create chances under pressure, and to impact the team through the phases of play, not just in the areas where it suits their natural style of play. They also possess the relative two-footedness to create space for themselves and make players miss in a much wider range of scenarios.

In both his combativeness and intensity off the ball, and his composure and tight-space technical skill on it, Pepe must take on this mantle in order to elevate himself onto their level. Because regardless of price tag, or hype, Nico has a long way to go in order to have a comparative influence on our squad, if this Arsenal team is able to rebound from their current midtable slump.

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