Arsenal have pulled off one of the coups of the summer so far in signing Nicolas Pepe from Lille. The French-Ivorian winger, 24, was the best player not named Kylian Mbappe in Ligue 1 last season and was coveted by pretty much every top European club this summer. Lille reached agreements with PSG, Napoli, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid for his transfer but the player chose Unai Emery’s project at Arsenal as his next destination.
At £72 million, the Gunners’ record signing is worth the price, excitement and hype due to his vast potential. He carried Lille to a surprising second-place finish in France last season with 22 goals and 11 assists, and yet there is still so much room for him to improve, especially considering he’s really only had three seasons of top-flight football.
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Where he comes from
From quite a long ways, actually. In May 2016, Nicolas Pepe was finishing an unspectacular season (seven goals in 29 matches) at Orleans in the French third division. Not many people, including at Angers, his parent club, believed that he could cut it at the highest level.
His first season in Ligue 1 followed and the learning curve continued for the young French-born winger. He contributed only three goals and one assist but it was quite obvious that his emergence was not far away, as he had improved despite not being clinical enough in the opposition’s box.
Pepe’s explosion happened after his move to Lille in the summer 2017 for €10 million. In 2017-18, Pepe notched 13 goals and five assists. Last year, with 22 goals (second in the league behind Mbappe) and 11 assists (second in the league behind Teji Savanier), he blossomed into a bona fide star.
Strengths and style
Nicolas Pepe is all about pace, skill and percussion. Playing on the right-hand side as an inverted winger enables him to come inside on his left foot to pick a pass or to take a shot. He is creative, intelligent and moves well.
Pepe was the seventh-best dribbler last season in Ligue 1 with 2.7 successful dribbles per game and was also the second-most fouled player in France, as defenders struggled to cope with his dribbling talent and his pace. He loves getting the ball at his feet and then taking on players, as his pace and balance are a very strong asset to his game.
On April 14, Pepe almost single-handedly destroyed PSG with a goal and two assists in a blinding performance. At Lille, he had players around him (Jonathan Ikone and Jonathan Bamba) who developed incredible understanding and chemistry with him. Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should also “get” Pepe’s style very well and form a lethal trio at Arsenal.
There is plenty of room for improvement for Pepe, who is not yet close to the finished article. At present, heading the ball is not his forte, nor is shooting with his right foot. His first touch could also be better, especially when he receives the ball with his back to goal.
While his decision-making was excellent at times last season, it also could still improve, especially in the Premier League where he will have to decide more quickly what to do on the ball. In terms of maturity, this is a big move for him. He has never played abroad before and has never played in the Champions League or Europa League, either.
The 2017 and 2019 editions of the Africa Cup of Nations with the Ivory Coast, and a few more caps with his country, count as his only non-domestic footballing experience. England is a big unknown for him and he will have to adapt to a whole new environment.
The Ivory Coast international is still a “young” player, and to continue his progression he needed a club where he could express himself and gain confidence and trust; he felt Arsenal was perfect for that. It is the next step up for him in his development.
Pepe’s hunger for working hard and improving is impressive and he knows he still has a lot more to learn. He listens, he doesn’t get carried away, and he has a great entourage, too. He is not flashy but rather quite shy.
For someone who has always been in France, this is a big move. But he welcomes the new challenge and feels ready for it, even if he knows how much pressure and expectations will come his way.
Where is he heading?
To the top. His last two seasons in Ligue 1 have proved his quality and potential, but he is still a bit of a raw diamond that needs more polishing. In that sense, Unai Emery is the perfect manager to help him get to the next level. The Spanish coach is very good with young players and Pepe will want to be one of Arsenal’s key pieces as the club looks to get back into the top four.
He is ambitious and strong mentally, and never lost his belief even when he was playing in France’s lower divisions. He could have played in the Champions League with Lille, Napoli or someone else but the Arsenal project, even with only Europa League football to offer, was attractive to him because he sees it as the right path to the top. He wants to repay the club for going big on him.