For all he’s done in a short amount of time, Mikel Arteta is still struggling to get the best out Nicolas Pépé and Mesut Özil. Dan Critchlow offers some solutions to the current problem.
Mikel Arteta is struggling to get consistent performances out of Nicolas Pépé and Mesut Özil at the moment, but I’d argue neither player is at fault for this. Instead, the Arsenal head coach needs to look at adjusting his system to get more from them.
Individually, I think the two are actually performing well. Pépé is on his best run of goals and assists since joining, with four in his last three league games. He drew a blank against Olympiacos at home, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He looked as lively as I’d ever seen him, completing 12 of 14 attempted dribbles, but none really led to anything.
Similarly, Özil doesn’t seem to be getting out what he’s putting in right now, particularly when Pépé is on the pitch. He got an assist at the weekend against West Ham, but only after Pépé came off for Reiss Nelson. He scored against Newcastle a few weeks ago, but it was on a rare occasion when he found himself attacking from the left-hand side, which brings me to my point…
Right now, the plan seems to be that Pépé plays on the right, with Özil supporting him. Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang take the left, with either Eddie Nketiah or Alexandre Lacazette in the centre-forward role.
Unlike on the left, where Saka makes overlapping runs for Aubameyang, Pépé gets no such support from the full-back on the right. This is emphasised by the fact Sokratis is now playing there. He almost never joins the attack, and that’s not exactly surprising – he’s a centre-back after all.
So Pépé works alone with Özil. Much of the issue comes from the fact they’re both so left-footed. That wouldn’t be as much of a problem if they were on the left wing, where one player could stretch the defence by running in behind and threatening a cross, while the other sits off in the space created by the run.
On the right, the defence can happily push up, knowing Pépé and Özil don’t want to run in behind and cross right-footed. The player without the ball can’t make use of the space either, because that would involve running offside. On the few occasions one of them does try to make that run, there’s rarely an easy angle to time a pass to them.
Pépé isn’t getting any use out of his dribbling ability and Özil can’t make use of his vision and through balls.
Essentially, this has led to is a one-dimensional way of playing with the two players creating chances via crosses from the corner of the box.
Both of them are very good at it, in fairness. Pépé played the crosses for two of Aubameyang’s recent headed goals against Newcastle and Everton. Özil put in two similarly late balls against Olympiacos, one of which led to the bicycle kick goal, and the other to that missed chance.
But that’s the thing: they can both do it. Arsenal don’t need two players on the pitch to play one ball. They’re offering exactly the same thing as each other right now.
Pépé isn’t getting any use out of his dribbling ability, because he’s so isolated without overlapping runners. Özil can’t make use of his vision and through balls when he’s working on the right with a left-footed winger.
There are various solutions to this. One is to drop one of them – I don’t think this is an ideal scenario, but we know it can work. We’ve seen Joe Willock play in Pépé on the right in the build-up to Arsenal’s fourth goal against Newcastle. Similarly, Nelson came on and freed Özil up to assist the winning goal at the weekend.
Another option comes with the return of Kieran Tierney and Cedric Soares. For a while, Arsenal had no choice but to play Saka as a left-back, but with Tierney in the team, he could play as a left-winger instead. Aubameyang could move centrally, Özil could shift to the left, and Pépé could play on the right with a full-back supporting him – Bellerin, Soares, Maitland-Niles…whomever performs best.
Essentially, it’s the exact reverse of the way the team is currently set up. The right-back is pushing up, while the left-back (Tierney) is sitting off more. You could even play Pablo Mari as the sitting player on the left – the same way Sokratis is now – if you wanted to. I think this suits the players a lot better, and prevents us losing Saka’s wide attacking threat or Aubameyang’s goals.
Özil and Pépé should both find themselves much more effective in new roles. Özil has an easier pass to Saka on the outside of him, and a better angle to find Aubameyang. Pépé has support from a right-footed player to stretch the defence and open up spaces for shots, or to put him one-on-one where his dribbling becomes more effective.
If necessary, Pépé can also continue putting in the crosses he and Özil are currently resorting to. The difference being that it’s now an option, not a necessity.
Follow Arsenal writer Dan Critchlow on Twitter @afcDW