It’s not easy to live up to a £72 million price tag. Was there a moment this season that justified such a transfer fee for Pepe? Maybe when he came off the bench to score 2 late goals in the 3-2 win over Vitoria in the Europa League. Otherwise, most of his appearances in the Premier League have been underwhelming. Until his stellar performance in the 4-0 demolition of Newcastle on Sunday.
Photo credit: Premier League
Arteta also had his doubts about Pepe. The Ivory Coast international had only started 4 of the 7 previous games in the Premier League. But Pepe seemed to have convinced Arteta of his qualities during the training sessions in Dubai. Things didn’t start well for Pepe, who couldn’t beat the first man with a corner kick in the third minute. Then Pepe showed poor decision-making in the 32nd, losing possession by running into 3 Magpies. But Pepe regained some confidence in the 41st with a free kick that Dubravka tipped over the bar.
The second half suddenly looked promising in the 50th when Pepe rounded Clark to cut the ball back for Nketiah, who struck the bar from 7 yards. Pepe then capitalized on Rose’s passivity in the 54th to make a pinpoint cross for Aubameyang, who beat Dubravka with a downward header for the opening goal. The Gunners doubled the lead in the 57th when Saka nutmegged Lazaro to set up Pepe for a first-time effort into the bottom corner. Pepe was also involved in the third goal. He fed Lacazette, who acrobatically spun to find an unmarked Ozil in the 90th. From 7 yards, the German playmaker shot past Dubravka for a 3-0 lead. In stoppage time, Pepe teed up Lacazette for the last goal.
Pepe tops attacking and defending stats
Pepe finished the game with 1 goal and 2 assists. Yet, those stats don’t even tell the tremendous impact that Pepe had on the game. He was the most creative player on the Arsenal team with 1.52 expected assists compared to 0.61 for Lacazette, 0.51 for Saka, 0.19 for Ozil and 0.14 for Ceballos, according to understat.com. Pepe and Ozil were tied with 4 key passes each, but Pepe created 3 big chances while Ozil created 0 big chance. The more outrageous stat is that Pepe led all players with 13 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 interception, 10 recoveries), according to the club’s website.
Pepe’s tackles, interceptions and ball recoveries against Newcastle. (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
Despite this emphatic victory, the Gunners still sit in the middle of the table, 6 points behind Spurs in the race for a European spot. Arteta made some big calls with his team selection. Because Arteta had 2 full weeks to implement his ideas on the training ground, a lot of fans were curious about the team sheet on Sunday.
Arteta made 3 changes to the side that drew at Burnley with Ceballos, Pepe and Nketiah replacing Guendouzi, Martinelli and Lacazette in the starting lineup. It’s now obvious that Arteta sees the backline as a springboard for attacking play. Luiz and Mustafi got again the nod over Sokratis and Holding because they have better ball-playing abilities. Likewise, Saka and Bellerin got the nod over Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles because they contribute more in the final third.
In midfield, Arteta injected a bit more creativity by giving Ceballos his first Premier League start since November. Torreira sat on the bench while Guendouzi was not even in the matchday squad. However, the biggest surprise was in the front three where Arteta preferred Pepe and Nketiah to Martinelli and Lacazette. Initially, Arteta kept starting Lacazette in the Premier League despite his poor run of form. But at the end of the day, the Gunners need goals so Arteta had to give Nketiah a chance.
Manchester City lite
The fans have a better idea now of Arteta’s football philosophy. While Emery tried to turn Arsenal into Liverpool lite with a counterattacking style and a strong emphasis on the transition game, the Gunners have looked like Manchester City lite under Arteta with the focus on possession football and a more elaborate passing game. Arsenal starters all had a passing accuracy above 75% against the Magpies.
The Gunners lacked penetration in the first half because of a lack of movement and a passing game not quick enough to destabilize a compact Newcastle side playing in a 5-4-1 formation. In the second half, Arsenal played with more intensity and had more presence in the final third.
I’ve made the comparison with Manchester City because the Citizens balance passing with dribbling to achieve penetration. Guardiola always includes 1 or 2 dribblers (Sane, Sterling, Mahrez) in the front three because City can’t just rely on the passing skills of De Bruyne or Silva to beat defenders in the final third.
Pepe’s presence in the front three was crucial in that regard. Aubameyang, Lacazette, Nketiah and Martinelli simply don’t have his dribbling skills. Pepe and Saka combined to have 8 successful dribbles out of 13, according to whoscored.com. Nketiah’s big chance in the 50th came from Pepe’s dribble past Clark. Likewise, Saka created the second goal in the 57th with a nutmeg.
Arsenal achieved penetration for the last 2 goals with runs. Ozil created a 4v4 situation for the 3rd goal with a run in midfield while Pepe created a 3v2 situation for the 4th goal with a run in behind Schar as you can see on the screen captures below. Ironically, only the opening goal didn’t require any penetration: Rose failed to close down Pepe while Lazaro failed to challenge Aubameyang in the air.
The Gunners have a 3v3 on the right flank and a 2v2 on the edge of the box. (Photo credit: Sky)
Pepe creates a 3v2 after his run in behind Schar. (Photo credit: Sky)
The training sessions in Dubai had a positive effect on Pepe’s game. He seems to be more selective in his dribbling attempts. Pepe only made 3 dribbles against the Magpies whereas he made 5 against Chelsea, 7 against Sheffield United and 6 against Crystal Palace.
Nketiah’s first Premier League start
To a certain extent, Pepe is a disrupter like Sanchez. Under Wenger, the Gunners often played with very few touches in order to move the ball quickly. Of course, Sanchez was the exception, ending a succession of passes with numerous turns and dribbles. Just like Wenger found a way to make Sanchez fit in Arsenal’s passing game, Arteta must find a way to optimize Pepe’s potential. Sunday’s game showed that Pepe doesn’t need to dribble a lot to score or make an assist.
The two weeks of training have also contributed to improving the understanding between Pepe and Lacazette. They had combined on a goal only once before Sunday’s game. Their relative lack of chemistry was plain to see against Sheffield United. The last 10 minutes of Sunday’s game changed that perception. Pepe took a pass from Ozil in the 90th and could have cut inside to curl a shot. But Pepe preferred to slip the ball to Lacazette, who took a touch before spinning to set up Ozil for the 3rd goal. In stoppage time, Pepe made the assist for the last goal, helping Lacazette end a two-month goal drought.
I don’t have any problem with Lacazette playing the role of a super sub, but I don’t think Nketiah has shown enough to start the next Premier League game. The academy graduate was let down by his finishing. From 15 yards, Nketiah curled a shot straight at Dubravka in the 37th instead of aiming at the corners. Then he failed to convert a big chance in the 50th. Nketiah also missed an opportunity to shoot in the 59th when Pepe collided with Clark. The English striker could have pulled the trigger from 15 yards but preferred to take on Lascelles and lost possession.
At 20, Nketiah is not the finished product yet. But he has a lot of work to do before becoming a Premier League starter. His work-rate was poor with just 2 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 recovery). By contrast, Lacazette had 5 defensive actions against Burnley, 10 against Chelsea, 3 against Sheffield, and 9 against Palace. Nketiah’s all-around game was also poor. He led Arsenal players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Arteta waited until the 85th to replace Nketiah with Lacazette.
A captain leading by example
Aubameyang is the most prolific and most clinical striker in the Arsenal squad. Yet, Arteta started him on the left wing again. Aubameyang didn’t have much to feed off in the first half. He had an angled effort that Dubravka easily saved in the 32nd. Then Aubameyang fired a long-range strike that Clark deflected out in the 39th. Playing on the left wing exposed Aubameyang’s average link-up play. His left-footed cross sailed out of play in the 6th minute. He also missed a short pass to Saka in the 8th and overhit his return pass to Nketiah on the stroke of halftime.
The most frustrating part was to watch Aubameyang track Lazaro down the left flank. Why would your top scorer waste so much energy with those defensive tasks? But there’s a reason why Aubameyang is the Arsenal captain. Leading by example, Aubameyang showed some good work-rate with 6 defensive actions (2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 recoveries).
Arteta did the sensible thing at halftime by asking Aubameyang to play in a more central position while Saka played higher up the pitch to take Aubameyang’s spot on the left wing. The Gabon striker suddenly got better chances. He chased a ball over the top from Ceballos in the 47th for a half-volley that went wide. Aubameyang’s smart movement inside the box made the difference in the 54th. He found a small gap between Lazaro and Fernandez and met Pepe’s cross for the opening goal. Aubameyang nearly found the net again in the 67th when his cross-shot bounced off the bar.
Ceballos’ influence in midfield
The Arsenal defense has improved under Arteta but the offense has often looked toothless with 13 shots against Burnley, 7 shots against Bournemouth, 2 shots against Chelsea, 11 shots against Sheffield and 7 shots against Palace. Arteta tweaked the midfield against Newcastle to create more chances. Instead of having 2 defensive players (Xhaka, Guendouzi) and 1 offensive player (Ozil), Arteta added more creativity by starting with 2 offensive players (Ozil, Ceballos) and just 1 defensive player (Xhaka). The move paid off as the Gunners had 15 shots to 10 for the Magpies.
Playing alongside Xhaka, Ceballos proved influential in midfield with 89 passes and a passing accuracy of 95.5%. Only Xhaka made more passes (105) and only Ozil and Luiz had a higher passing accuracy (both 95.9%) among the starters. Arteta used Ceballos in the role of a deep-lying playmaker. In 81 minutes, the Real Madrid loanee made 3 key passes and 11 defensive actions (1 tackle, 1 interception, 9 recoveries), which is better than Xhaka, who made 0 key pass and just 8 defensive actions (2 tackles, 1 block, 1 interception, 4 recoveries) in 96 minutes.
The problem with playing Ceballos, Xhaka and Ozil is that the Arsenal midfield looks porous and the defense becomes vulnerable on transitions, especially if the team does not have a compact shape. Ozil and Ceballos were dribbled past 3 times, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Ceballos is not a natural ballwinner and led all players with 3 fouls. The Spaniard also had 5 turnovers. Ozil’s work-rate was decent with 6 defensive actions (1 tackle, 5 recoveries), but nowhere near Ceballos’ level. Ceballos, Xhaka and Ozil only won 26.3%, 33.3% and 40% of their duels respectively, according to the club’s website.
Ceballos’ presence in midfield definitely made Ozil’s job easier. The third goal, a 35-pass spell of possession, showed Ozil’s ability to play between the lines. The German playmaker played a one-two with Xhaka to beat 2 Magpies before running some 30 yards to create a 4v4 situation as you can see on the screen captures below.
Ozil has 2 Magpies in front of him when he gives the ball to Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)
Ozil runs past the 2 Magpies to take Xhaka’s return pass. (Photo credit: Sky)
Ozil’s run creates a 4v4 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)
Arteta clearly built his team around Ozil for this game. Ozil’s contribution showed Emery’s stupidity in alienating the German playmaker. Sure, Ozil will go missing in the tough away games, but he can still make a difference at home against the average sides.
Sanllehi’s poor job with Saka’s contract
It’s hard to believe that Saka is only 18. The academy player is not shy on the pitch and sometimes looks more mature in his game than his age might suggest. Defensively, Saka was not much tested by Almiron, while Bellerin had to cope with Saint-Maximin on the opposite flank. Saka won 64.3% of his duels, compared to 33.3% for Bellerin.
The second goal showed a glimpse of Saka’s dribbling skills. The English teenager had 6 successful dribbles out of 10, tied with Saint-Maximin for the most by any player according to whoscored.com. Showing his personality, as Emery would say, Saka had Arsenal’s first goal attempt in the 21st, a curling shot from the edge of the box. Saka also created panic in the Newcastle defense with runs in the 80th and 86th.
In his breathrough season, Saka has already notched 3 goals and 7 assists in all competitions. The fact that the club hasn’t extended Saka’s contract yet shows the poor job done by Sanllehi. As an academy player, Saka currently earns £3,000 a week. Frankly, Saka is entitled to ask for at least £60,000 a week. To put things in context, Kolasinac earns £100,000 a week and Mustafi £90,000 a week. At Chelsea, Hudson-Odoi earns £120,000 a week. Sanllehi and the board would be making a huge mistake if they were to offer Saka £35,000 a week -that’s what Maitland-Niles earns. While Maitland-Niles is just a squad player, Saka has the potential for becoming a world-class player. Clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United would definitely offer Saka £60,000 a week.
There aren’t many wingers who can match Bellerin’s pace but Saint-Maximin is one of them. Bellerin struggled defensively and was dribbled past 3 times. Saint-Maximin sped past Bellerin to fire wide in the 43rd. The Magpies had their best chance in the 75th when St-Maximin outpaced Bellerin to hit the post. Bellerin was so busy defensively that he made 0 key pass and only 2 crosses.
Relying on an old spine
In the heart of the Arsenal defense, Mustafi was dominant in the air, winning 7 of 8 aerial duels while Luiz won 0 of 2 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. However, Mustafi lost a couple of key duels. Joelinton rounded Mustafi in the 5th minute to make a cross for Lazaro, whose shot was deflected out. Then Joelinton beat Mustafi to the ball to meet Saint-Maximin’s cutback in the 15th but missed the target from close range. Saint-Maximin put the Arsenal defense under pressure with another cross in the 63rd. Clark beat both Mustafi and Luiz to the ball but Luiz managed to divert Clark’s shot.
Luiz won only 33.3% of his duels compared to 77.8% for Mustafi. However, Luiz made 8 defensive actions (1 tackle, 2 blocks, 1 interception, 4 recoveries) compared to just 2 defensive actions for Mustafi (2 recoveries). The Brazilian centerback also showed better composure, making just 1 clearance compared to 9 for Mustafi. Leno didn’t have much work but kept a clean sheet by saving Longstaff’s deflected volley in the 14th, catching Bentaleb’s cross-shot in the 24th and collecting Lascelles’ tame header in the 86th.
Despite the emphatic win, Arteta’s team selection has raised some questions. Any fan can notice that Arteta has relied on the old spine responsible for Arsenal’s decline under Wenger: Mustafi, Xhaka and Ozil. Will Arteta rebuild the team around those 3 players? Or is it just a short-term approach justified by the necessity to win games? Any manager needs results on the pitch to be credible. Maybe Arteta is waiting for the summer to start a proper rebuild.
The Gunners next visit Olympiakos in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Everton in the Premier League on Sunday. Arsenal’s collapse at the end of last season is a reminder that Arteta will need to rotate because the Gunners are still involved in 3 competitions.