Arsenal fans were made to wait for their first glimpse of their club-record signing last weekend. Nicolas Pépé, a £72m arrival from Lille this summer, began Sunday’s clash with Newcastle United on the substitutes’ bench, where he was joined by fellow new boys David Luiz, Gabriel Martinelli and Dani Ceballos.
Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang had already put Arsenal in front when Pépé made his entrance in the 71st minute, replacing Reiss Nelson. The Ivory Coast international was, in truth, rather quiet during his time on St James’ Park pitch, but he and his team-mates did enough to earn Unai Emery’s men an opening-weekend victory that helps to maintain the optimism generated from their work in the transfer market. Against Burnley on Saturday, many Arsenal fans will be hoping to see Pépé's name in the starting line-up.
Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé was the only player to outshine Pépé in Ligue 1 last term. The winger was the driving force behind Lille’s second-place finish – an impressive achievement when you consider they spent the previous campaign fighting against relegation, a battle they only won by the narrowest of margins. Pépé scored 22 goals and provided 11 assists for les Dogues, who employed him in his favoured position on the right flank, from where he routinely cut inside onto his stronger left foot.
Arsenal belatedly strengthened their defensive unit this summer, bringing in Luiz and Kieran Tierney just before the market closed for business. Some eyebrows were raised when they appeared to be prioritising attacking reinforcements such as Pépé, particularly as the Gunners were reported to be operating on a tight budget.
However, there were times last season where Arsenal were crying out for more directness, speed and invention on the flanks. Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick-Aubamyang both enjoyed fine seasons, scoring a combined 35 goals in the Premier League and 15 more in other competitions, but Pépé will offer Emery’s side something different.
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After their strike duo, Arsenal’s next highest scorer in the Premier League was Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who managed six, followed by Mesut Özil on five. Pépé should help ease some of the burden on Lacazette and Aubameyang while also supplying the pair with more ammunition, both directly and indirectly – only one player in Ligue 1 (Nimes’ Téji Savanier) bettered Pepe’s assists return last term, and his mere presence in the side will give opposition defenders another threat to keep their eye on.
A front three of Pépé, Lacazette and Aubameyang has the potential to do tremendous damage in phases of transition, but Arsenal will need to show another side of their attacking game in Saturday’s clash with Burnley. The main criticism of Emery last term was the absence of a clear identity in his team; while the ex-Sevilla head coach successfully altered the course of several matches with in-game changes, he failed to set out a clearly defined, identifiable plan A.
It will therefore be interesting to see what the approach is against Burnley, one of the division’s most well-organised and disciplined units. Sean Dyche will be perfectly content for his side to have little of the ball as long as they maintain their compact defensive shape, and it will be up to Arsenal to break that structure down. For that task, Pépé may be needed from the start.