The 60-second story
One good season can be a fluke, but two in a row suggests the player in question has the potential to be something special. And Nicolas Pepe is certainly special: the €70 million-rated striker is sending clubs across Europe into a frenzy, with stories almost every day linking him with the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, PSG and Bayern Munich.
The 23-year-old front man is in devastating form for Lille, who are surprise runners-up-elect behind champions PSG in the Ligue 1 table. Last season they narrowly avoided relegation, yet Pepe still managed 13 and six assists in his maiden season at the club.
This term he’s on 19 goals and 11 assists, making him one of a handful of players in Europe’s major leagues to reach double figures in both categories.
Why you need to know him
Pepe currently ranks sixth in L’Equipe’s player ratings for the season, and is a smart bet to make Ligue 1’s four-man shortlist for the Player of the Season award.
The Mantes-la-Jolie-born Ivory Coast international has thrived in a three-man forward line alongside Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan Ikone. The trio’s pace and precision in the opposition half have turned Lille into one of Ligue 1’s most exciting sides.
Pepe usually operates on the right side of attack, cutting in on his stronger left foot. He’s a quick, fluid mover with and without the ball, has great close control and the ability to create and take chances in equal measure.
The 6ft striker is more than a flat-track bully, too: goals against PSG, Lyon and Marseille show he can do it against the better sides. To see exactly what the fuss is all about, Google his recent goals against Nice (Feb 2019) or Saint-Etienne (Mar 2019).
Champagne on ice?
Nicholas Pepe shows pace and composure to put Lille ahead once more against the champions-elect. pic.twitter.com/kaGY4J2imv
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 14, 2019
Although used mainly out wide, his finishing ability suggests he could be effective as a central striker in the future. The timing of his runs to get behind defenders is excellent, and he keeps a cool head in one-on-one situations.
For all his glorious stats, it’s worth noting that eight of Pepe’s 19 goals have been penalties this season. Take spot-kicks out of the equation and his scoring rate drops from a goal every 155 minutes to a more moderate once every 268 minutes.
Accusations of nonchalance have plagued him, too, although his consistency over a season-and-a-half now means such barbs may be a thing of the past for a player that turns 24 next month.
Lille coach Christophe Galtier: “He doesn’t need an intermediary step before joining a Champions League club. He can go directly into that standard of club given what a fantastic season he’s having for us.”
Did you know?
Pepe was a relatively late bloomer. After coming through the ranks at part-time amateurs Poitiers almost undetected, he didn’t play in the French top flight until after his 21st birthday.
His form at Angers persuaded Lille to pay what now looks like a bargain €11 million for him when Marcelo Bielsa was manager in 2017. They turned down a €30 million bid for him from Lyon on transfer deadline day last August – and their refusal to sell now looks like one of the club’s smartest decisions in the past decade.
What happens next?
Even though they’re destined for Champions League football next season, Lille will struggle to hold on to their prized asset. Their likely asking price of around €70 million seems reasonable, too: Thomas Lemar cost that amount when he moved from Monaco to Atletico Madrid last summer, and Pepe has been the more effective player over the past two seasons.