Lille to London: The Nicolas Pepe story

Written by Andrew Gibney

With just 35 minutes gone, Nicolas Pepe raced in behind the Metz defence, latched onto a through ball from Flavian Tait and calmly finished with his left foot. Little did Angers fans know, this goal in January would be his last for the club.

It wasn't a sight the home crowd had become overly accustomed to, but everyone at Stade Jean-Bouin knew they had a player on their hands. 

Despite bright hopes for his future, not even Nostradamus himself would have suggested that 30 months later, the Ivorian, who scored just three goals that campaign, would become Arsenal's record transfer.

Ready: Nicolas Pepe ahead of his first session at Arsenal Training Centre

However, under the guidance of former Monaco sporting director Luis Campos and then manager Marcelo Bielsa, Lille pounced to sign the 22-year-old for €10 million on a five-year deal that same summer. 

His impact was far from instant, more akin to the pop song you need five or six listens to before the tune develops into an annoying ear worm.

Pepe was left on the bench for Bielsa's home opener against Nantes. The northern crowd were treated to a scintillating 3-0 victory, with Les Dogues playing some of the best football the home fans had witnessed in months. 

Beaten by Strasbourg in week two, there was still no place for the new signing as Lille were reduced to nine men in a crazy unforgettable 3-0 defeat.

His debut would come the following week in a home loss to Caen, with his first goal not arriving until week 12. Bielsa hadn't made it easy for the new arrival, playing him at centre-forward, in a side lacking character and any obvious direction or game plan. 

Lille were lost and Pepe was struggling to adapt. 

Enter Christophe Galtier. 

The former Saint-Etienne manager - who played a huge role in the development of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang - arrived in January 2018, switched the team to 4-2-3-1 and moved Pepe to the right-wing. 

Results followed. 

Influence: Christophe Galtier's influence saw Pepe blossom with Lille

In 19 league games, he managed nine goals and four assists. His understanding with Yves Bissouma - now at Brighton - in midfield and Lebo Mothiba at centre-forward, built a young core which helped save Lille’s place in France's top flight. 

Ever since Eden Hazard's move to Chelsea in 2012, fans in the north of France had been crying out for a new hero.

Florian Thauvin's brief move didn't work out, Sofiane Boufal came and went, but after lifting the club out of the relegation zone, Pepe was the true heir to Hazard's throne and in his second season he truly cemented himself as the leader of a bright new era.

The summer of 2018 saw the arrival of Jonathan Bamba, a friend of Pepe off the pitch, and their understanding blossomed when they took the field. 

Lille then added Jonathan Ikone to the mix, another France Under-21 international, which led to the creation of the now-famous "BIP BIP" trio. 

All three, blessed with pace, creativity, drive and friendship, grew in stature and helped terrorise Ligue 1 defences, pushing the club from mid-table prospects to a team who will this season take their place in the Champions League group stage. 

This is when we really got to see the best of Pepe: comfortable in his role on the right. He's far from a traditional winger, using his drive and determination to come inside on to his stronger left foot. 

Rather than taking on players, his aim was to link with his teammates on the break, creating passing windows to then hit their opponents on the counter.

While demonstrating his calmness under pressure and ice-cold killer instincts in front of goal, he showed his passing skills too. As lauded as his goal record was, opponents also had to be wary of giving him time on the ball and stop him from using his vision and eye for a deadly final ball.

Celebration: Jonathan Ikone rushes to congratulate Nico after his goal against Rennes in the French Cup

Pepe helped bring the best out of teenage forward Rafael Leäo and elevated the prospects of both Ikone and Bamba. His understanding with Thiago Mendes in midfield and Mehmet Zeki Çelik at right-back was vital in Lille finishing second.

After a slow start under Bielsa, Pepe has flourished under Galtier and it’s a testament to the mentality of the player how he has continued to strive for greatness since he made his breakthrough at Angers.

He has taken every opportunity handed to him, and now is a player confident in his own abilities, who will look to push Arsenal forward while also striving to improve himself.

Lille may have lost their latest hero, but Pepe's impact will continue to benefit the club for years to come.

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