Le50 2017 – Nicolas Pépé
Now part of Gerard Lopez’s “LOSCUnlimited” project at Lille, Nicolas Pépé’s rise seems set to continue unabated. Born in the western Paris suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie, the young winger, late of Angers, has moved to the north of France for a sum rumoured to be in the order of €10m. His move is one of a host of acquisitions made by les Dogues with an emphasis on youth, highlighted by the club signing Marcelo Bielsa to steer the project.
Pépé’s recently completed season was impressive indeed, as he received a first call-up for the Ivory Coast in November, and Lille were one of many suitors this summer, with Lyon, Newcastle and Marseille all also being linked. Despite making the step into Ligue 1 with relative aplomb (he had spent 2015/16 on loan with Orléans in the National, France’s third division), there still do remain questions over Pépé’s future, both in the short- and long-term.
Possessed of a wiry strength, Pépé is a left-footed player whom Angers manager Stéphane Moulin generally used on the right side of a 4-3-3. Pacy and a flashy dribbler, but mediocre at crossing, Pépé’s propensity to cut inside was ideal for Moulin’s tactics, with Vincent Manceau or Issa Cissokho making overlapping runs to balance the attack. He was also used as part of a strike partnership in a 5-3-2 on a handful of occasions, alongside the more physical Famara Diedhiou, using his pace and ability on the ball to stretch play. His situation thus is not uncommon in being an attacking player who has relied to this point in time on a somewhat limited set of skills and as such is yet to truly establish himself in any one part of the pitch, although playing as an inverted winger seems the most promising outcome.
This lack of a defined position and a limited skill-set also saw Pépé struggle for playing time, particularly once Jonathan Bamba arrived on loan from Saint-Etienne. Pépé was away at the Africa Cup of Nations when Bamba arrived, so the loan had initially seemed a move to build depth, as Karl Toko Ekambi and Diedhiou were also in Gabon, but Pépé started only a handful of league matches upon his return. This was a particularly frustrating development: a season-ending injury to Billy Ketkeophomphone had seemed to all but establish Pépé as the undisputed starter on the right side of attack, but the younger Bamba proved more effective in terms of end product, notching three goals and two assists in just over 800 minutes.
There is, of course, more to a winger’s play than goals and assists, and Pépé’s potential lies more in his pace and ability on the ball than in his “raw numbers.” He has those attributes in spades, but can be guilty of overestimating his abilities, giving away possession unnecessarily. For Angers, accustomed to playing without the ball, it was less of an issue, but in order to take the proverbial next step, Pépé will have to offer a more responsible approach when it comes to keeping the ball. No longer very young, having recently turned 22, this move to Lille looks to be shaping the season ahead as the most important yet for Pépé.
His defensive contributions similarly remain a work in progress, a major part of why he rarely lasted 90 minutes for Moulin. Angers had endeavoured to be more positive this season, but their coach still prizes defensive solidity, and saw Pépé as a liability at times. Pépé offered a bit of a dig at Moulin at his Lille unveiling, emphasizing the importance of the managerial quality in his decision, but it is unlikely Bielsa will tolerate a lack of effort. If Pépé knuckles down and comprehensively improves his play, he can easily justify his fee, but for the moment, he needs to show he is, at 22, more than pace and potential.