Nicolas Pepe’s reputation (and value) levelled up another notch on Sunday when he scored a goal and provided two assists during Lille’s 5-1 thrashing of PSG.
It was supposed to be PSG’s party, a procession to their sixth Ligue 1 title in seven years, but Lille and their insatiable Ivorian had other ideas.
The scalp of Thomas Tuchel’s side is the latest in an ever-growing collection for Pepe nowadays, though, with the 23-year-old extending his record to 19 goals and 11 assists in Ligue 1 alone this season.
Of course, as is the brutal reality for every team in France that isn’t PSG, this form has brought inevitable links to some of Europe’s biggest giants, with a transfer rumoured to be certain this summer.
This never works. 🤦
Make that 11 assists for Nicolas Pépé. https://t.co/kRsIPGSsn9
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 14, 2019
Even Lille’s chairman, Gerard Lopez, has resigned himself to losing his star man, admitting Pepe has moved into a financial territory his club just cannot compete with.
“It is certain, he will leave,” he said recently. “He has moved into a price range that we cannot afford anymore. There is a career choice to make for him, I think he will have the choice.”
So, with Lille already bracing themselves for Pepe’s departure, where could he end up? Which European Goliath will win the day and sign one of Ligue 1’s most exciting talents? We’ve taken a look.
Dream: Bayern Munich
Arjen Robben has already confirmed he will be leaving Bayern at the end of the season, with a move to MLS reportedly on the cards, while Frank Ribery is long past his best and is being linked with a switch to Qatar.
That’s a combined 265 career goals for Bayern Munich set to leave the club all at once, and although both are pushing into the wrong end of their 30s, that attacking threat must be replaced if the Bavarians are to challenge for the Champions League once more.
Of course, Bayern do already have Serge Gnabry, whose reputation is now vastly improved since his failed Arsenal days, while they splashed out a reported £16.7m to bring 18-year-old Canadian winger Alphonso Davies from Vancouver Whitecaps in January. However, despite Davies bagging his first Bundesliga goal against Mainz recently, he has still only managed 56 minutes of football for Bayern and is very much a diamond in the rough.
Niko Kovac needs an injection of pace and proven end product in one of Europe’s top leagues; Pepe offers that and then some. The Ivory Coast international is lightning fast, unstoppable when cutting inside from the right and his 30 direct goal contributions in just 32 Ligue 1 games this term is quite frankly astonishing.
Pepe would go straight in, revitalising the Bayern attack, while he would also be getting the Champions League action every ambitious footballer craves.
Dream: Manchester United
Come on, seriously. Even when they haven’t won a league title for six years and are spending more time battling for fourth-placed scraps than top spot, who doesn’t want to play for Manchester United?
Obvious dollar signs and ‘oh my god, it’s Man Utd syndrome’ aside, Pepe’s move to Old Trafford would actually be the ultimate stylistic fit.
Since his appointment in December, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has transformed the Red Devils from a slow, languid, chore of a team into a ruthless counter-attacking outfit. Paul Pogba leads the charge forward with his mile-long stride, while the movement and pace of Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial causes bedlam in the opposition defence.
Of course, there are doubts over Martial’s ability to truly cut it at an elite level, thanks to his tendency to go missing for large portions of the season and a lack of consistent end product. So, why not bring in Pepe? He scores, he assists and he is more than fast enough to add a new edge to that counter-attacking sword.
With Pepe in their ranks, United could cut through opposition defences like a buzz saw.
Squawka Suggests: Manchester United
Honestly, we’re struggling to see a downside. For United, they would be getting a young, vibrant winger with proven end product and a disgusting amount of pace. For Pepe, he would be getting a move to one of the world’s biggest clubs who, unlike Bayern, play in a fiercely competitive league, meaning he must perform week in, week out. In turn, that will improve his own game tenfold.
All in all, despite some wretched away form, Unai Emery’s first season at the Emirates has been pretty positive and most Arsenal fans are quietly pleased with their side’s progress so far.
However, there is still a serious amount of surgery to be done on that Arsenal squad. Aaron Ramsey is off to Juventus in the summer, leaving a huge creative and goalscoring gap that will need filling, while Alex Iwobi is their only true option when Emery wishes to field wingers.
Reiss Nelson has enjoyed a good spell in the Bundesliga with Hoffenheim this season and may well push for a place next season. Even so, Arsenal need more.
In this regard, Pepe represents a great option. With Iwobi or Nelson stretching the play on one side, Pepe can use his frightening pace to commit defenders on the other, while his knack for providing assists this season means increased service and, in theory, more goals for the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
“Pepe would be a fantastic signing for Arsenal, but they’re going to have to pay big money to secure him,” Robert Pires said recently. “These are the type of signings Arsenal need to make to propel them back up the table.”
Better move quick, Unai.
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From Kylian Mbappe to Layvin Kurzawa, PSG love nothing more than to dip into the French market and effectively wipe out their competition.
Hell, Thomas Tuchel has already put out the bat signal in Pepe’s direction, talking up a transfer ahead of their mauling at the hands of Lille on Sunday.
“Yes, he can play for us tomorrow,” the German told reporters on Saturday. “He can play with us for 70 minutes and then [Angel] Di Maria can come on!
“Pepe has a lot of quality with his speed and strength. He’s determined around goal and always dangerous.
“I don’t know his character and personality, but he’s a good player.”
It’s become obvious that PSG need squad depth – just see Eric Choupo-Moting’s miss for confirmation of that – and Pepe could easily be the extra option and turn of pace that would turn the Parisians from Champions League chumps to European elite.
Squawka suggests: Arsenal
Without toeing the Premier League line again, Arsenal are the obvious choice here. Sure, Pepe would rack up more domestic titles than he could fit into his house at PSG, but at what cost? Ligue 1 is hardly the ‘farmer’s league’ some would have you believe, but PSG are so far ahead of their rivals that it just isn’t competitive.
At Arsenal, Pepe would take up a huge role, with his pace and delivery vital in both scoring and assisting goals for the Gunners, while he would get to test himself against the likes of Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea on an almost weekly basis, even without Champions League football.
Hats must go off to Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool side this season for pushing Man City all the way after they were so far ahead of the chasing pack last term. They may yet complete the job.
But what is clear, even if they do pip City to the title, is that Pep Guardiola has riches well in excess of Klopp when it comes to squad depth.
Beyond Liverpool’s fearsome front three, their best options from the bench are Xherdan Shaqiri, Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge. These are hardly the break glass options of Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez, are they?
Pepe would offer Klopp the same pace and filthy end product as the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, while his youth and quality would allow for much better squad rotation next season, meaning the Reds could once again go toe-to-toe with City, while still battling on three other fronts for trophies.
Eden Hazard. The Lille-to-Chelsea route really doesn’t need any more validation than that.
After helping Lille take the 2010/11 Ligue 1 crown, the Belgian swanned off to London and has spent the last eight years making Premier League defenders look stupid while winning a further two league titles along the way.
However, if reports are to be believed, Hazard will finally make his ‘dream’ come true and make a move to Real Madrid this summer, leaving a massive hole in Chelsea’s armoury, regardless of whether Christian Pulisic hits the ground running or not.
So, who better to replace Lille’s former golden boy at Stamford Bridge than their current one? Pepe would fit Chelsea’s front three like a glove, adding that unpredictability that you simply don’t get from Willian nowadays, but with a great chance of smashing in all the goals and assists that Hazard does now.
This, of course, is all at the mercy of Chelsea’s upcoming transfer ban but should they win an appeal, this would be a no-brainer.
Squawka suggests: Chelsea
As much as Klopp is a wonderful man manager and the project going on at Liverpool is an exciting one, Pepe simply wouldn’t command a starting spot at Anfield and must consider his development when choosing his summer destination.
With that and Hazard’s potential Los Blancos mission in mind, Chelsea would be the smart choice. Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi provide far more realistic competition for Pepe than Mane and Salah, while the potential departure of Hazard would leave the Blues in need of a new talisman.
Pepe has spent the past two years in northern France being just that, why not now do it at Stamford Bridge?