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Nicolas Pépé

Lille to Arsenal, £72m

Nicolas Pépé’s emergence into one of Europe’s most expensive players and Arsenal’s record signing was as swift as it may prove defining for his new club. After playing in the lower leagues of French football with Poitiers and Orleans, he showed his improving talent at Angers to attract the attention of Marcelo Bielsa. The then Lille manager shelled out €10m to secure the signing of a player he would deploy, as long as he was at the club, as a striker.

It was after Bielsa’s departure, and working under Christophe Galtier – the coach responsible for transforming Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into a striker at Saint-Étienne – that Pépé was returned to the wide attacking role in which he excelled throughout the 2018/19 season. That ultimately secured him a move to north London at a time when Arsenal were also reported to be chasing Crystal Palace’s influential Wilfried Zaha.

Only Kylian Mbappé of Paris Saint-Germain scored more Ligue 1 goals during the past season; comparisons have even been made with one of Pepe’s predecessors at Lille, the classy Eden Hazard, who earlier this summer left Chelsea for Real Madrid for €65m.

In joining Arsenal for £72m, Pepe not only becomes the fourth most expensive footballer in England; he also becomes the most expensive African player of all time.

Tactical analysis
Pépé is the classic outside-in wide forward. He starts in wide positions before ending in either the inside channel or central lane, as close to goal as possible. His penetrative approach has such variety that opposing full-backs find him extremely difficult to read or indeed respond to. Pépé’s pace makes his runs in behind lethal; he can burst past most opponents with ease, especially over 15 to 30 yards, making him an ideal supporting forward who can deliver into a more central teammate or directly attack the goal, bending shots into the opposite corner.

Defending against Pépé is particularly difficult. If an opposing full-back leaves space in behind, he can latch on to through balls (above); if they choose to back off, he can receive and beat the defender one on one. In this regard, his movement is reminiscent of Arjen Robben cutting inside on to his favoured left foot (below) – Ligue 1 defenders often chose to jockey Pépé, desperately attempting to delay his progress and hoping for support.

This flexibility and ability to adapt is found among only the highest-calibre forwards in Europe. If the young Ivorian can maintain his impressive consistency, the goals and assists he has been contributing – respectively, he registered 22 and 11 during the most recent Ligue 1 season – are unlikely to dry up.

For all of those abilities, Pépé’s technique can still improve. He was the seventh most successful dribbler in Ligue 1 in 2018/19, with an average of just under three per match – but these only occur if he is facing forward, on the half-turn as the ball arrives at his feet, or in behind.

With his back to goal – especially within the defensive half – he struggles to fully turn 180 degrees on his first touch while avoiding pressure. His explosiveness can rescue him, but when latching on to a defensive clearance, or simply receiving a deeper pass along the touchline (below), his ball retention needs to improve. He can similarly struggle when in an advanced and permanent central position, because he lacks the awareness to receive with his back to goal and under pressure.

Role at new club
Pépé’s arrival at Arsenal finally provides them with the potent, penetrative threat from the wider areas that they have long lacked. He brings dynamic, decisive and direct qualities when in possession but also when running in behind – something both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi often lack. They are also less effective one-on-one, preferring instead to pass around opponents and requiring support from full-backs for any threat to be maintained.

The obvious structure required to accommodate Arsenal’s significant attacking talents is a 4-2-3-1, using Pépé wide on the right in what Gunners fan will hope is a formidable right-sided partnership with the overlapping Héctor Bellerín. Mesut Özil could potentially thrive in the central role that comes most naturally to him, with Aubameyang the obvious candidate to at least start on the left (below left).

Alexandre Lacazette’s link-up play is the strongest of that talented group, and as the out-and-out striker his dropping movements could encourage both Pépé and Aubameyang to penetrate in behind.

Should Arsenal regain possession before an opponent can launch a counter, both Pépé and Aubameyang should still be in positions to react (above, right) – and to thus both create and score during moments of transition.

If favouring a particularly attacking XI, head coach Unai Emery can still deploy two overlapping full-backs, while starting with two defensive midfielders – most likely Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira. If things work out well, that front four might even prove enough to take Arsenal back into the Champions League places – no matter what is going on at the other end.

Nicolas Pépé

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