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Arsenal wasted no time after failing to convince Crystal Palace to part ways with Wilfried Zaha. The Gunners moved swiftly to the head of the queue for Lille’s Nicolas Pépé, gazumping Napoli, barring any last-minute hiccups, to bring this summer’s longest transfer saga to an end.
The 24-year-old attacker will arrive at the Emirates in a deal believed to be worth in excess of £70million. Arsenal will pay a percentage of that upfront before staggering the remainder of the payments over the next five years.
It’s a statement signing for Unai Emery. A club-record fee to land a player who was being courted by a number of top European clubs. But, excitement aside, his arrival causes the Arsenal boss a number of headaches.
Namely, how does he fit the Ivory Coast international into his starting XI?
Pépé thrived for Lille last season as a right-winger, often cutting inside to cause damage. But he has also played centrally while was deployed on the left during his time with Angers.
However, he’s undoubtedly better on the right. It adds a layer of unpredictability to his game as he’s able to go on the outside as well as the inside, something he can’t do when deployed on the left.
Pépé has the makings of a potential No.9 but with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ahead of him in the pecking order, it’s unlikely he’ll be called to lead the line anytime soon.
The obvious answer would be to stick Pepe on the right, Aubameyang on the left and to use Lacazette as the central one of the three. Emery used a 433/4231 shape last term and the trio could easily fit into that.
On paper, it’s a perfectly balanced attacking trio, as evidenced by the heatmaps below.
Aubameyang sees more of the ball on the left, though he’s comfortable drifting across the width of the pitch. Lacazette drops deep from his natural centre-forward role to link play.
By doing so he frees up space centrally for the wide forwards to drift into. Pépé hugged the touchline on the right for Lille before coming alive in the final third to put the finishing touches onto breathtaking team moves.
If you had to piece together a jigsaw you’d be hard-pressed to find more of a perfect three. Going forward, they could be unstoppable. Defensively, however, it’s going to be a different story and this is where Emery is going to have to earn his money.
Pépé played in a Lille team set up to hit sides on the counter. He wasn’t tasked with pressing high or much at all, winning possession back in the attacking third on just 0.78 times per 90 on average.
That isn’t to suggest he can’t play in a high pressing team looking to exploit transitional situations, just there’s no guarantee he can.
For context, Alex Iwobi won 0.7 more possessions per 90 than Pépé while Henrikh Mkhitaryan averaged 2.1 more. This highlights Emery's wide players must do their dirty work, too. Pépé may well be able to but it’s doubtful he can straight from the off. There’s likely going to be a teething period and fans will have to be patient.
If it clicks and Emery manages to balance the team, ensuring support in wide areas so the full-backs aren’t isolated if the wide forwards don’t track back, and the midfield has the right amount of creativity without being overrun, Pépé could turn out to be the signing of the summer.
The £72million fee will be completely forgotten if he does enough alongside Lacazette and Aubameyang to fire the Gunners back into the Champions League.
Arsenal have added one of the most exciting talents in Europe to their already stacked forward line. It will be intriguing to see what Emery’s masterplan is for Pepe.