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Pepe: Can he be Arsenal's star man in 2021-21?

07:00 BST 30/05/2021
Nicolas Pepe Crystal Palace vs Arsenal Premier League 2020-21
The Ivory Coast star ended the campaign on a positive note, but are we being carried away by his and the club’s late-season purple patch?

Trying to assess Nicolas Pepe’s second year at Arsenal is not straightforward, owing to the club’s rather confusing campaign.

Mikel Arteta’s team had a mixed run of results at the start, were absolutely abysmal in the autumn and then found their feet for the majority of the second half of the season.

On the one hand, an eighth-place finish — which means the London giants miss out on continental football totally for the first time in 25 years — highlights the team’s decline, but their results to end 2020/21 offer some encouragement.

The fact that they jointly topped the form table with Liverpool in the final five games is eye-catching enough, but more reassuring is how Arsenal’s points haul over the final 24 games was surpassed only by champions Manchester City. This has flown under the radar and has equally given Gooners a renewed sense of hope going into 21/22.

In a sense, Pepe’s end-of-season form typifies this optimism in North London with the Ivory Coast winger’s scoring run in the final weeks of the season, adding some gloss to a campaign that may have been viewed differently had it ended a month earlier.

The wide attacker hit the back of the net five times in his final four games, doubling his league tally from a trying debut campaign where he could only score five goals in 22 starts. This year’s 10-goal return came from only 16 starts and his scoring frequency — a goal every 161 minutes — immediately blows last year’s rate — a goal every 405 minutes — out of the water.

Only Alexander Lacazette (13) hit more goals than the West African, whose 11 goal contributions (same as last season) places him third in the Arsenal side despite reduced minutes per game this term (56 minutes per game, down from 65) compared to last year and behind the Frenchman (64 minutes pg) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (84 minutes pg) this season.

A dive into Pepe’s underlying numbers amplify the drastic change in style in 20/21, probably under instruction from Arteta to curb his supposed excesses in possession.

The former Lille star dribbled far less this year and seemed to take a more measured approach when he had the ball. He completed fewer dribbles per 90 this term (1.72) down from 3.23 in his debut year in England and 3.28 in that amazing final season in Ligue 1.

In addition, the Ivorian’s creativity declined this year, evidenced by the drop in key passes — 0.61 key passes per 90 from 1.75 last year and 1.82 in 18/19 — as well as in his shot-creating actions — 2.06 SCAs per 90, having been involved in 2.96 in that first year in England and a career-high 4.77 in the final campaign at Lille.

Indeed, the variance in both campaigns at Arsenal makes for interesting viewing and it’s no surprise that Pepe only fashioned out one big chance all season, having created eight in 19/20. This predictably led to a drop in the Ivorian’s expected assists in Arteta’s first full season (0.9) down from 4.4 xA last season.

Interestingly, the 26-year-old’s expected goals reveal an over-performance in front of goal which often leads to a mean reversion sooner or later. However, the forward has made it a habit of exceeding goalscoring expectations having done so in the three preceding campaigns, thus negating understood xG laws.

Having said that, the greatest change in Pepe this term has perhaps been in his defensive effort and increased willingness to help out in the team’s defensive third. 1.39 touches in Arsenal’s penalty area per 90 outdoes the last two campaigns significantly — 0.45 and 0.51 in 19/20 and 18/19 respectively.

Similarly, the winger had more touches in Arsenal’s defensive third this year (7.28) than he’s done at any point in the last four years. Interestingly, Pepe’s tackles plus interceptions per 90 this term also surpassed his mean from the previous three campaigns.

His keenness to put in the hard yards under Arteta is clear and Charles Watts, Arsenal’s Goal correspondent, believes this makes him a greater asset to the team with next season tipped to be better for the winger.

“The way Nicolas Pepe ended the season has generated plenty of excitement at Arsenal. It wasn’t just the fact that he scored eight goals in his last 11 games, but the way he was working for the team and helping out defensively,” Watts stated. “There was a sense that Pepe had finally clicked and had bought into what Mikel Arteta wanted him to do.

“He can be a major asset to Arteta, and the 2021/22 campaign will be a huge one for Pepe.”

Arteta’s persistence with Willian and preference for Bukayo Saka meant the Ivorian was in and out of the side this term. Still, he ended the year as the side’s top contributor with 16 goals and five assists, although there’s a caveat that a late-season streak probably embellished his return.

Despite the immediate hurt at the failure to play in Europe next season, this could be to Arsenal’s benefit in the end as it allows Arteta even more time on the training ground to implement his ideas. 

Pepe could also be a beneficiary as he looks to finally silence critics who still expect a lot more consistent performances from the North London club’s record signing.