The Ivorian star ended the campaign on a positive note, but are we carried away by his end-of-season purple patch and that of the club?
Trying to assess Nicolas Pepe’s second year at Arsenal isn’t straightforward, due to the club’s rather confusing campaign.
Mikel Arteta’s side had mixed results at the start, were absolutely disastrous in the fall and then found their feet for most of the second half of the season.
On the one hand, an eighth place finish – which means the London giants are completely missing continental football for the first time in 25 years – highlights the squad’s decline, but their results at the end of 2020/21 offer some encouragement.
The fact that they have jointly dominated the form table with Liverpool in the last five games is quite eye-catching, but more reassuring is how Arsenal’s points in the last 24 games have only been surpassed by the champions. of Manchester City. It went under the radar and also gave the Gooners renewed hope for the 21/22.
In a sense, Pepe’s end-of-season form exemplifies this optimism in north London with the Ivorian winger scoring in the final weeks of the season, adding a bit of shine to a campaign that could have been seen differently if it had ended a month earlier. .
The wide forward has hit the back of the net five times in his last four games, doubling his league tally after a grueling first campaign where he was able to score just five goals in 22 starts. This year’s 10-goal comeback has come from just 16 starts and its scoring frequency – one goal every 161 minutes – immediately skyrockets last year’s rate – one goal every 405 minutes – out of the water .
Only Alexander Lacazette (13) has scored more goals than the West African, whose 11 goal contributions (identical to last season) put him third on Arsenal’s side despite reduced minutes per game this quarter (56 minutes per game, against 65) last year and behind the French (64 minutes pg) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (84 minutes pg) this season.
A dive into Pepe’s underlying numbers amplifies the drastic 20/21 style change, presumably on instruction from Arteta to curb his supposed excess in possession.
The former Lille star has dribbled a lot less this year and appeared to take a more measured approach when he had the ball. He completed fewer dribbles for 90 this quarter (1.72) against 3.23 in his first year in England and 3.28 in this incredible last season in Ligue 1.
In addition, the creativity of the Ivorian has declined this year, as evidenced by the decline in key passes – 0.61 key passes for 90 against 1.75 last year and 1.82 in 18/19 – as well as in his plan-making stocks – 2.06 SCA for 90, having been involved in 2.96 in that first year in England and a career high of 4.77 in the last campaign in Lille.
Indeed, the variance in the two campaigns at Arsenal makes viewing interesting and it’s no surprise that Pepe has only created 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 outperformance in front of goal that often leads to an average comeback sooner or later. However, the forward has made a habit of exceeding goal expectations after doing so in the previous three campaigns, undoing inclusive xG laws.
That said, perhaps the biggest change for Pepe this quarter has been his defensive effort and increased willingness to help in the team’s defensive third. 1.39 touchdowns inside Arsenal’s penalty area for 90 significantly outperform the last two campaigns – 0.45 and 0.51 in 19/20 and 18/19 respectively.
Likewise, the winger has had more hits in Arsenal’s defensive third this year (7.28) than he has at any time in the past four years. Interestingly, Pepe’s tackles and interceptions by 90 this quarter have also exceeded his three-season average.
His eagerness to put hard yards under Arteta is clear and Charles Watts, Arsenal Goal correspondent, thinks that makes him a major asset to the team, with next season set to be better for the winger.
“The way Nicolas Pepe ended the season has generated a lot of excitement at Arsenal. It wasn’t just the fact that he scored eight goals in his last 11 games, but the way he worked for the team and helped defensively, ”said Watts. “There was a feeling that Pepe had finally clicked and accepted what Mikel Arteta wanted him to do.
“He can be a huge asset for Arteta, and the 2021/22 campaign will be huge for Pepe.”
Arteta’s persistence with Willian and his preference for Bukayo Saka meant the Ivorian was in and out of the side this quarter. Still, he ended the year as the team’s top contributor with 16 goals and five assists, though there is a caveat that a late-season streak likely embellished his comeback.
Despite the immediate injury caused by the failure to play in Europe next season, it could ultimately be to Arsenal’s advantage as it allows Arteta even more time on the training ground to implement his ideas.
Pepe could also be a beneficiary as he finally seeks to silence critics who still expect a much more consistent performance from the North London club’s record signing.