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New €80 million signing Nicolas Pepe can revitalise Arsenal's ambitions

Ivorian is set to join from Lille and could form an exciting partnership with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Ivory Coast's forward Nicolas Pepe (L) kicks the ball during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) Round of 16 football match between Ivory Coast and Mali at the Suez Stadium in the north-eastern Egyptian city on July 8, 2019. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)
Ivory Coast's forward Nicolas Pepe (L) kicks the ball during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) Round of 16 football match between Ivory Coast and Mali at the Suez Stadium in the north-eastern Egyptian city on July 8, 2019. (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

There is still a fair amount of empty space in the trophy cabinet of Nicolas Pepe, the striker who was among this summer’s most coveted transfer targets.

When he was awarded the Marc-Vivien Foe trophy last May, he was entitled to give it pride of place.

The Foe award, named in memory of the respected Cameroonian midfielder and captain who died while playing 16 years ago, has a specific remit: it goes annually to the best African footballer performing in France and it has a distinguished roll of honour.

As Pepe looks through the list of previous holders, he can see a clear trend: If you are elected, by the votes of specialists, as Africa’s finest in the European league where so many African talents emerge and thrive, you have a very good chance of ending up playing for Arsenal.

Marouane Chamakh, the 2009 winner, did; so did the Ivorian Gervinho, twice a Foe winner. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the greased-lightning of Gabon, picked up the prize in 2013.

So whatever else persuaded the Ivorian Pepe, whose 22 goals for an ebullient Lille last season made him a shoo-in for the Foe trophy and increased his transfer value to around €80 million (Dh327.5m), to look positively on the keen interest of Arsenal in signing him, he knew that there he would be following a natural path.

And, according to those close to him, the presence and success of Aubameyang at the North London club, was a factor in his warming to Arsenal.

The Gabonese finished as joint highest goalscorer in his first full season in English football, 2018/19.

Although he arrived there having further enhanced his reputation, since his Ligue 1 spell with Saint Etienne, with several stellar campaigns at Borussia Dortmund, Aubameyang is an obvious model and pathfinder for Pepe: they have similar skills, and comparable backgrounds.

After a close-season in which interest in Pepe has been relayed to him from the likes of Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and Liverpool, talks with Arsenal had by Tuesday evening advanced.

The potential buyers had settled on a fee very close to Lille’s valuation and a medical reportedly taken place.

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Capturing the 24-year-old would be a coup for an Arsenal who are not involved in the Uefa Champions League in 2019/20.

Lille’s manager Christoph Galtier says of Pepe: “He will become a world-class player, there is no doubt.”

Galtier owes him plenty. Pepe's excellence as a goalscorer - 22 last season in Ligue 1, behind only Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappe among the division’s leading marksmen - and creator (11 assists) was a principal driver of Lille’s transformation from a relegation-threatened 17th place in France's top flight in 2017/18 to runners-up a year later.

“He has everything in his make-up,” added Galtier, listing the sudden bursts of pace, the dribbling skills, usefully rather than decoratively deployed, and the increasingly cool and precise finishes with which Pepe has defined his career at Lille.

He has been at his most effective used from a starting position on the right of the forward line, skating past opponents outside or inside, onto his preferred left foot.

He has a good leap, too, to meet crosses, and a quick eye for the unexpected pass. “He’s very strong physically and he works hard,” observed Didier Drogba, the former Ivory Coast striker, ahead of this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations, where Pepe helped his country to within a penalty shoot-out of the semi-finals.

"He makes the right decisions and I’m really impressed with his acceleration and the way he switches speed.”

Galtier, who coached Aubameyang through two successful seasons at Saint Etienne, has often made the comparison between "Auba" and Pepe.

Galtier also used the Gabon striker from wide positions as much as a central striker, and always viewed with confidence Aubameyang’s capacity to adapt fast to a supposedly stronger league from a provincial Ligue 1 club.

The temptation, at an Arsenal whose fortes are in attack, and whose gameplan prioritises speed on the break, is evident.

With Pepe on the right, Aubameyang on the left and Alex Lacazette, formerly of Lyon, as an option through the middle in a daring line-up, there would be the makings of a front-three to bear comparison even with Liverpool’s.

A determined pursuit for Pepe has also come from Napoli, who could promise him Champions League football and the peerless pedigree of their coach, Carlo Ancelotti.

Should Arsenal come out of that duel as the winners, it will look like a significant feather in their cap.

The capture of a striker with far better prospects of being cheered by supporters as enthusiastically as they do Aubameyang than being regarded with the mixed feelings they held for Gervinho or Chamakh, who never quite clicked, or won Arsenal fans around.

Updated: July 31, 2019 08:52 AM

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