Noticeable Nicolas Pepe Improvement Down to Mikel Arteta Playing to His Strengths

Grabbing his eighth goal of the season from the penalty spot may not be the greatest example of his teammates 'playing to his strengths', but all the other aspects of Arsenal's attacking display against Sheffield United hinted that we may be on the verge of seeing the best of Nicolas Pepe.

Dare I say the Lille Nicolas Pepe? No I don't, not just yet. But we're getting there.

He's flattered to deceive on a few occasions this season, be it either going through matches as a mere passenger or overplaying in tight areas. But then there have been moments of real quality, signs at least, that some of that hefty £72m investment is on the way to be paying off.

Just like the payment structure of the deal, we've only seen Pepe's ability in instalments this season, never quite hitting the consistency that was expected upon his arrival. Is that all his fault, though? Or are there other explanations as to why this hasn't come off just yet?

In all honesty, the reasons - excuses, if you'd like - for why it's been a less than ideal debut season for Pepe come by the bucket load, but at Bramall Lane on Sunday we saw a far more exciting version of the Ivorian that had only been infrequently demonstrated for large parts of the campaign.

In the most recent outing at Southampton, Pepe cut a forlorn figure. Hector Bellerin was not having a good game by any stretch of the imagination, but throughout the game he passed to the forward just twice. In total, Pepe had just 18 touches. By contrast, down the other flank, Kieran Tierney found Bukayo Saka with 12 passes.

Oh, and those 18 touches at St Mary's? Pepe had 26 in the first half alone on Sunday's FA Cup quarter-final.

Nicolas Pepe was starved of service away at Southampton

Seeing more of the ball came down to a combination of elements, firstly due to the addition of Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the right wing-back role. With three central defenders behind him, he had more freedom to roam forward, and his first instinct was almost always to seek the 24-year-old.

In attack at Southampton, Eddie Nketiah led the line - with the Englishman's qualities more focused in playing on the shoulder and running in behind the back line. Alexandre Lacazette is a different kind of striker entirely. He prefers to get touch tight with the centre-halves, dropping into a deeper role and allowing the wide players either side to make incisive runs into the inside spaces.

Sometimes Willock would take up that role, meaning Pepe would be granted more space on the right hand side where he could run at the full-back and put his pace and skill to good effect.

Pepe is a player Arsenal see the best of when he's on the ball. Positionally and tactically he requires further schooling, but with the ball at his feet his ability comes to the fore.

Pepe battles Enda Stevens for possession

Yet with the tweaks in midfield and in attack, it still comes down primarily to the link up (or lack of) down the right side. Arteta likes to utilise width with the players at his disposal and Pepe tasked with the job of hugging the touchline.

Maitland-Niles would tuck into an inside full-back position, forcing Blades players to come across, thus opening up an extra couple of feet of space for Pepe to exploit.

Pepe's involvement was less and less noticeable as the second half wore on, which was largely in due to Sheffield United's growing dominance. Maitland-Niles misplaced too many passes in encouraging positions, and Pepe's influence waned.

He was being forced to drop deep far more than he would've liked, although clearly audible praise from his manager was heard at an empty Bramall Lane. His defensive duties looked more assured than before too, one of the key areas of improvement that were evident upon his arrival in the Premier League.

Pepe's influence on the game waned as the match drew on

There is an over tendency to build Arsenal attacks down the left, something that is understandable given the crossing ability Kieran Tierney possesses and the fine season Saka is having, but based on that first half display, playing to their record signing's strengths will unsettle oppositions sides and add diversity to their forward play.

Even in the final minutes where he stretched the Blades' defenders with his pace, keeping hold of the ball (sort of) for long enough to give Dani Ceballos time to make Dean Henderson look extremely average, he proved his worth. Not £72m worth, obviously, but signs that the piggy bank wasn't smashed gratuitously.

Whether that means dropping Bellerin from the side entirely or running extra passing drills in training - lord knows the Spaniard needed them - is a matter for Arteta to examine.

Sure, Arteta has plenty more to sort out, namely the atrocious defending from the first minute to the last, but in an attacking sense what Pepe can bring to the side, if nurtured appropriately, was more evident than it has been for the vast majority of the season.

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Source : 90min