American starlet Ricardo Pepi is strongly linked with a $20 million move to Augsburg. But, what is Augsburg getting for all that money? Is he more like Alphonso Davies, who left MLS to become a top 50 player in the world? Or is he more like Miguel Almiron who left MLS to score 8 league goals in 2.5 seasons? In my view, Pepi is very good for an 18-year-old and could very well develop into a Bundesliga-level player. But Augsburg, if the reports are true, is paying a huge premium for potential and it is unlikely he will be a star right away.
Pepi (18) is a striker who graduated from F.C Dallas’ academy. After a strong 2019 with North Texas SC (F.C Dallas affiliate who play in the American 3rd division), Pepi joined Dallas’ first team in 2020 and broke through as a regular starter in 2021. Pepi scored 13 goals and added 3 assists in 2046 minutes on an F.C Dallas team that struggled, winning only 7 games. Pepi has also been capped 7 times by the US National team and has scored 3 goals.
One thing that stands out from Pepi’s game right away is his work rate. He is very eager to press opposing defenders, whether that means pressing from the front or dropping back into midfield to try and disrupt the opposition build-up. But, often he finds himself pressing all alone or is out of sync with his teammates. It is difficult to say to what degree this is him not gelling with his team’s tactics and to what degree it is his teammates not recognizing opportunities to put the opposition under pressure. After all, F.C Dallas may be hot stuff when it comes to moving young players to Europe but when it comes to winning games in Major League Soccer they are not very good at all.
Let’s look a little bit at what I mean with some examples from a game against the Houston Dynamo this season.
In the below example Pepi has an opportunity to do a pretty standard bit of pressing for a striker. With a bit of clever movement, he can use the far touchline to trap the opposing centre back into either giving the ball away or playing a difficult long pass under pressure. But he is a little slow recognizing that situation and the Houston player is ultimately able to complete his pass.
In another example, we see Pepi recognize that a Houston midfielder is dropping deep to receive the ball from centre-backs.
Pepi was not able to win the ball on this occasion but he did prevent the midfield player from turning and playing the ball up the field. But because the rest of his teammates are so deep, Houston is only delayed from playing out of the back rather than stopped altogether.
Then in this last example, we see Pepi pressing the opposition goalkeeper while his teammates pretty much just look on.
What all three of these examples have in common is that Pepi is eagerly pressing but it isn’t resulting in Dallas winning the ball back. If we go to the stats we see that this isn’t a mirage. Pepi was in the 90th percentile for pressures amongst MLS strikers in 2021 but his percentage of successful pressures is below average (pressures are defined as “successful” when a player’s team wins the ball back within 5 seconds of the pressure). Based on the examples we looked at, this can probably be improved through a combination of Pepi’s decision-making getting better and playing in a team with a more structured pressing scheme. The good news for Augsburg is that Pepi is eager to press so with coaching and proper structure he can become a lot more effective.
Of course, the main duty of any striker is to score goals. To do that you have to consistently get on the end of chances in dangerous areas. Just like with his defensive game, Pepi has some improvements he can make but overall has a strong base on which to build his game.
The good thing is that Pepi was able to generate a lot of shots from inside the penalty box on a team that was not very good. The problem is that a lot of those shots are from difficult angles or other suboptimal locations. Consider, for example, the shot from below.
Now, this play did result in a goal thanks to some poor goalkeeping, but most of the time the best thing to do here would be to centre the ball for a player who has a better shot.
Or this one which, by the strictest definition, is inside the penalty area but isn’t exactly the optimal spot to be shooting from.
Again, this shot happens to go in, but you can’t rely on it to work out every time. Pepi scored 13 goals from 9.7 xG this season. Nearly 20% of the shots he took went in. That simply won’t last forever.
If we return to the Houston game we looked at earlier we can see an example of what Pepi can do to improve in this regard. With the ball, wide Pepi makes a run into the box, as any striker should.
But rather than hitting the area around the penalty spot and between the goal posts (the area that xG models show us it is easiest to score from) he drifts into a slightly wider area that results in a more difficult finish and the shot being blocked. Note the huge space right in the centre of the penalty box.
Now I am not saying this means he is bad or that every single shot has to be 10 yards out right in front of the goal. But I am saying that Pepi’s finishing of suboptimal shots at an unsustainable rate has given a bit of a false impression of his current quality. He is still really excellent for an 18 year old, especially one on a team that isn’t very good. But if he is going to be a striker in a top 5 league then he either needs to improve the quality of his shot selection or take a lot more shots. If you want a good example of a player who does the former well, I would recommend watching a compilation of Dominic Calvert-Lewin goals. Make note of where his goals come from and the runs he makes to get in those positions.
Of course, a low percentage shot is still better than no shot at all. Pepi is good at using his pace to achieve separation from players and get shots off. In the example below Pepi can get on the end of a through ball that is slightly overhit.
Pepi is generally quick enough to get away from defenders, with a number of his goals coming due to him being able to get clear of the last defender.
There is another element of any striker’s game that is important and that is how they are involved in build-up play. Fans of Augsburg, I hope you like backheels! Pepi’s signature move is to receive a moving ball and backheel it to an onrushing midfielder behind him. It doesn’t lead to anything any more often than any other layoff pass but he does do it a lot.
Pepi’s passing game mostly consists of short simple layoffs. He averaged 0.09 xA per 90 minutes in 2021 so he does have some playmaking ability but if you are expecting Harry Kane style creation from a striker then Pepi is not your guy. His only two assists in 2021 came from tackling the opposition goalkeeper and from passing to a player who then dribbled a long distance to score.
Pepi has good potential. There are a lot of areas of his game that could be improved but he also does a lot of good things that show he could develop into a Bundesliga player. That said, at this moment he is not a Bundesliga player. I think it would probably be better for him in the long run if he stayed in MLS for a few more years. He has potential but potential is never guaranteed. I would not spend $20 million for him. I think a much better investment for a team like Augsburg would be NYCFC’s Valentin Castellanos who is a much better striker and, if reports are to be believed, can be had for $7.5 million less. Or alternatively, there’s New England’s Adam Buksa. True he is a bit older at 25 but his goal record is outstanding, his underlying data shows that his goal-scoring is sustainable, and he would likely cost a 3rd of what Augsburg is paying for Pepi. But saying that Pepi isn’t ready for the Bundesliga and that there are better options available in MLS does not mean that he is bad or that he will never reach the level of a Bundesliga player. I think he has a lot of tools that could lead to him developing into a very good player indeed. But I don’t think paying so much for that potential when you are struggling against relegation is a wise move.