Love at First Sight: How Nicolas Pepe Sent Europe's Top Clubs Weak at the Knees

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 18, 2019

Lille's Nicolas Pepe gestures during his League One soccer match match Lille and Montpellier at the Lille Metropole stadium, in Villeneuve d'Ascq, northern France, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
Michel Spingler/Associated Press

As he settled into his seat at Stade Raymond Kopa, Marcelo Bielsa was excited about what he was about to see. At the same time, he knew exactly what he was about to see.

It was May 20, 2017, the final day of the French top-flight season, and Bielsa was attending a game between Angers and Montpellier. He was due to take over as Lille coach at the end of the season, and Angers winger Nicolas Pepe had been identified as a key transfer target. This being Bielsa, he had already watched footage of every single Ligue 1 game Pepe had played up to that point.

Lille's interest in Pepe dated back to the previous November. Luis Campos, who was advising Spanish-Luxembourgish businessman Gerard Lopez in his negotiations to purchase Lille, spotted Pepe while attending Angers' 1-1 draw at Rennes. The former Real Madrid scout was there to look at a Rennes player, but from the moment he saw Pepe, he had eyes for nobody else.

Sent on in the second half with Angers trailing 1-0, Pepe scored a brilliant 82nd-minute equaliser, seizing on a loose ball just outside the Rennes box and whipping a shot into the bottom-left corner with his favoured left foot.

"I quickly fell in love with him," Campos told France Football earlier this year.

LILLE, FRANCE - APRIL 14: Lille's Nicolas Pepe during the Ligue 1 match between Paris Saint Germain and Lille OSC at Stade Pierre Mauroy on April 14, 2019 in Lille, France. (Photo by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)
Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

Pepe did not find the net when Bielsa watched him in Angers' 2-0 win over Montpellier, but the Argentinian had seen enough. The Ivory Coast international joined Lille a month later as part of a drastic rejuvenation process overseen by Bielsa that set the club back around €70 million.

Convinced of Pepe's goalscoring potential, Bielsa aligned him in an unfamiliar role as a central striker. It was not until Bielsa was sacked—with his inexperienced team rooted in the relegation zone—and replaced by Christophe Galtier that Pepe found his feet in northern France.

Galtier switched Pepe to his preferred position on the right flank and the results were immediate. The youngster scored eight goals and supplied five assists over the last 14 games of the season, notably scoring twice in a 3-2 win at relegation rivals Toulouse in May 2018 that effectively saved Lille from the drop.

He finished the campaign with 13 goals and six assists to his name. This season, the 23-year-old has gone up another level, his 19 goals and 11 assists firing Lille up to second place in Ligue 1 and attracting the attention of some of Europe's biggest clubs. Lille are not expected to sell him for anything less than €80 million. Chelsea, Arsenal, PSG and Bayern Munich have all been linked by Goal.

Pepe's on-pitch relationship with fellow attackers Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan Ikone has earned the trio the nickname "Bip Bip," which is the French name for the Road Runner from the Looney Tunes cartoon series.

Their blistering pace on the break has turned Lille into one of the most devastating counter-attacking teams in Europe.

LILLE, FRANCE - APRIL 14: Lille's Nicolas Pepe celebrates after scoring goal during the Ligue 1 match between Paris Saint Germain and Lille OSC at Stade Pierre Mauroy on April 14, 2019 in Lille, France. (Photo by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)
Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

Nobody personifies the threat Lille pose better than the jet-heeled Pepe, whose goals this term include a run from his own half to score against Nimes, a breathtaking dash down the right flank to score against Nice and an ice-cool strike in the 5-1 rout of Paris Saint-Germain (a game in which he added two assists for good measure).

Only Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe boast most direct goal involvements (goals + assists) in Europe's top five leagues this season. It is the first time since Eden Hazard left for Chelsea in 2012 that Lille can lay claim to one of the most exciting players in world football.

"He amazes me, he amazes us," Galtier said in February. "He's certain to become a world-class player because he knows how to do everything.

"He doesn't need an intermediate step. After the great season he's having with us, he can go straight to a Champions League club."


     

Had things panned out differently, Pepe might have spent the past few seasons amassing clean sheets rather than goals and assists.

Raised in northeast Paris, he was always capable with the ball at his feet, yet he played in goal until his early teens.

"He was just as good in goal as he was on the pitch," recalls Guy Fraineau, president of Pepe's first club, FC Paris Solitaires Est.

"We didn't have a good goalkeeper at that time, so he played in goal. As soon as we went 3-0 up, he came out. He played in goal for a whole season."

Aged 14, Pepe moved to Poitiers in western France with his family after his father, a prison warden, took up a job in the area. After joining local club Poitiers FC (now known as Stade Poitevin), he hung up his gloves for good.

Philippe Leclerc, then working as Poitiers' sporting director, was blown away by Pepe's ability on the ball, but despite some impressive performances at youth level, recruiters from professional clubs were deterred by his rangy physique and concerns about his attitude.

"We had recruiters at Poitiers every weekend and they never approached him. Never," Leclerc told Bleacher Report.

"Because he was a bit willowy, with his long legs. You could see that he had good technique, but he didn't correspond to the criteria that the [professional] clubs were looking for.

"He also had an attitude that was a bit casual. People thought he was inconsistent or that he was lazy in certain situations. Everything seemed so simple with Nico. And that's why he slacked off every now and again."

In spite of the reservations expressed by recruiters, Pepe was soon a regular fixture in the Poitiers first team, who played in the French fifth tier. Those who were at the club have fond memories of a virtuoso performance that he produced against Nantes reserves—the newly crowned league champions—on the final day of the 2012-13 season, helping Poitiers to secure a 3-1 win that spared them from relegation.

Pepe (R) in action for Angers
Pepe (R) in action for AngersJEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/Getty Images

"He was playing for an amateur club and he hadn't yet turned 18. But he was the best player on the pitch," says Leclerc, who now works as director of recruitment at Angers.

"The Nantes coaches were flabbergasted to see a talent like that playing amateur football."


Leclerc mentioned Pepe to his friend Stephane Moulin, who was the head coach at nearby Angers, and in the summer of 2013, the teenager left Poitiers for Stade Raymond Kopa.

His move to Angers brought him under the supervision of Abdel Bouhazama, who ran the club's youth programme. At the time of his arrival, Pepe sported an extravagant, Neymar-style blond mohawk. The first thing Bouhazama did was tell him to get rid of it.

Like Leclerc, Bouhazama quickly realised Pepe's potential, but he also felt the youngster lacked discipline and focus.

"He played football like he was playing with his mates, as if he was playing against the side of a building or at school," Bouhazama told Bleacher Report.

"For him, football was a game. It was something you did for pleasure. The statistics—goals, assists—that was all new to him."

It became apparent to Bouhazama that Pepe was every bit as unpredictable off the pitch as he was on it. Whether it was complaints from teachers or midnight phone-calls from the night supervisor at the academy, Pepe kept everyone on their toes.

Bouhazama's solution was tough love. On occasions, he would haul Pepe and his team-mates out of their beds at 5 a.m. in the morning and take them for runs past local binmen in an attempt to make them appreciate how fortunate they were to play football for a living.

Pepe with Lille president Gerard Lopez
Pepe with Lille president Gerard LopezJean Catuffe/Getty Images

One disciplinary incident almost ended Pepe's career before it had even begun. Before training one morning, he and a group of young team-mates were wandering around a supermarket when they picked up a chocolate bar and ate it without going to the till. Caught by the store security guard, they were at risk of having their contracts terminated. But Bouhazama, Angers president Said Chabane and general manager Olivier Pickeu decided to grant them a second chance.

"It was a wake-up call," Bouhazama says. "I really think he got a fright. He wasn't far away from being excluded. His dream of becoming a professional footballer would have ended."

Pepe remains grateful for Bouhazama's guidance, saying in a February interview with France Football: "If I hadn't run into him, I might not be where I am today."

After getting his first taste of first-team football in Ligue 2 during the 2014-15 season, Pepe was sent out on loan to third-tier Orleans. It was to prove another turning point. He struggled to impose himself at first, but he finished the season with nine goals in 33 appearances, helping Orleans to promotion and being voted the best player in the division.

"I think the Orleans loan did him good," Bouhazama says. "He came back to us with much more maturity and he was much more effective in terms of his performances."

In Pepe's absence, Angers secured promotion to Ligue 1. The following season was the one during which he would make Lille's decision-makers go weak at the knees.

Two years on, he has the great and good of European football on his tail. The only question now is how high he can go.

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