Coming off a blistering season in Ligue 1, the Ivory Coast international star has everything at his disposal to be a big hit at the Emirates
Over the years, Lille have sent a string of players to the Premier League but none have commanded a fee close to the €80 million (£72m/$89m) that Arsenal are set to lavish upon the club to secure the services of attacker Nicolas Pepe.
The Gunners have, of course, done business with LOSC previously, notably signing Gervinho from the 2010-11 side that won Ligue 1. If the Ivorian proved to be a flop in the Premier League, netting a disappointing nine league goals over the course of 46 appearances, his team-mate in France’s far north, Eden Hazard, proved altogether more successful at Chelsea.
Despite the weight of expectation generated by the transfer dogfight over his signature, the massive fee involved and the fact that he has been being touted as the ‘new Henry’, Pepe has been equipped with all the tools to follow in Hazard’s footsteps by becoming a star in England.
Even without knowing where he soccer professional’s future lay when speaking in February, Lille boss Christophe Galtier seemed to hint that Arsenal would be the best option for the Ivory Coast star.
“We’ve not talked about it, but I see him going to a club that plays all in red and likes to have their wide players cut inside on their stronger foot,” Galtier said, showing his clairvoyance has been every bit as strong as his management.
Playing off the right wing, the left-footed Pepe amassed 22 goals and 11 assists in Ligue 1 last season. Put into context, only 11 players managed double figures in both categories in all of Europe’s big five leagues over the course of 2018-19.
Meanwhile, only three players, Lionel Messi (49), Kylian Mbappe (40) and Fabio Quagliarella (34) were directly involved in more league goals all season.
Looking back to Hazard’s best year in France – the 2011-12 campaign, one year after the title win – he managed 20 goals and 15 assists. The Belgian was just 21 at the time but Pepe only turned 24 on May 29. Just like Hazard, he has considerable room for improvement and a move to England should help him realise his potential.
* Season 2018-19 (league only)
Indeed, Oscar Damiani, an agent who specialises in French football, has not been shy about talking up his client.
“He can reach the highest level,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport when it seemed likely Pepe was bound for Napoli. “He’s a great striker, technical and fast.
“He has been great on the counterattack and has been able to accelerate for long distances. He plays wide but goes straight at goal, scoring lots of goals and getting a lot of assists. But he plays a little alone, and tactically has been a bit rough.”
Former Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho can be counted among Pepe’s fans, while Paris Saint-Germain boss Thomas Tuchel implied an interest in the winger when he said earlier this season that he could “play for them tomorrow”, such has been his quality.
Another man who has had a long and illustrious career at the highest level, club-mate Jose Fonte, a veteran of over 150 Premier League matches with Southampton and West Ham, and a European Championship winner with Portugal, has said that Pepe can mingle with the very best.
“He could play for a Real Madrid, a Barcelona – any team,” the centre-back told RMC in October.
“But he has to continue to want to learn, to have his feet on the ground, continue to work and progress every day. That’s the only way he can reach and maintain a high standard of play. But it’s clear he’s got the talent.”
This was evident throughout last season as he led Lille to an unexpected runners-up finish in Ligue 1, charging up the table after a relegation scrap a year earlier.
There was no let-up in his quality and, encouragingly for Arsenal given they have just seen Alexandre Lacazette limp out of a pre-season match with Lyon, there has been no suggestion that he has any physical weaknesses.
Another asset that will help him adapt when he finally moves to England has been his strong mentality.
Whereas Gervinho showed weakness in that regard, there has been no suggestion that Pepe will either wilt under pressure. Having gone through difficult periods in his career before, he appreciates both the need to work and that he has been not yet the finished product.
“In terms of efficiency, I’m in the middle of a very big step, at a very good level. But I think I can do even better,” he explained last September to L’Equipe .
Certainly, there were still some doubts swirling over his capability back then.
He had a mixed first season in Lille, struggling initially under the guidance of Marcelo Bielsa, who used him fruitlessly as a centre-forward, then excelling under Galtier. The coach had a major influence in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang blossoming in front of goal at Saint-Etienne and worked similar magic on Pepe.
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A rigorous manager, Galtier has also sought to develop the soccer professional’s defensive work-rate and positional sense, aspects that still need refining as Pepe readies himself to make the short jump across The Channel, having made his first steps in the professional game at Angers.
Year on year, he has improved each aspect of his game but this will be his biggest test to date.
Pepe, though, has been well prepared for the challenge and Arsenal fans are rightly excited about the prospect of him lining up at the Emirates for the foreseeable future.