Arsenal host Tottenham in the first North London derby of the season on Sunday as they both look to bounce back from disappointing defeats in their previous game. Arsenal were unsurprisingly beat by Liverpool at Anfield 3-1, whilst a lacklustre Tottenham were stunned by a resolute Newcastle 1-0 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Unai Emery sprung a tactical surprise against Liverpool, opting for a very narrow 4-3-1-2, a formation that they hadn’t even experimented with in preseason. Pepe and Aubameyang led the line with Ceballos in behind, whilst Willock, Guendouzi and Xhaka played as the midfield three.
Pepe to be Key?
This formation was used to utilise Nicolas Pepe’s ability to stretch the game, and he could be the one to bring the North London Derby alive. Contrasting to the Liverpool game, Emery could be tempted to start the game as finished against Liverpool with 3 up top against Spurs’ fragile defence with Lacazette playing centrally and Aubameyang and Pepe pushed wide. Pepe was played centrally on Saturday as a ploy to leave him 2v2 with Liverpool’s centre backs, and it very nearly worked. Liverpool’s full backs were pushed very high due to Arsenal’s narrow midfield to utilise the space out wide, and this left a lot of space up the pitch for Arsenal. The image below shows how they looked to utilise this space as he drifts in from the wing, making a run between the two centre halves, a trademark of his time at Lille. His pace subsequently caused hesitation from Adrian, and whilst Aubameyang was unable to finish, it highlights an area of worry of Spurs back 4.
Arsenal also tried to beat Liverpool’s press by playing out riskily from the back, and when they did play through it, Pepe and Aubemeyang were afforded acres of space. It was here were Pepe’s main attributes were allowed to be utilised. He became the first person to dribble past Van Dijk in Premier League games since March 2018, and completed the highest number of take-ons from any player on the pitch (7 of 10 successfully).
He looks very comfortable with the ball at his feet, as well as being very tricky, so if he is forced to play wider, he will still be able to use these attributes. His statistics from both this season and past few are also impressive. He averaged 3.7 dribbles a game last season for Lille, and he is a target for defenders. He was fouled 2.8 times per game last season and 2.3 times per game the season before. He will be up against an unsettled Spurs back four on Sunday, and the last thing they will want to be worrying about is his pace and trickery. He drifted onto the right side against Liverpool (see heat map) before looking to cut inside, and this could be particularly dangerous for Spurs given their defensive worries on that side this season.
Pepe Heat Map v Liverpool:
It was a similar story against Burnley, all be it from the subs bench. Starting out right, he looks to move inside both with the ball and with his diagonal runs. Despite only being on the pitch for 45 minutes, he successfully attempted more take-ons (4/6) than any other player on the pitch, whilst creating three chances in that time.
Pepe Heat Map v Burnley:
The passage below shows how he looks to move in from the wing and run diagonally towards the goal, and against the much slower Spurs defence, this is going to cause a lot of problems. The goals that Spurs conceded against Aston Villa and Newcastle are going to particularly worry Mauricio Pochettino, as both came through the space where Pepe utilises best. The image below shows the space between Rose and Sanchez which John McGinn was able to capitalise on to give Villa the lead, and it is these situations where Pepe will be at his best and most dangerous.
The following home game against Newcastle saw the same problem once again, with the space between Rose and Sanchez allowing Joelinton plenty of time to slot home past Lloris.
In order to alleviate these worries, Pochettino may opt to recall Ben Davies and Jan Vertonghen, however it is worth noting that neither has played much first team football nor blessed with the pace to cope with Pepe, Aubameyang and Lacazette, so the issues will still be underlying.
Nicolas Pepe may have been an expensive signing for Arsenal, however it is evident he does possess the raw attributes to become a priceless asset for Emery’s side this season, and Sunday is the perfect opportunity for him to become a favourite amongst Arsenal fans.
(Images from StatsZone, WhoScored & SkySports)