Nicolas Pepe is the best in Ligue 1 after Kylian Mbappe. Will Lille's star head to the Premier League next?
It's the million dollar question, and one that doesn't come up often in a player's career. But it's coming up right now for Nicolas Pepe and is fully deserved considering the incredible talent he is and the incredible season he's having. Back to the question: Where will Pepe play next season?
The only certainty we have is that he will leave Lille in the summer. He could have departed last August and could have gone to Lyon for €40 million, but he decided to stay one more season in the north of France. He was right to do so and now, he has an abundance of options awaiting him in the summer. The price has soared, quoted somewhere between €60 million and €70 milllion, and yet, Pepe is still really spoiled for choice.
At one stage earlier in the season, there were reportedly more than 20 scouts for one single game at the Lille stadium just to watch him play. Some came only once and didn't need to come back again as he'd impressed them so much. At 23 (Pepe will be 24 next month), the Paris-born Ivory Coast international is walking on water this season, with 19 goals and 11 assists in 33 Ligue 1 matches so far. Only Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe have been involved in more goals for their teams than Pepe this season.
He's been most effective from the right-hand side of attack, his favourite position, where he can come in-field onto his left foot. Lille have been lethal this season, especially (but not only) on the counter, and their winger has been a huge part in it. His performance against PSG in Lille's stunning 5-1 win on April 14, with Pepe notching one goal and two assists, was the clearest example of what he can do. Lille are currently second in Ligue 1, six points clear of Lyon in third and nine of Saint-Etienne in fourth with five games left to play.
The 2018-19 season is where things really fell into place for Pepe. Last year under Marcelo Bielsa, he played as a centre-forward; he didn't do well there and didn't like it either, but he learned a lot of things that have helped him transition back to being on the wing. The six months he spent with the Argentine manager changed him massively. Bielsa was in charge at Lille from July to December 2017 before getting sacked, but he pushed Pepe. He was very demanding and quite tough on him because he knew what a special talent he was.
Luckily, Pepe can cope. Having grown up in a rough council estate in Mantes-la-Jolie, a tough city on the outskirts of the French capital, nothing seems to faze him and he is comfortable dealing with anything on the pitch. The Lille winger learned football in the streets, playing for hours with neighbourhood friends. He still has a very street-wise style of football, too: lightning speed, direct running, plenty of pace and skill, great instincts and an unshakable confidence in himself. This is Pepe's way of playing: the street artist with a great future ahead of him.
"He is exceptional. He is an incredible talent and he has proved this season that he is a world-class player already," said Lille manager Christophe Galtier recently. "It's a pleasure to work with him. He listens, he works hard and he is a wonderful asset to have on this team." Galtier has worked very hard to develop Pepe this season, helping him to produce those incredible numbers. Even at training, his teammates have been amazed by some of the moves he can execute.
So what's next for this all-world talent?
There are two routes for him: He can go to a top club now, one of the best in Europe, where he will continue his progress and start winning trophies. Manchester United, Manchester City, Juventus, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich are all very keen on him. Or he could sign for a club that serves as a platform for a bigger move in a couple of years. Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla, Valencia, Napoli, Inter Milan or Tottenham would be one of those options. All of the above have shown an interest in Pepe; some have even made an offer and are waiting for the player to choose his next destination.
Pepe and his agent, the brother of his Lille teammate and best friend Jonathan Bamba, are very careful on what to do. They have always thought these things through in forensic detail. He played in the French fifth, third and second division at Poitiers, Orleans and Angers before breaking into and dominating Ligue 1. They know he's ready for the next step yet they also want a place where he would play regularly and be happy.
Sources have told ESPN that Pepe and his advisor will sit down at the end of the Ligue 1 season to weigh all their options and choose the best move. That said, they already have an idea of what they would like to do.
As a teenager, Pepe loved watching Chelsea play. Didier Drogba, an Ivorian like him, was one of his idols and he dreamed (and still does) of wearing the Blues' shirt one day. In case of Eden Hazard's departure, Pepe would be a really good fit to replace the Belgian, who, by the way, is a big fan of the Lille winger.
There would also be a sense of deja vu if Lille were to sell their best player to Chelsea once again. But beyond these connections, English football suits him very well. He likes the intensity of it, the physicality, the pace of the game, the atmospheres, the grounds, the pitches, the big competition and the pressure on each big club to perform. Pepe feels ready for this kind of challenge whether at Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham or one of the Manchester clubs. It is very rare that every "Top Six" Premier League club is interested in the same player, but it is certainly the case with Pepe this summer.
There might be a bidding war and a long saga over where Pepe will end up. Lille bought him for only €10 million from Angers in the summer of 2017. They will make a huge profit on him but before that, Pepe wants to continue his incredible season and finish it on a high. He has five more league games and will then switch his focus to the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt (June 21-July 19), where he's expected to be a big star and where Ivory Coast will be among the favourites. After that, he will finally have a break. But his future could well be resolved between the end of the Ligue 1 season and the start of the continental tournament.
The perfect end to the 2018-2019 campaign for Nicolas Pepe would be securing second place in Ligue 1 with Lille, making a big move to a top club and winning the ACN with his country. It is all possible and very much in his hands. Whatever happens, it has already been an incredible campaign for Pepe and the best is certainly yet to come.