When you make a 72 million euro acquisition in just one position, you are expecting a ready-made superstar or, if not, an incredibly young future star.
Nicolas Pepe was meant to make the right wing his own. He was meant to be a game-changer. With him and another world-class forward in the frontline in Aubameyang, Arsenal would get two top attackers that would ensure a Top 4 finish every season.
Pepe’s exploits at Lille rivaled those of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. He was the best forward behind them and young, too. He seemed to have it all: dribbling, link-up play, shooting, setpieces, and even speed. Liverpool reportedly wanted him. Napoli clearly wanted him. Arsenal wanted him, too. And we got him. We got our man. For the princely sum of 72 million euros, a huge investment in one player.
Pepe clearly has talent and he’s shown some of it at Arsenal. He is good with ball-delivery (passing, crossing, shooting). He can protect the ball and worm his way out of pressure in deep defensive areas. At Sheffield United, he showed that he can still do something in tight spaces. And he can be decisive in the penalty box. But he has become a real shadow of all that talent.
Most of it boils down to his decision-making and his inability to get past a standing man without space in behind. Recently, also, even his link-up play withered out.
Pepe’s greatest downfall however is his inability to regularly and consistently beat a man. This is not the player we paid 72 million euros for. The lack of one-on-one threat is only more pronounced by the fact that we play Aubameyang on the other side. Basically, when Aubameyang and Pepe play against a packed defence, we don’t have an in-behind threat. This is only made worse when such ability is lacking in midfield and everywhere else in the team.
Pepe has set us back for years. We are not a club with boundless cash reserves. Shelling out so much money for a player who lacks basic one-on-one threat as a game-changer, especially when you consider that all of our other senior options lack the exact same thing. It could make us mid-table level for years. Fulham, Crystal Palace, Everton, Aston Villa, Tottenham, Wolves, Leiceister all have one-on-one threats on their teams. We once had the likes of Alexis Sanchez rampaging on the wings. Theo Walcott was a much better threat. Even Iwobi could comfortably beat his man and get in behind.
A good one-on-one threat must have outstanding physical or technical qualities along with other complementary tools. Mohammed Salah can skin his man from a standing position. And once you factor in his movement in tight spaces, intelligence and ball-delivery, you have a massive one-on-one threat. Sadio Mane has similar qualities (less acceleration, better strength). Zaha is not exactly the fastest winger alive but he has a ridiculous combination of strength and close-control. Marcus Rashford can beat his man from a standing position at least.
Sterling does not have Salah’s intelligence but he has pretty much the same physical qualities. Riyad Mahrez’s technique and reactive body-manipulation in tight-spaces is outstanding. Pedro Neto has acceleration and a lot of strength. Daniel Podence is very technical. Son is similar to Rashford. Adama Traore has a lot of strength and speed. On and on it goes. Meanwhile, Aubameyang cannot beat his man from a standing position. Willian does not want to take the risk. Pepe seems to have lost his own ability.
Luckily, we still have Martinelli and Bukayo Saka. And Kieran Tierney to a lesser extent. Saka does not have a lot of tight-space technique but he uses his body well, has great strength in his legs, is very intelligent and has great ball delivery. He will only get better as time goes on. He will become more experienced and physically stronger in a way that will let him impose himself on defenders like Mane.
Martinelli has the raw explosiveness that gives him an advantage against a standing man, as well as ball delivery, strength and other general qualities that makes him a potential star on the wings. The problem is that both of them are 19 and should not be so heavily relied on right now.
A Nicolas Pepe worth his money would have allowed both Martinelli and Bukayo Saka to rotate on the left side. Another good winger in the squad would have made it a perfect situation for both Saka and Martinelli to ease into the side. However, ever since Arteta moved him to the left, his football has improved significantly. The basics of wing play are coming easier to him but it is still not enough.
This is obvious in the Aston Villa match. Despite receiving a lot of the ball, revitalized Pepe struggled to make the most of it. In the final minutes, he found himself in a one-on-one situation with an Aston Villa’s defender with the ball in space. If he beat his man, Pepe would have been through on goal, but our 72 million pound man made a bad first-touch and the chance was gone. If it was Aubameyang or Martinelli that received the ball so many times in dangerous areas, they would have been more impactful.
Pepe’s cost will sharpen his judgment. He was brought in to be an absolute superstar, some sprinkling of magic and goal-dust. He has been just quite average. This transfer means Arsenal have overpaid on the odds and soon have to buy another good winger. A huge setback.
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