2017/2018 – A false dawn
The rapid ascent of Nicolas Pépé from relative anonymity to Ligue 1’s most sought-after prospect is a reality that even the most ardent of Lille supporters would have failed to fathom. Their skepticism towards a new dawn for the French-born Ivorian forward and moreover, their club was understandable as the Marcelo Bielsa project had gone completely south.
Amassing a catastrophic 12 points from 13 matches, Des Rogues (The Great Danes) were languishing in 18th place and the Argentine bizzarely deployed Nicolas Pépé as an out-and-out striker. A right-winger by trade, the 23-year cut a forlorn figure at the Stade-Pierre Mauroy as he struck a measly 3 goals in 12 matches.
Where did it all change?
The former Angers man’s fortunes changed when Christophe Galtier was appointed as Lille boss in December 2017.
His first order of business was to recall the on-loan front man, Lebo Mothiba from Ligue 2 side Valenciennes in January which saw Pépé revert back as a wide man. Galtier’s positional tweak led to a resurgence for the Ivory Coast international who scored a further 9 goals and assisted 5 in the second half of the campaign. Pépé was a catalyst in Lille’s survival in Ligue 1 as they managed to secure a 17th place finish.
However, the sparkling winger’s rise through the ranks has been synonymous with Des Rogues’ colossal transformation from relegation fodder to being perched at 2nd in the league behind pacemakers Paris Saint-Germain in the 2018-19 season. Not only has Lille’s scintillating form emerged as a bolt from the blue, but moreover, Pépé has the highest goal contributions in Ligue 1 along with a certain Kylian Mbappé with 12 goals and 5 assists which is an incredibly surprising feat. The likes of stalwarts such as Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Memphis Depay among many others have assembled the chasing pack behind the high-flying Ivorian this campaign.
Style of Play
Pépé ’s style of play is typified by his directness that he generates from his wand of a left foot as he wreaks havoc in a right-sided inside forward position. Characterized by his propensity to cut inside and go for goal, the ex-US Orleans winger averages a massive 3.38 shots per match. To give a clearer picture of the 23-year old’s single-mindedness in front of goal, only Cristiano Ronaldo (88) had attempted more shots on goal than Pépé (55) in Europe, as of November 2018.
At first glance, Pépé ’s approach in the final third may be perceived as slightly impulsive and lacking precision, similar to Fulham’s André Schürrle, for instance. However, the fundamental distinguishing factor between both forwards is that the former has a burgeoning expected goals (xG) of 0.58 per 90 minutes in comparison to the uninspiring 0.18 collated by the latter. In layman terms, the quality of Pépé ’s attempts at goals are from fruitful areas and can be regarded as actual goalscoring chances instead of Schürrle’s wastefulness from 30 yards out.
In addition, the former Poitiers man is an expert dribbler and is renowned for his tremendous close control. A prime example of his fleet-footedness was on show against 11th-placed Nîmes as he collected the ball just behind the halfway line to ghost past Jonathan Ferri and Anthony Briançon to rifle a low and hard shot past the goalkeeper. A solo effort of the highest order, the goal was representative of Pépé ’s ability to take the game by the scruff of the neck as he put the game beyond the opponents.
With an average of 1.9 dribbles completed per match, Pépé has outshone the likes of sensational talents such as Anthony Martial (1.2) and Ousmane Dembélé(1.8) in beating his man.
Operating as Lille’s chief creator this season, the Ivorian’s abilities as a provider have gone under the radar. Pépé has managed to not only managed to yield 5 assists this season but moreover, secure an average of 1.9 key passes per match. This can be considered as a healthy return for any top-tier winger around Europe, however, it must be regarded as a major feat to showcase such brilliant levels of creative output in a side that finished only a point above the relegation zone in the 2017/18 campaign.
A European Championship winner with Portugal and former Southampton defender, José Fonte shares a dressing room with Pépé and has earmarked him for a bright future, saying –
“He could play for a Real Madrid, a Barcelona- any team. But he has to continue to want to learn, to keep his feet on the ground and to continue to work and progress every day.”
Pépé is a mouthwatering prospect, however, there does lie a room for improvement in the Ivory Coast international’s game in areas such as tracking back defensively, losing possession of the ball and positional awareness as he is caught offside on several occasions.
However, Pépé is well aware of his flaws and has stated that he ‘can do even better’ as he progresses every day.
What does the future hold for Nicolas Pépé ?
Lille chief Luis Campos has placed a staggering 80 million pound price tag on Pépé for any potential suitors to lure him away from the Stade-Pierre Mauroy.
The prodigious forward has the pick of the upper echelon of clubs such as Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Barcelona queued up for his signature. While the Gunners are in dire need of a winger with the likes of Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan flattering to deceive, the old guard of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery or “Robbery” at Bayern are nearing the end of their careers with the former announcing his last season for the Bavarian giants. Lionel Messi shows no signs of stopping any time soon, however the constant reports of a lackadaisical attitude from starlet Ousmane Dembélé along with Phillipe Coutinho’s penchant for operating in the centre of the park mean Barcelona require an adept winger in their ranks.
At 23 years of age, Nicolas Pépé has the world at his feet. However, the decision of remaining at Lille till the end of the season or jumping ship for one of the big boys in January relies entirely upon his shoulders. The case studies of Ricardo Quaresma and Eden Hazard will give him an in-depth look into the boon and bane of moving for a transfer at the optimum time.
Christophe Galtier image via La Croix
Nicolas Pépé image via Goal
Stats via Whoscored, Understat, and Opta
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