The £72m Arsenal look set to spend on Nicolas Pepe – making him the third most-expensive player signed by a Premier League club – could buy you a supply of chocolate to stretch over several lifetimes, but the career of the Gunners’ new record signing could have melted away for the cost of one solitary bar.
While at Angers’ youth academy, Pepe and a group of team-mates were accused of eating a chocolate bar inside a supermarket and not paying for it. “One day, we made a mistake,” Pepe admitted in an interview with Onze Mondial. “We should have been kicked out of the youth academy.”
Having only joined the club in 2013 aged 18, Pepe already had to contend with French football’s instinctive suspicion of players who do not arrive early on the production line to the professional ranks.
It is little surprise the 24-year-old still acknowledges the influence of Abdel Bouhazama, the Angers youth academy director who gave him a second chance that day. “Those lessons served me well, and still serve me well today,” said Pepe.
Born in the fertile football lands of the Paris suburbs, Pepe grew up in the French capital’s turbulent 19th arrondissement where his close family ties helped him avoid the most damaging pitfalls of adolescence while he played goalkeeper for a local boys’ team.
It wasn’t until his father Celestin – a prison guard – was transferred to the calmer environment of provincial Poitiers that Pepe realised his future lay in scoring, not stopping, goals. Not that his spell between the posts was wasted. “I know how a goalkeeper moves in certain situations,” he told France Football. “So I know how and where to put the ball.”
Knowing is one thing, being able to do it is another. Marcelo Bielsa saw Pepe could. The Leeds United boss’ chaotic spell at Lille at the start of the 2017-18 season saw him purge the squad’s experienced players in favour of unproven talents. The baby-faced rump that remained only narrowly avoided relegation once Christophe Galtier had taken over, but Pepe’s signing showed there was some method to El Loco’s madness.
Three goals in 33 French top-flight appearances for Angers in 2016-17 were transformed into 13 strikes and six assists in a struggling Lille side. Last season under Galtier – the man who shaped Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into a formidable striker at Saint-Etienne – Pepe became the first Lille player to score 20 league goals since Eden Hazard in 2011-12.
He eventually netted 22, second only to Paris S-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe, while also registering 11 assists, also the second-best tally in the division, as Lille finished surprise runners-up to PSG.
“Now I’ve understood: you have to have a killer instinct and be clinical. That’s what all the great players are,” he told France Football, citing his loan spell at third-tier Orleans in 2015-16 as the tipping point from spectacular showman to spectacularly consistent.
“When you give to the team, it gives you it back automatically. I don’t want to be a superfluous player, nor a player who shines all on his own.”
That was the case last season as Pepe was the most prominent of a number of standout performers for Lille. Playing on the right side of the attacking trio behind the central striker in Galtier’s 4-2-3-1, he would cut in menacingly Arjen Robben-style on to his favoured left foot to open up shooting or passing opportunities.
Pacy and direct on the counter-attack, Pepe also has the ability and the smarts to play through the middle, affording his prospective new boss at Arsenal, Unai Emery, the luxury to either link him with Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette or rotate the trio. For a manager who wants his team to be “a chameleon”, Pepe is a great fit.
But can he do it on a rainy night in Manchester, Newcastle or Birmingham? He already has done it in Paris, Caen and Amiens, and the heavens often open in northern France too.
Yes, his Africa Cup of Nations performances with Ivory Coast this summer could have been better, but if you’re worried about his big-game mentality, then a goal and two assists in Lille’s stunning 5-1 demolition of PSG in a match where the capital club could have wrapped up the title last season should comfort you.
And any Arsenal fans who fear they might have snapped up another Yaya Sanogo or Marouane Chamakh – or who think the club should have pushed harder for Wilfried Zaha instead – should listen to Pepe’s Lille team-mate Jose Fonte.
“Sometimes kicking him is the only way to stop him in training,” the ex-Crystal Palace, Southampton and West Ham United defender told The Ligue 1 Podcast last season. “He can play anywhere he wants, it’s as simple as that. If he goes to [Real] Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United or Manchester City, he can do that and will do a good job.”
Having bought him just two years ago for around £9m, cash-strapped Lille can congratulate themselves on a very good bit of business; Arsenal – in getting Pepe to put pen to paper with them rather than Bayern Munich, Liverpool, PSG or any number of other reported high-profile suitors – can too.
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