London, United Kingdom | AFP | Nicolas Pepe has taken a winding road to the top, but Arsenal’s club-record signing is unlikely to be fazed by his new-found fame and fortune.
Pepe became Africa’s most expensive footballer on Thursday after the Ivory Coast winger completed his blockbuster move from French club Lille for a reported £72 million ($87 million).
Securing the flamboyant 24-year-old is an impressive coup for Arsenal given Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and Napoli were reportedly interested in his signature.
Pepe’s record switch to the Premier League comes after a breakthrough season with Lille that saw him named in the Ligue 1 Team of the Year.
He was behind only PSG’s Kylian Mbappe in the Ligue 1 scoring charts as Lille finished second to qualify for the Champions League.
And Lille manager Christophe Galtier has no doubts Pepe will prove a big hit at Arsenal as the north London club try to return to the Champions League themselves.
“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.”
Pepe was one of only two players with 20-plus goals and 10-plus assists in the top five European Leagues last season, alongside Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
While Ligue 1 lacks the quality and depth of the Premier League, Pepe’s presence should add firepower to an Arsenal attack that saw Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette score 50 goals between them in all competitions last season.
Pepe was at his best playing on the right side of the Lille attack, cutting back onto his stronger left foot, and Arsenal manager Unai Emery, who often played a 3-5-2 formation last season, might have to change to a 4-3-3 system to accomodate his three star forwards.
– Lethal weapon –
Arriving at one of the Premier League’s top clubs must seem like a dream come true for France-born Pepe after his long journey to the big time.
Growing up in Mantes-la-Jolie, outside of Paris, Pepe had a humble childhood, with his father working as a prison guard while his mother was a housekeeper.
While at amateur club Solitaires Paris-Est, Pepe even played in goal for a whole season as the club did not have anyone else to fill the role.
His father moved his family 200 miles (322 kilometres) south to Poitiers when Pepe was 14, starting his son’s progress through the lower leagues.
Pepe first made his mark with then fifth-tier Poitiers before a move to Angers.
Pepe’s stock continued to rise during a loan spell at Orleans, where he won promotion from the third tier, before Lille snapped him up two years ago on the advice of then boss Marcelo Bielsa.
Bielsa played him as a central striker with little success, but after Galtier took over last year Pepe started to thrive on the flanks and helped save the club from relegation in 2017/18.
Pepe’s blistering pace became a lethal weapon and his skill earned comparisons to Belgian star Eden Hazard, who also made his name at Lille.
He finished last season with 22 goals and 11 assists, winning Lille’s player of the season award before playing for Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Renowned for posting eye-catching social media photos featuring himself and his friends and family in extravagant clothes and poses, Pepe has shown an inclination to flaunt his personality.
Now Arsenal’s new prize possession has the chance to shine in the spotlight at the Emirates Stadium.