The Ligue 1 production line never stops. Every season several impressive young players flourish and eventually move on to one of European football’s biggest sides.
It runs like clockwork. In the summer of 2016 it was Ousmane Dembélé and Samuel Umtiti. In the summer of 2017 it was Bernardo Silva and Kylian Mbappé. In the summer of 2018 it was Malcom. And in the summer of 2019 it might very well be Nicolas Pépé.
The Lille winger is a little older than those who’ve come before him but at 23 years old is arguably coming into the peak of his powers. His numbers so far this season would certainly suggest so.
In his nine Ligue 1 games this term, he has six goals and four assists. That means he’s contributed to a Lille goal in the French top flight every 80 minutes during the 2018/19 campaign.
So it’s little wonder the vultures that are European football’s biggest clubs are circling. At the cut-throat top table of the game, missing out on a bright young talent is seen as a failure on several levels.
The race is very much on, so we decided to run the rule over Pépé and identify his strengths, weaknesses and discuss where he may be playing his football this time next season.
Who is Nicolas Pépé?
Rewind three years and Pépé was a long way from the eye of Europe’s top sides.
Instead he was playing in the Championnat National, the third tier of French football, for recently relegated side US Orléans.
The young winger was loaned to the club from Angers and, not one to lack for confidence, set himself a target of 15 goals during the 2015/16 season while helping Orléans back into Ligue 2.
He failed in the former, ending with nine strikes, but did help the club clinch promotion back to the French second tier at the first attempt.
“He has a great ability to create opportunities and take opponents out of the game,” Julien Cordonnier, the sporting director of USO, said of Pépé. “He is still a bit raw, but has a good margin for progression.”
Angers took notice and Pépé was integrated into their first-team squad in the summer of 2016.
Starts were sporadic at first, the club giving the youngster the opportunity to feel his way into Ligue 1 football. But after scoring his first top flight goal against Rennes on November 19, 2016, he became a more regular fixture in the starting XI.
The Argentine saw Pépé differently to most. While he had always been deployed out wide, often on the right flank which gave him the ability to cut inside onto his stronger left foot, Bielsa opted to play his new signing through the middle.
It didn’t work. Pépé stuck three goals in 12 games and Lille nosedived. Only when the axe was resting on his neck did the maverick coach return the Ivory Coast international to his favoured role, and he was rewarded with a winning goal in a 1-0 win against Toulouse.
Bielsa left shortly before Christmas and Pépé was returned to the right flank full-time. Liberated in the role, he thrived. He struck nine further goals and was the driving force behind Lille surviving.
And this season he has taken his game to another level and helped Lille to second in Ligue 1 after nine games.
What are his strengths?
The first thing you’ll notice when watching Pépé in action is his directness. Every move he makes when in possession is forward-thinking.
The second is excellent close control which, when coupled with his pace, makes him a defender’s nightmare.
The below still is taken from Lille’s clash with Marseille at the end of September. Pépé collects the ball 30 yards from goal and there seems little danger.
But a quick interchange of passes gets him into space in front of the visitors’ defence. He is faced with ageing Luiz Gustavo and in truth it is something of a mismatch.
With a little swivel of the hips, he knocks the ball past the Brazilian and races into the penalty area.
As Pépé breaks into the box, Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda races of his line to close down the winger. But it’s too late.
Pépé is able to get to the ball first and knock it around the France international, who clatters into the attacker. Penalty Lille.
That’s how explosive the Ivory Coast star can be. In four seconds he’s gone from 30 yards from goal to being felled on the edge of the six-yard box.
However, there is far more to his game than just penetrative dribbling and this season Pépé has become one of the best in France at threatening the opposition goal.
Whether he is fashioning shooting opportunities or being the finisher of chances created by teammates, his total scoring attempts per 90 of 4.62 is the third highest figure in Ligue 1. That explains, in part, why his xG (expected goals) for the campaign of 5.86 is the second most of any player in France’s top tier.
His desire to get forward into goalscoring areas is evident below. In the still, taken from Lille’s clash with Toulouse at the end of last season, the ball is turned over in midfield and immediately Pépé has identified the space behind the defence.
He curves his run, breaking inside the left-back but behind the central defenders, which creates the angle for the pass.
From there the rest of relatively simple. Pépé’s pace allows him to get to the ball ahead of Alban Lafont – whose decision to come off his line is questionable – and slot home the winner.
So dribbling ability, chance creation and a goal threat. It’s little wonder the queue of clubs chasing his signature continually grows.
What are his weaknesses?
No player is infallible and Pépé is no different. One area he could undoubtedly improve is his right foot, which would make him more of an unpredictable threat.
And his directness can sometimes get the better of him. Occasionally he can attempt to speed up an attack and lose possession instead of playing a patient pass.
His defensive work will also be need to be honed when he moves on to a bigger club, especially if he joins a side who utilise a high press.
Both these are minor issues, however, that can be improved upon with experience and coaching. What is certain is that he has the tools required to succeed at the highest level.
Where will he end up?
With new clubs linked every week with Pépé it’s impossible to predict who are the frontrunners for his signature.
Germany newspaper Bild reported Bayern Munich were leading the chase as they want to bring in the Lille star to be a long-term replacement for Arjen Robben. And given the similarities in style that would certainly be a sensible move.
But the riches of the Premier League could prove decisive. Lille are likely to accept the highest offer they receive and Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham Hotspur and Everton are all reportedly monitoring the winger.
Importantly, however, Pépé is likely to go where he feels he has the best chance of succeeding. In the summer, Lyon had a bid accepted for the 23-year-old but he opted to remain at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy as he felt it would be more beneficial for his development.
That is a mindset that will serve him well when the time comes to move on, which will be sooner rather than later.