Nicolas Pepe’s arrival at Arsenal is a game-changer. Not just for the club and playing staff, but supporters as well.
Football is about perceptions and signing an $85m player on a $50m budget changed virtually all those we held. That’s not including Willy Saliba, another €30m that didn’t come out of the aforementioned $50m budget. He’s from next year’s costs; are Arsenal robbing Peter to pay Paul?
It’s all well and good changing perceptions but what of reality? Can one player really make that much of a difference, especially when most people agree the club’s problems on the pitch stem from defending. Sports Betting Dime has Arsenal at 34.00 after the Pepe signing. Given the needle really only moved from 51.00, that’s a change in probability of 0.9%. For tangible improvements, the defenders must be overhauled.
Signing Kieran Tierney is a start but the weekend reports over the extent of his injury aren’t encouraging. If he is out for eight weeks, he misses eight Premier League matches, as well as those in the Europa League group stage. However, with 80% of the Premier League campaign remaining, the Gunners hierarchy needs to take a long-term view.
Bizarrely, he is the only defender on the club’s radar publicly. Arsenal faced Barcelona yesterday, offering them the perfect opportunity to talk about Samuel Umtiti. Instead, the media focused on the bizarre claim that Philippe Coutinho was coming to the Emirates on loan. A deal worth $35m fee; more than Willy Saliba cost.
Realistically, Pepe is the major offensive signing of this summer. Dani Ceballos arrived on loan from Real Madrid but his goalscoring record suggests he isn’t a direct replacement for Aaron Ramsey. The weight of the Welshman’s goals rests squarely on the Ivory Coast international’s shoulders; the question is are they broad enough?
Emery sets his team up to play on the break away from the Emirates. It needs pace, an asset Pepe possesses in abundance. In the first half of the pre-season friendly at Barcelona, Arsenal’s shape offered promise for the coming season. The back four held their line well overall with counter-attacks springing forward focusing on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s pace. He yearned for a pacey finisher to work in tandem with; Pepe is that man, with Mkhitaryan the player most likely to give way.
This duo, glued together by Alexandre Lacazette’s intelligent play, is a formidable attack. It offers the prospect of a vast improvement on last season’s form. Last season saw Emery’s side struggled on their travels, picking up just 25 points out of a possible 57. It was only the 8th-best in the division with their defensive record in those matches better than only six other teams. The Gunners need to score more in the absence of defensive improvement.
Pepe is key to that. At home, his dribbling skills is where his value lies. Regularly, the north London club faces massed defences but as the season wore on, opponents became more adventurous. Unai Emery must hope that mentality continues. With pace to burn, Arsenal’s passing can exploit the gaps left behind. Of course, the first time the Gunners exploit them is likely to be the signal for massed defences to return.
Whatever the actual outcome of his arrival, for a few weeks in the summer we can dream. Pepe gave us hope that the decline suffered in recent years is coming to an end. More importantly, it’s a sign that the top four is not beyond us.