Nicolas Pepe has not quite lived up to his £72 million billing. There is still a crucial difference between the Arsenal midfielder’s play and that of world-class Premier League wingers. Let me use Mohamed Salah to explain.
Arsenal signed Nicolas Pepe in a club-record £72 million deal. The point of the acquisition was two-fold: to find a direct, dribbling winger who has the skill and speed to beat defenders in tight spaces and in one-on-ones; to provide goals from a midfielder, alleviating the burden on Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The first of those targets has been attained. Pepe is averaging 5.5 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. No player that has played more than 90 minutes in the Premier League has completed more — this is even more impressive when you consider his two starts have come against Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.
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However, the second of those aims, to score goals, has not yet been fulfilled. Pepe has looked dangerous, averaging 4.4 shots per 90 minutes, almost half of which have come from inside the penalty area or six-yard box. It is not for the want of trying that is yet to score. But there is a crucial element to his play that the Ivorian is missing, although this is too early to say that he will never develop it: a clinical streak in front of goal.
Take Mohamed Salah. As he lured David Luiz into making a futile attempt to nick the ball, burst past the Brazilian, swerved in front of Nacho Monreal, and darted into the penalty area, he took a few moments to steady himself. He slowed down. That seems counter-intuitive for a player whose game revolves around quickness and ferocious speed, but it is what led to him planting a lovely curled finish into the bottom corner.
Salah had the self-awareness, the composure, and that clinical streak that all elite goalscorers possess to calmly slot his finish into the obvious spot in the goal. Pepe, in his opportunities, has rushed them, almost overawed by the opening, not mentally prepared to slow down and focus. He panics.
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Now, this does not mean he is a bad finisher. Only Kylian Mbappe scored more goals than him in Ligue 1 last season. Someone with his goal record is not a ruffled, nervous finisher. This is a small sample size and it would be foolish to draw any meaningful conclusions from it.
Nevertheless, if Pepe does want to vindicate his transfer fee and fulfil what Arsenal want — and need — him to be, he must take a leaf out of Salah’s book and slow down when it matters.
Pepe is at the Emirates to dribble past defenders and score goals. One of those things, he has mastered. The other is yet to come. And that, right now, is the difference between a good and a great winger.