Lille have emerged as one of the most exciting
teams in Ligue 1 this season. Not only have they secured second place behind the indomitable
PSG and guaranteed Champions League football for next season, but they have done so playing
a fun brand of football built around creative young players. Jonathan Bamba, Rafael Leao
and Jonathan Ikone have all impressed, though the star of the show has unquestionably been
Nicolas Pepe. The 23-year-old has been directly involved
in half of his team’s league goals this term, scoring 20 and assisting 11. Along the
way he has attracted interest from some of Europe’s top clubs, including Arsenal. His
development has been quick; just two years ago he was a squad player for Angers, but
– having shone within head coach Christophe Galtier’s effective tactical system – he
now looks set for a career at the very highest level.
Galtier lines his Lille side up in a 4-2-3-1 shape with a fluidity that leaves plenty of
room for individualism. In front of a centre-back pairing featuring the experienced Jose Fonte,
two central midfielders – usually Thiago Mendes and Xeka – provide a stable platform
for attacks. Both full-backs, Mehmet Zeki Celik and Youssouf Kone provide width down
their respective flanks, allowing Pepe and fellow nominal wide man Bamba to join Ikone
in the central and inside channels. Meanwhile, Leao or Loic Remy lead the line, looking to
make runs into depth behind opposition defences. This system is built around the technical
quality, imagination and intelligence of the attacking midfield trident. As Lille’s full-backs
stay wide and look to stretch opposition defensive blocks apart, Pepe, Ikone and Bamba take up
positions that enable them to receive forward passes between the lines. From here they can
combine with one another, the full-backs or the striker, though they each possess the
ability to receive, turn and dribble at defenders themselves.
Their importance is also seen in attacking transition, which is perhaps Lille’s favourite
phase. In these moments of the game the pace and skill of the attacking midfielders can
be utilised to exploit the space available, not to mention the defensive disorganisation
of the opposition. From a reasonably passive 4-4-2 mid-block, all three make runs and look
to play forward and penetrate immediately once the ball has been regained. It’s no
coincidence that Lille are among France’s best for converting counter-attacks into goals
– only PSG have scored more from such situations this season.
Pepe is instrumental to Galtier’s system. On paper, he is Lille’s right winger. However,
in reality, he is given license to roam and affect the game in a wonderful variety of
ways. In terms of positioning, he primarily drifts
between the right flank and the inside channel, offering a penetrative passing option or coming
wider and combining with the overlapping Zeki Celik. Alternately, he may drop deeper to
receive directly from the centre-backs, switching with Zeki Celik. From this deeper position
he can get on the ball outside of pressure and instigate attacks without such intense
scrutiny from opposition defenders. Once moves enter the final third, Pepe is
highly influential in the way Lille play. This is shown statistically as 42% of the
team’s attacks come down the right side. Pepe can form triangles and rotate with Ikone
and Zeki Celik, drive inside onto his left foot and cross into the box or switch to the
far side, exploiting the forward runs of the striker and left winger to find the left-back.
Another option, should the striker drop deep, is for the Ivorian to target any open space
created to get in behind the opponent’s back line.
In short, Pepe plays a dual role. He is both creator and finisher, providing and getting
on the end of final balls with a potent mix of ruthlessness, timing and composure.
His role is fairly unique and requires an array of individual skills to perform well.
A blend of control, persistence and strength is necessary to ward off assertive markers
when receiving between the lines. An assortment of tricks – including step-overs and wicked
feints – help to bamboozle defenders in 1v1 situations and progress attacks. A dash
of humility enables combination play with teammates – no matter his skill level, going
it alone isn’t always the best option. And, with seven of his 20 league goals this season
coming in attacking transition, Pepe’s pace and astute decision-making consistently make
fast breakaways count. But perhaps the most noticeable aspect of
his style is his ability to vary the tempo. Pepe likes to draw defenders close by standing
still with the ball at feet, waiting to the very last moment and committing his man before
going beyond. This willingness to wait and provoke is highlighted by the fact he is the
second-most fouled player in Ligue 1. Those that foul are the lucky ones – they who
manage to at least react to, if not foresee, the quick progression from walk to sprint
that makes Pepe such a devilishly unpredictable offensive outlet.
Considering all of this, it’s easy to see why Arsenal are interested. However, a move
to the Emirates Stadium would not be plain sailing for the 23-year-old.
Tactically, he would need to adapt to playing against lower defensive blocks more often,
with fewer counter-attacking opportunities, as Arsenal tend to dominate the ball more
in the Premier League than Lille do in Ligue 1. And then there is a problem out-with the
player’s control – that of unrealistic expectations. Along with a big-money move
to England would come the belief that he could replicate or improve upon his 20-goal haul
this season, yet it’s worth noting eight of those strikes came from the penalty spot.
Fortunately, Pepe seems extremely keen to continue his development. Following a cup
defeat to Rennes, Galtier highlighted the player’s desire to review the game in full
afterwards. Considering this personality trait and his aforementioned technical and physical
qualities, it’s likely that Pepe would fit in at Arsenal.
He’d suit Unai Emery’s preferred systems: the 4-2-3-1 as a right winger, or the 3-4-2-1
as an inside forward alongside Mesut Ozil. Not only could he be a more impactful upgrade
on Emery’s current attacking midfield options, but he’d add to the team’s counter-attacking
threat – alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, he could tear apart isolated defenders on
the counter in a way not seen since the early 2000s, when Thierry Henry led Arsenal’s
frontline. If and when the time comes, it will be a great
shame to see Pepe separated from Lille. But, as long as his next team give him similar
creative license to that bestowed upon him by Galtier, the fun should continue.