This is the second in a series of analysis pieces to preview the restart of the Premier League season, on June 17. Read the first on Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes here.
Like every Premier League club, Arsenal's medium-term future is as clear as dishwater but one thing is certain: their on-pitch performance will to a great extent be tied to the fate of Nicolas Pepe.
A club record £72 million purchase, Pepe has so far flickered with promise but fallen short of the league-leading production a fee of that size demands.
The price seems all the more exorbitant in football's post-coronavirus landscape, and the installments through which Arsenal will pay for Pepe's transfer (around £52 million spread across his five-year contract) are now a significant outgoing.
Furthermore, with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang approaching the end of their Arsenal careers, Arsenal will be banking on Pepe to replace a chunk of their end product. The Ivorian turned 25 last week, while Arsenal's other offensive hopes such as Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Folarin Balogun are still in their formative years.
It would be unfair to regard Pepe's first season in England as an abject failure. Six goals and eight assists in 2,046 minutes across all competitions - a goal contribution every 146 minutes - is a solid return, and playing under three different managers is suboptimal while adapting to a new league and country.
Robert Pires for instance, recorded eight goals and nine assists in all competitions in his 'difficult' first season in England before blossoming the next. Pepe was bought to add unpredictability and dribbling to Arsenal's attack and he has certainly done that, beating 67 players in his first Premier League season which has him ninth in the league, despite only completing 90 minutes on 10 occasions.
Mikel Arteta was credited with improving Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling at Manchester City, chiseling them into consistent wide-forwards who thrived in Pep Guardiola's system that created an abundance of one v ones and chances from low crosses.
The prospect of Arteta guiding Pepe on a similar path is exciting, and his goal against Manchester United and goal and pair of assists against Newcastle bode well. However, Arteta also left Pepe out entirely for a goalless draw at Burnley and preferred Nelson and Martinelli for stiffer assignments at home to Chelsea and away at Olympiakos.
Tactically, life has been lonely for Pepe under Arteta. Asked to hold his width on the right flank with very little support, his heat map against West Ham shows a player carrying out instructions on the periphery of the game.
Not least because he is left-footed, Pepe's natural instinct is to drift around in search of touches; he is an agile and quick-footed dribbler who wants the ball at his feet as often as possible. A shuttling role close to the touchline requires more patience and rigour.
Arsenal's lopsided squad and personnel could well explain Pepe's isolation, and it may prove a short-term problem. Hector Bellerin's fitness struggles have robbed Arsenal of an overlapping full-back on their right side, which would enable Pepe to tuck inside.
On the other flank, injuries have forced Arteta to use 18-year-old winger Saka at left-back. Understandably, Arteta has tried to limit Saka's defensive responsibilities and allow the youngster to express his strengths going forward. Having such an attacking left-back allows Aubameyang to move inside from his starting position on the left and play closer to goal. It is a win-win for the pair, and it is no coincidence that Saka and Aubameyang have been two of Arsenal's best performers under Arteta.
Taking his cue from Guardiola, Arteta has employed a five-man attacking shape lined up in a W - with two players wide either side of the central striker, and two players supporting in the half-spaces. Saka occupies the wide left slot, Aubameyang is next to him, Lacazette up front, Mesut Ozil right of centre and Pepe fixed all on the right touchline.
His attacking actions against West Ham show a player receiving the ball a long way from goal in positions that do not threaten the opposition. Perhaps when Arteta has a more offensive right-back, he will invert this approach and Pepe will feel the benefit.
However, what if Arteta's principles are simply antithetical to a freedom-seeking player such as Pepe? We cannot know for certain, but there is strong evidence that Arteta is a disciple of Guardiola, and as a young player he received his football education at Barcelona's academy La Masia.
Aesthetically, the football for which Barcelona and Guardiola are famed might appear spontaneous and free-flowing, but is actually underpinned by a strict positional system. Wingers are asked to stay on the touchline and trust their team-mates in midfield to work the ball into the final third. Where fans see an isolated player, Arteta might see opportunities to get Pepe one-on-one against his full back.
As Johan Cruyff, the dominant influence on Guardiola and subsequently Arteta, put it: "You always think you help someone by going towards him. But you help him most by walking away. I've got the ball, I want to play one vs one. So, helping me means walking away. But everyone says helping someone means closing in on them."
Thierry Henry is particularly enlightening on this point, reflecting on how he had to learn a new way of thinking when he moved to Barcelona. At Arsenal, he was granted the freedom to do as he pleased on the pitch, but under Guardiola he was asked to stand on the left touchline and not leave his zone.
When the ball was passed to Barcelona's left-back, Henry was asked to run behind the opposition's defence knowing full well he would rarely be found. The idea was to stretch the opposition vertically and create space for Andres Iniesta to receive the ball in the inside-left pocket. Henry would then join in the attack in the next phase.
Henry told Sky Sports: "Guardiola used to call it the ‘three Ps’ - play, possession and position. And the most important one was position. You have to stay in your position, trust your team-mates and allow the ball to come to you.
“In training, to make you understand that, especially for Xavi and Iniesta, he would put cones [down] and up until the last third, guys who were playing on the right were not allowed to cross over to the left were not allowed to cross over to the right, and on the left you were not allowed to cross over to the right. But the last third was freedom for us.”
Pepe will need to improve his off-the-ball movement if he is to thrive in a similar role under Arteta. Raheem Sterling's detractors once claimed he was too much of an individualist to adapt to this blueprint, so it would be premature to declare Arteta and Pepe incompatible.
What is clear however, is that one party will need to take a step closer to the other in order to maximise an undoubted talent. Either Arteta softens his tactical demands and offers Pepe greater liberty, or the player bends to his will.