This season, LOSC’s Nicolas Pépé has emerged as one of the most in-demand young forwards in Europe, his individually brilliant yet team-focused performances drawing serious attention from France and abroad.
Playing on the right side of Lille’s attack, the 23-year-old Ivorian has already contributed 12 goals and 5 assists, helping Les Dogues up to second place.
“I’m trying to perform in every game, to score or to help the team to score,” Nicolas Pépé told the Ligue 1 Show. “I used to be accused of inconsistency, so it’s great for me and for the team that I’m managing to be decisive now on a regular basis.”
The former Angers striker could have left Lille in the summer, with Borussia Dortmund and Lyon both tabling significant bids. But Pépé stayed and has even got the 2011 title-winners on course to seal a return to the Champions League.
“The fans had Champions League football not so long ago and they’d love to hear that music again – and so would we. We’re second and doing our best to stay there. We know that Marseille, Lyon, Montpellier, Saint-Etienne and even Monaco – who are going to through tough patch – can all come back at us. It’ll be hard to stay up there in the long term, but we’ll try. We know we’ll hit a difficult spell at some point, but we’ve already picked up a lot of points.”
Pépé’s emergence as a fearsome attacker may have surprised his childhood mates. As a boy, he spent most of the time playing in goal for his local team, FC Solitaire Paris Est.
“I used to enjoy being a goalkeeper,” he recalled. “I started playing there when I was little and kept going until I was 14. Sometimes I’d get bored because we used to win a lot, and I didn’t have much to do. I knew I could be a good outfield player, and so did my mates. They used to tell me to play outfield, and that’s how I realised I could be good.”
But those days playing between the sticks weren’t wasted – as Pépé explained.
“I understand a goalkeeper’s movements now, and that really helps me when I’m shooting.”
However, it’s with his feet that he’s impressing most. Pépé’s skill and pace are evoking comparisons with some household names.
“I used to watch a lot of Ronaldinho videos… Robinho… dribblers. But I didn’t have any idols. I had examples, guys like Messi, whom I really admire… I can’t do what he does but I try to copy him.”
The Dogue father
Pépé managed 13 goals last year during a difficult campaign for Les Dogues. But with the team now looking settled, the elegant left-footer is shooting more than any other player in the league, and is on course to enjoy his best-ever season under the watchful eye of coach Christophe Galtier.
“He’s like a father,” explained Pépé of the former Saint-Etienne head honcho. “He really looks out for me and helps me improve every day, especially with tactics. He’s always behind me and that makes me want to push my limits as far as possible.”
Pépé is attracting interest from Juventus, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United. However, Lille president Gérard Lopez has promised the club won’t sell – even if they receive a €100m bid.
“That’s fine with me,” grinned the man of the hour. “It shows that he cares about me, that the club want me to remain part of the project, until the end of the season.”