If you know what you’re looking for, there’s a lot you can tell about a player from a single game of football (crucially, if you know what you’re looking for, you also know what you *haven’t* learned about a player from a single game as well). In the hopefully regular ‘One man, One game’ feature, I do just that. The first, on John Terry’s first game of the 2016/17 season, is here.
Pepe’s reputation precedes him. This isn’t (I think?) so much to do with his defending as his tendency to kick people. In fairness to him, this is a major part of defending, and so he should be respected for continuing the noble tradition of the centre-back. But, with his Real Madrid now over and a move to Turkey already completed, it seems like a good time to consider how good he still is.
In hindsight, the second leg of a Champions League tie where Madrid were already 3-1 up was not likely to give a representative picture of Pepe as a defender. That said, it showcased some useful little features of his game.
He is not blessed with pace (not wholly surprising and, when being up against players like Dries Mertens is rarely going to show a centre-back in a flattering light). He’s no tortoise, but his nought-to-sixty is more Land Rover than Lambo in his sunset years.
However, unlike John Terry his footwork skill seemed more or less intact. There were no indications that he was having to force himself into being light on his feet, and the only moment where his age came to mind was when facing up a Napoli forward on the side-edge of the box, a little slow when mirroring the opponent’s jerking side-wards shuffling. The forward gained a yard or so.
Elsewhere, twice he seemed to hesitate when a pass was played through the channel between himself and Real Madrid’s right-back, the first of which helped give Mertens a yard or so of space to take a shot and score a goal unruffled. Presumably this is a decision-making thing (rather than footwork, certainly, or his ability to read the situation).
Generally, his decision-making was good, although this was primarily in cases where he pulled up and away from making potentially risky challenges. In the cases where he was hesitating, he was also pulling away from a situation where he might have tried to make an interception, presumably choosing instead to err on the side of caution.
This caution – and his general tendency to back off – may be influenced by the game-state, Madrid being comfortably in front in the tie. The stats suggest that this game was indeed something of a black sheep. Generally, the indication is that Pepe defends relatively high up the pitch, and in a more Front Foot manner than either Sergio Ramos or Raphael Varane. However, there’s a big split in how Pepe plays statistically in the deepest part of the pitch to a more middling line height area – it looks like he usually plays higher up, but that perhaps this slightly deeper, more Back Foot style that he was playing against Napoli was in suited to him.
One final thing to note was that there were a couple of noticeable occasions where Madrid seemed to specifically avoid passing to Pepe when it looked as if Napoli were looking to spring a pressing trap, utilising the midfield and all of the other defenders in the back line instead. He also made an overly risky pass in his own half which was easily pounced on by Napoli. He’s certainly competent on the ball generally, just that there’s perhaps a possibility he’d succumb to a mistake under pressure.
Oh, that’s another thing. He foiled the counter-attack that he started by having a badly chosen pass intercepted by tackling the Napoli forward, a well-timed tackle. On another occasion he tackled Mertens in a well-timed challenge which he needed to be well-balanced to be able to complete.
He was backing up, his weight obviously going in that direction, keeping maybe a yard between him and Mertens so that he’d have time to react if Mertens put on a sudden burst of pace. Mertens, in the left halfspace, tried jinking to his right into the centre of the pitch, but Pepe was controlled enough on his feet to react, move his weight more centrally, and stretch out his front leg to tackle. A player with worse balance would likely be too heavily on their back-foot, meaning a longer shift of weight to be able to stretch forwards and tackle, therefore taking a longer time and meaning a likely failure or foul.
So that’s Pepe (in this game). Apparently playing a different style to normal, looking a little slow, but generally still appearing to be a pretty good player.