Arsenal and Raul Sanelhi have pulled what is becoming the coup of the window this summer. Nicolas Pepe was lightening and firing from all cylinders in the French League 1 last team resulting in him becoming a household name in Lille and arguably the whole of France. But just how good is Nicolas Pepe can’t quite be unraveled just by watching it skimming through a bunch of YouTube videos.
To get the lowdown on the kind star Arsenal have managed to nick from under the noses of rivals (most of whom are in the Champions League), I had an encounter with French journalist and a writer for goal.com: Robin Bairner.
First of all, can you give us a brief description of the kind of player Nicolas Pepe is?
RB: He’s a left-footed, right winger, who loves to cut inside and get shots away. He’s a very direct player who likes to exploit his pace, making his excellent in transition. He’s been compared to Thierry Henry, though that’s a little unfair as he’s never likely to reach those heights in the game. Last season, only three players in Europe’s top five leagues got more goals + assists than him – including Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe. That’s impressive company to be in.
When did you start to notice Nicolas in general terms?
RB: He had a good 2016-17 season with Angers, although he was largely a replacement there because of their style, which was typically long balls forward. A move to Lille was a logical step from there as he did not have enough experience to step up.
How did he come into the spotlight?
RB: His move to Lille was his big break, although he initially struggled there in a centre-forward position under Marcelo Bielsa. It was when he was moved onto the wing by Christophe Galtier that he started to excel on a weekly basis – and in truth he probably surpassed all expectations in terms of what he’s given to LOSC over the years.
What are Nicolas’s strength on the field and which of those are the standouts?
RB: Speed and directness are his two main assets. Over the last 18 months, he’s become an increasingly composed finisher, but just as was the case with Aubameyang in France, it’s not something that he’s necessarily been good at naturally.
Has he got any weaknesses in his game? and what does he need to work on?
RB: If there’s a weakness in his game, it’s tactical, though it’s something he’s been working on. When in defensive transition, he’s not always found in the correct spot, which means if there’s a quick turnover on possession he struggles to be in the best place to expose such situations.
Is Nicolas suited for the Premier League?
RB: Absolutely – he has all the attributes that you’d expect of a top Premier League player in terms of his speed, strength and fitness. It may take a bit of time for him to get up to the tempo of the game, but he’s a hard worker and there’s no doubt he can do it.
How in your opinion can he adapt to the Premier League – rigorousness and pace?
RB: He’ll need to work hard, but as I mentioned, he’s shown himself to be well capable of that. In terms of his strength, I don’t think there will be a problem and certainly not in terms of his speed. I think he can adapt quite quickly.
How do you see Pepe fitting into this Arsenal team. With Aubameyang playing well on the right in pre season, is Pepe versatile? Can he play the left side? Can he also play as a strike partner to either Aubameyang and Lacazette ?
RB: I’ll answer these questions as a group. I think there’s no doubt that his best position is on the right of the attack and I don’t see him as a particularly versatile player. Of course, he could do a job on the left side of the offence, but it would take away one of his main strengths – cutting inside. Over time, it’s something that he might be able to develop, particularly as he becomes better tactically, but I don’t think it would be wise to shift his position away from what has been working for him in France. Could he play as part of a strike partnership? That’s a possibility and I think it would suit him more than playing in a 4-2-3-1 system, though there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s at his best when he’s allowed to go directly for goal himself.
What part of his game do you think Arsenal stand to benefit from that we did not previously have in the team?
RB: He’s actually quite a similar player to what Arsenal already have on their books, but he’s probably more direct than anything they have currently, which is undoubtedly an asset. I can understand why there are people criticising the move to sign him but not pay £25m to get Kieran Tierney from Celtic in a position they need more.
How would you rate his chances of becoming a hit at Arsenal?
RB: High. There’s no such thing as a sure-fire move, but Pepe has everything he needs to be a success in England. Now all he needs is a little luck.
You can follow Robin on twitter @rbairner