Nicolas Pepe was Arsenal’s big summer signing. The Gunners signed the winger from Lille for a club-record £72m, hoping he’d help push them into the top four.
The team failed to reach that goal, but it’s unfair to pin that solely on Pepe. That said, the Ivorian did have a turbulent first season in north London. From being benched by multiple managers, to assisting the winning goal in the FA Cup final he had highs and lows.
Pepe was an elite dribbler and goal contributor at Lille. The dribbling certainly carried over in his first Premier League season. His last season in France saw him complete 2.7 dribbles per 90 minutes, according to Whoscored.com. This season, he completed 3.2 dribbles per 90, according to Whoscored.com.
Pepe routinely made defenders look silly with his quick feet and body control. His hip flexibility helps him slither past defenders, helping him avoid opponents and get into dangerous positions.
The other, more valuable, part of Pepe’s game is his ability to get shots and create them for others. Dribbling is fun and has value progressing the ball to shooting areas. However, creating those shots immediately is significantly more important.
His creation numbers have looked pretty similar to his time at Lille. He created 1.82 key passes and 0.22 expected assists (xA) per 90 in 18-19, compared to 1.75 key passes and 0.2 xA in 19-20, according to fbref.com. Technically, that is a slight drop off in both categories, but not game-changing ones.
Pepe’s most enticing quality was his goalscoring ability. His 13 non-penalty goals in 18-19 was fifth in Ligue 1, despite playing wide. Combine that with the goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Arsenal were hoping to create a devastating attack.
This is the part of his game that really failed to translate in year one. His shots per 90 minutes dropped from 2.98 to 2.2 and his non-penalty expected goals per 90 dropped from 0.36 to 0.17, according to fbref.com. Losing more than half of his goal output is the difference between being a star and being average.
Pepe had a weird season. His first year in a foreign country included three different managers and a global pandemic stoppage. Those are clear reasons to project improvement. That said, he is already 25. That is peak age for an attacker, so he may have reached his final form.
Arsenal need Pepe to come good. They invested a lot of resources into him and appear to be financially limited going forward. There were some good moments, but he’ll need to show significant improvement in year two.