Pepe to become an FPL Asset?

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It’s fair to say that Arsenal’s record club signing had an underwhelming debut season from an FPL perspective. 5 goals and 6 assists in the Premier League in 2019/20 is a modest return at best; certainly, more was expected of him.

He’s lightning quick, not just in his speed and acceleration, but also with his feet. He has the ability to breeze past even the best defenders in the world, as shown when, in only his third game in an Arsenal shirt, he became the first player to successfully dribble past Virgil Van Dijk in the defender’s previous 50 Premier League matches.

He certainly has all the attributes to succeed in the Premier League, so why was his FPL output so disappointing? Analysing his and Arsenal’s situation in 2019/20 can explain why this happened, and looking at recent and continuing changes under Arteta suggests that Pepe’s ceiling from an FPL perspective can be significantly raised.

So what happened?

The first issue was playing time. Out of a possible 3,420 minutes, Pepe only played 2,004 (59%). Some of this was down to the player’s own circumstances; he missed the Man City match after the restart with illness, missed the 2-0 win away to Wolves as his wife had gone into labour, and was left on the bench at home to Leicester in the next game following the birth of his first child a few days earlier (tiredness/lack of match fitness). For the most part Pepe has stayed remarkably healthy with no real injuries of note. It must be said that a lot of his limited minutes was down to Unai Emery’s bizarre and increasingly desperate team selections during the first half of the season, which was a source of regular frustration and bemusement to Arsenal fans. Emery seemed incapable of picking a regular starting 11, which led to accusations that he didn’t know his preferred team after more than a year in charge. Pepe often started from the bench and was brought on later in the game. It is very difficult for a new player in a new league with a new language to adapt quickly if he doesn’t get regular minutes.

There are some who seem to perceive lack of quality in Pepe’s game, but this is inaccurate. Whether he’s besting Van Dijk, cutting in on his left to curl a beauty into the top corner or nutmegging Ben Mee, quality is clearly not something Pepe lacks. His output is also comparable to Bernardo Silva who got 1 more goal and assist (6 and 7 respectively) from slightly more minutes (2,021), in a much better and more complete team. There is no doubting Bernardo Silva’s quality as a player, so it doesn’t make sense to doubt Pepe’s based on his output. Willian, who many FPL managers jumped on post-restart as one of the better FPL assets, only got 4 more goals and 1 more assist (3 more including fantasy assists) from almost 600 more minutes (2,595) than Pepe. And this was again achieved as part of a better attacking unit than Arsenal possessed at the time added to the fact that Willian was also on penalties for large parts. Pepe also compares favourably to Jack Grealish, who played mostly at left wing in 2019/20. Whilst Grealish was playing in a weaker team than Arsenal, he is also the talisman of the Villa team and almost every attack goes through him. There is some great writing on Talisman Theory from Who Got the Assist for context, but despite this, and the fact that Grealish played almost every minute of the season (95% at 3,233 minutes), Grealish only managed 3 more goals and 1 more assists in over 1,200 more minutes than Pepe.

Another very important factor is the fact that Pepe had very little support on the pitch throughout the season. The right backs behind Pepe were chopped and changed regularly, largely due to injury. Bellerin was injured for the start of the 19/20 season following a cruciate ligament rupture in January 2019, and didn’t play his first minutes until mid-September 2019. Bellerin missed another 9 games around the Christmas period due to a Hamstring injury, contributing to Bellerin only playing 1159 minutes last season (34%). The others were an eclectic mix of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Mustafi and even Sokratis as makeshift, out of position right backs. The latter two options particularly are centre backs by trade, and are both unused to the role of the modern full back, and neither particularly relished the challenge of all the running that goes with it. Clearly, Pepe had little chance to develop an understanding with a regular full back behind him, as Salah has had with Alexander-Arnold over the last few years for example. It meant that there was a lack of support for Pepe to link up with down the right hand side, and a crippling lack of overlapping runs from the full back to give Pepe space and options. Even once Bellerin was back from injuries, his form was cold and it took him a while to get up to speed. Bellerin had a tendency to look back inside for passes rather than look up the line and try to feed Pepe. This was seen, for example, in the game away to Southampton which Arsenal won 2-0. Bellerin played a pass into Pepe just twice all game, whilst taking the simpler option of passing back to Mustafi 10 times. It wasn’t only problems at right back which left Pepe without support, but also the absence of a playmaker to link up with, and a stretched midfield who had plenty of problems of their own. All of this meant Pepe was very often left isolated on the right, with little support, having to do a lot of work on his own. For a new player adapting to league and language, its an even more difficult environment to grow and settle in.

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To compound matters, Arteta decided on an asymmetrical system of attack for Arsenal which focused on Aubameyang on the opposite wing, supported by Saka and Tierney on the same side. This made sense for the team as a whole in terms of squad balance, but it also made sense for Arteta to lean into Arsenal’s strengths in terms of the personnel they had on that left hand side. Also factoring in to this one-sidedness is the ultimate character-redemption-arc that is Granit Xhaka. He became essential and ever-present in Arteta’s system, but as a left footed midfielder also tended to naturally favour passes out to the left wing to Aubameyang, Saka and Tierney. This again funnelled most attacks down Arsenal’s left, which was good for the team and helped to knit together the midfield and the left-sided attack. But all of this only added to the isolation of Pepe on the right. In the aforementioned 2-0 win at Southampton, in which Bellerin only found Pepe twice all game, Tierney found Saka 12 times and even picked out Aubameyang 4 times. Arsenal are well connected on the left and are able to progress via this route, but struggled on the right where Pepe resides. For Aubameyang’s opener in the Community Shield, we saw Saka switch play from deeper on the right wing, over to Aubameyang in acres of space down the left. This is clearly where Arsenal focus their attacks. Despite all of these factors counting against Pepe, only Aubameyang has more goal involvements for Arsenal than him, which is mightily impressive in the circumstances.

What will change?

The focus on attacking down the left appears to be a temporary solution from Arteta, who inherited an imbalanced squad and had to make do with what he had. He leant into the strength down the left initially, but improving squad balance is something he can, and has already started to address with more long term solutions in the transfer market.

It looks as though Willian may often be played in the playmaker role behind the front three to help address the one-sidedness of Arsenal’s attack. The presence of Willian, who also often likes to drift to the right, should provide Pepe with some much needed support and link up play; affording him more space and more chances. It could also allow Pepe to generally get further forward and be more of a threat around the box. It makes no sense for a team to only provide a threat down one side, and Arteta is aware of the need to develop the right side of the Arsenal team to provide threat from all directions. He moved quickly to sign Cedric Soares, the first choice right back of the Portugal side who won Euro 2016, from Southampton as a backup to Bellerin. This provides competition for Bellerin who will need to stay in form to retain his place, but also puts an end to the temporary, out-of-position right backs which had plagued Arsenal’s right hand side prior to his arrival.

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Arsenal are also strongly linked with a move for Thomas Partey from Athletico Madrid. It remains to be seen whether this move will be completed at the time of writing, but even if it is not, Arsenal are looking at players who fit that profile. This means, crucially for Pepe, a right footed midfielder who will help to link and connect the right hand side of the Arsenal team, much as Xhaka has been doing for the left hand side. Arsenal also remain in talks with Real Madrid over a return for Dani Ceballos, who was incredibly impressive under Arteta (although not as an FPL asset as many found out), and would be another right footed midfield option. The main beneficiary from a more complete, accomplished and settled right hand side behind him would be Pepe, who will naturally find more support, link up play, overlapping runs, and crucially more chances as a result.

Another important aspect to Pepe’s likely improvement is the Arteta factor. Under Arteta, Arsenal are a team transformed from the mess that was left by Unai Emery. It’s important to remember that its not just Pepe who had a disappointing 2019/20; in finishing in 8th place, this was Arsenal’s worst league finish in 25 years. Most of the damage was done by Emery, who had lost the fans, the players, and ultimately the confidence of the board by mid-season. Emery left the Gunners languishing in 12th place and in complete disarray. It’s a minor miracle what Arteta has managed to achieve; picking up the pieces of a broken team in free-fall, steadying the ship, and somehow getting a tune out of the same players to finish 8th, also winning the FA Cup and the subsequent Community Shield against the reigning champions Liverpool. A rising tide raises all ships, and the across-the-board improvement in the Arsenal team also will improve output at the sharp end where Pepe can benefit.

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Pepe will also have had a year to get to grips with the Premier League and a new language by the time the 2020/21 season kicks off. Whilst some players adapt quicker than others, it is hard to overstate the importance of this in Pepe’s adaptation to life in English football. Emery notoriously struggled with even basic English, and it is well documented that Arsenal players were often confused and unclear about what Emery wanted from them due to his inability to communicate clearly. In stark contrast, much like the great Arsene Wenger, Arteta speaks several languages including French, and is obviously extremely well versed in English. Consequently, communication with all the players is much easier and it is not uncommon to hear Arteta shouting in French during a match. “Laca! Allez allez allez” is a common refrain. The ability to communicate in Pepe’s native French is extremely important. On this subject Arteta himself said “it’s really important to get to understand the player; how his feelings are, how hard it’s been for him to adapt to a new country, a language he doesn’t understand- where he can only speak to two or three team-mates. But he’s very willing.” It seems Pepe has the right attitude for improvement, and is now being provided with the environment to do so.

Arteta certainly has a track record with improving promising wingers into top quality performers. He helped teach players such as Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez how to go from individual players to part of the collective, and was credited with a large part of their development during his time at Manchester City. Pepe would clearly benefit from similar coaching and could become a real fantasy asset belying his £8.0m price tag if he can be fine-tuned into anything like those players. Arteta himself referenced a ‘click’ in Pepe’s play towards the end of the season, and the player certainly deserved more than for his absolute peach of a goal in the FA Cup final to be (correctly) ruled out for offside.

He certainly has aspects of his game that should be very intriguing for FPL managers; he takes all right-sided corners and free kicks with that cultured left foot (got to throw the cliché in there), and has scored several direct free kicks already this season, including 2 in the space of 10 minutes in the Europa league win v Vitoria Guimares. Also something of note is that, with Aubameyang not on the pitch, Pepe took and scored Arsenal’s penalty in the FA cup quarter final win over Sheffield Utd. Pepe has a very strong penalty record, scoring 12 of his last 13 including that strike at Bramall Lane, and was the primary penalty taker at Lille prior to joining Arsenal. Whilst FPL managers can’t necessarily count on Pepe taking penalties over Aubameyang, who will most often be on the pitch, it is worth knowing he has that in his locker and may get the odd penalty throughout the season as a bonus to the rest of his output.

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There were clear and numerous mitigating circumstances to the disappointing 2019/20 season that Pepe had, not least the terrible season that Arsenal had as a whole up until the Arteta appointment. Despite this, Pepe still compares favourably to other FPL assets of a similar price and position, and was still 2nd only behind Aubameyang for goal involvement for Arsenal. But there are also clear indicators for improvement; mainly in the squad rebalancing and personnel changes that are already occurring under Arteta, who is acutely aware of the need to improve the right side of the squad. Pepe also has the quality and mentality to improve under Arteta’s leadership, and also boasts set-pieces as another string to his FPL bow. The ingredients are all there for Pepe to have an impressive season and finally become a worthy FPL asset, and under the guidance of Arteta I wouldn’t bet against him being able to put it all together. 2.6% owned at the time of writing and at £8.0, he sits at an interesting price bracket. With Arsenal’s tasty first couple of fixtures, combined with GW1 blanks for Manchester City and Utd, he could prove an interesting differential option, or at least a placeholder for the likes of Greenwood, Foden or Mahrez if you’re planning on using your wildcard in the first few weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if he puts all the ingredients together, goes on to have an impressive season himself and becomes a genuine fantasy asset in his own right.

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