Pepe to Arsenal: Who is the Gunners' new record signing?

After finalising his club-record move to Arsenal, we look at Nicolas Pepe's rise from the French lower tiers to the Premier League.

Published : Aug 01, 2019 22:31 IST

Nicolas Pepe became the first Lille player to score at least 19 goals in a Ligue 1 campaign since Eden Hazard in 2011-12.
Nicolas Pepe became the first Lille player to score at least 19 goals in a Ligue 1 campaign since Eden Hazard in 2011-12.

Nicolas Pepe became the first Lille player to score at least 19 goals in a Ligue 1 campaign since Eden Hazard in 2011-12.

On the back of a stellar campaign for Lille that saw him register a combined 33 goals and assists in Ligue 1, Nicolas Pepe has completed a big-money switch to Arsenal that makes him one of the most expensive players in British football history.

The 24-year-old rose through the ranks in France and acquired a growing band of admirers, with Arsenal winning the race after having an €80 million (£72.9m) offer accepted by Lille.

Pepe is now under pressure to match the form he showed last season as he embarks on a new chapter, in what will be his first spell outside of French football.

Following confirmation of his move to Emirates Stadium, we look at Pepe's career to date and explore exactly why Arsenal decided to break its transfer record to sign him.

Goalkeeper... striker... winger

The Ivory Coast international made a name for himself with his performances from the right-hand side of attack last season, but things could have turned out very differently.

Marcelo Bielsa, the man who brought Pepe to Lille from Angers in June 2017, used him in a central striking role until he was sacked and replaced by Christophe Galtier in December that year.

It was only then that Pepe's career started to take off. He played an important part in Lille's survival bid in 2017-18 with 13 goals and pushed on last season with 22 in the French top flight - a tally only bettered by Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe - on top of chipping in with 11 assists.

Going further back, meanwhile, the talented wideman often played as a goalkeeper in his teens while at FC Paris Solitaires Est, only focusing on a career as an outfield player when he joined Poitiers in 2012.

Big chance at Angers

Pepe was recommended to Angers by Poitiers sporting director Philippe Leclerc in 2013 and made his professional debut in November 2014, before a spell on loan with third-tier side Orleans.

The winger was named as the best player in the division as he helped Orleans to promotion, and he impressed enough on his return to Angers to earn a transfer to Lille in June 2017.

His form at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy last season ensured he was a name on the lips of pretty much every elite team across Europe, becoming the first Lille player to score at least 19 goals in a Ligue 1 campaign since Eden Hazard in 2011-12.

Napoli is known to have had a bid accepted, while Liverpool and Manchester United are among the English sides rumoured to have made enquiries.

What can Arsenal expect?

But it is Arsenal supporters who can look forward to seeing Pepe up close on a weekly basis, having made him the fourth most expensive player in Premier League history behind Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Virgil van Dijk.

No player did more to lift Lille from 17th in 2017-18 to second in 2018-19, with only Lionel Messi (49), Kylian Mbappe (40) and Fabio Quagliarella (34) surpassing Pepe's combined number of goals and assists (33) in Europe's top five leagues.

He is a player that thrives on the counter, scoring six goals and attempting 15 shots from fast breaks last season, and he is a nuisance to defend against - as highlighted by the 108 fouls won, the most in Ligue 1 last term.

In fact, Pepe won his team five penalties with his tricky footwork and converted from the spot nine times - only Crystal Palace's Luka Milivojevic (10) was more successful from 12 yards in the top divisions.

Set to line up alongside world-class attacking talents in the shape of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, and with ammunition provided by Mesut Ozil and fellow new recruit Dani Ceballos, there is every reason to believe Pepe can follow in the footsteps of Hazard by continuing his remarkable rise in his new surroundings.

An Opta data darling set to hurt teams like fellow Lillie alumni Hazard

Nicolas Pepe outperformed standards set by Eden Hazard at Lille and the hard data suggests Arsenal has snared a worthy Premier League heir to the brilliant Belgian.

The Gunners fought off competition from Napoli and others to sign Ivory Coast international Pepe for a reported £72 million, completing the highly anticipated deal on Thursday.

It is an extreme outlay that could come to look like a savvy investment as Unai Emery adds further firepower to a fearsome front line.

We dive into the Opta numbers to discover just why Arsenal has spent so big.

The complete attacking package

Comfortable playing on either flank or through the middle, Pepe is swiftly becoming a high-achieving model of the modern forward.

The former Angers player struck 14 times in all competitions during a breakthrough 2017-18 campaign before announcing his arrival into a higher echelon with a match-winning hat-trick away to Amiens in September.

That form continued throughout the season as Pepe's remarkable return of 22 goals lifted Lille from 17th to second in the space of 12 months. And there is plenty more than pure goals for Arsenal fans to get excited about.

Pepe tallied the second most assists in Ligue 1 last season with 11. For new team-mates Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, that is a figure worth fawning over. 

For comparison, Real Madrid's freshly minted Galactico Hazard managed 31.

King of the counter

Emery's men will be tough to catch in the Premier League this season - at least as far as their fleet-footed forwards are concerned.

Aubameyang and Lacazette alone present enough headaches for defences wishing to push high up the pitch and adding Pepe to the equation significantly increases Arsenal's threat on the counter.

The new man scored six goals and attempted 15 shots from fast breaks last season, second in both categories in the big five leagues to Paris Saint-Germain star Mbappe.

Pepe's ability to breeze past defenders and be first to loose balls also saw him win five penalties - one behind Wilfried Zaha's six - and 108 fouls, the most in Ligue 1.

Ex-Chelsea talisman Hazard was fouled 104 times during his final season in the Premier League.

Ice cool from the spot

There was agony for Aubameyang in March when he failed to beat Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris from the spot with a golden late chance to win the north London derby at Wembley. Such frustration might become a thing of the past.

Along with being a prolific penalty winner, Pepe converted nine spot-kicks last season, ranking him second to nerveless Crystal Palace midfielder Luka Milivojevic (10) across the top five leagues in Europe.

Among that number was a technically adept effort with the gaze of the Parc des Princes - including Gianluigi Buffon 12 yards away - trained in his direction.

Expectations at Emirates Stadium are bound to be high, but Pepe appears to have the temperament and skill set to make this new, potentially career-making move a resounding success.

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