By Harry Siddle – @HS_10Ftbol
Despite no concrete rumours of any notable incomings from the English media, Lille winger Nicolas Pepe has been linked to a summer move to Liverpool by French journalists – and rightly so.
With the latest news coming out that Liverpool have been negotiating with Pepe and his agents, according to the Lille president, understanding the winger’s strengths and weaknesses and how he’d fit in at Liverpool should be a priority.
After joining Lille from Angers in July 2017, Pepe posted impressive numbers of 13 goals and four assists in his debut campaign. But he became one of the most desirable wingers in Europe after the recent season, with 22 strikes and a further 11 assists.
One of the main reasons as to why he gets so more goals is down to his off the ball movements.
With Lille playing with a 4-2-3-1 shape for the majority of the season, Pepe found himself as the key player on the right hand side. A typical pattern of play that Lille would use in most games is the one below.
With Lille trying to make the most of Pepe’s impressive off the ball runs, they would have their centre forward drop deep to lay it off to one of their centre midfielders, who would then try to find Pepe who would be running in behind, filling in to the space that the striker had just vacated.
This pattern of play from Lille just highlighted how impressive and unstoppable at times Pepe’s off the ball movements are. Whether making that darting run in between the left centre back and left back or in behind the right side of the left back, his movement is incredibly hard to deal with.
This trait is why I feel – over time – Pepe would fit in well at Liverpool, as having that ability to always get into good goalscoring positions is what separates the good wingers from the elite. It’s what Salah does so well, and Pepe has more than enough ability to come close to the Egyptian’s output each season.
As well as having great off the ball movement, Pepe also can create openings and space for himself through his dribbling. With the ball at his feet, he isn’t one for elaborate dribbling as he can rely on his excellent agility and balance to get past his opponent.
He likes to take many touches when dribbling and use feints to throw off his opponent which are very effective as he can create his own shot by giving himself that space over his defender by using a slight movement of his body one way, before accelerating away.
The Ivorian’s dribbling is most impressive however in tight spaces. Being surrounded by multiple opponents doesn’t seem to faze Lille’s star man as he is always in control and knows what he’s going to do next.
Pepe can take two or three slight touches to slalom away from his defenders or use his quick feet to maintain control of the ball. It’s just another impressive trait the 24-year-old has that can translate effectively into a bigger league.
Having quick feet as a winger is pretty standard in the modern game, but Pepe also thrives in dribbling over longer distances. He’s incredibly quick running with the ball in transition, where his decision making in a counter-attack is generally consistent and reliable also.
With Lille finishing in an impressive second place this past season, Pepe was their go-to man for goals, but he also proved to be an impressive creator for his teammates. Looking at end product, Pepe had one of the most productive seasons as he finished second in terms of both goals scored and assisted.
Getting 11 assists for a winger is impressive, and even more impressive when you consider that nine of them were from open play, as opposed to just from dead-ball situations.
In these open play situations, Pepe would consistently create chances when he cuts inside from the right and slip through balls into the striker. It’s here where you can see his vision stand out, as he is able to see those runs in behind the defenders and his weight and execution of the pass is also generally consistent.
We can also take an educated guess that Pepe’s creative numbers won’t regress if he joins a Liverpool. Over the past three seasons he has 16 assists from an open play – an xA in that time of 16.21 shows he isn’t over performing in a creative standpoint from his underlying numbers.
As per Craque Stats on Twitter, a majority of his assists come in the second half which is encouraging as it suggests he remains a constant threat for the full 90 minutes.
Unlike a typical winger, Pepe really doesn’t cross the ball that often (0.4 times per 90 minutes). This can be explained by the fact that he’s unlikely to cross with his weaker foot when dribbling down the right hand side.
But just because he doesn’t cross that often doesn’t mean he’s bad at it. Instead, he crosses the ball when he feels it’s a necessity and isn’t whipping balls into the box all the time.
This is actually a positive for Liverpool, as constant endless crossing isn’t the best way to create chances, so leaving the crossing responsibilities to Trent on his side can leave Pepe to do the things he’s best at.
Having finished second in the Ligue 1 golden boot with 22 goals, Pepe has been a clinical finisher at Lille. For a player who isn’t at a ‘big club’, the fact that he takes almost three shots per 90 is very good, which shows he is finding himself in good positions to score and thrives in having that responsibility to be the main goalscorer.
He averages an impressive 0.38 npxG90 (non-penalty expected goals per 90) which is behind the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, significant because it shows the progression Pepe can achieve.
The Ivorian’s underlying finishing numbers matches that of Mane during his time at Southampton. On the south coast, the Senegalese was averaging the same npxG90 as Pepe averaged last season.
Mane’s increase of his underlying statistics since joining a bigger club can serve as an example to Pepe, who is profiling like a Sadio Mane at Southampton as what can be achieved if he joins Liverpool progresses under the guidance of Jurgen Klopp.
Despite having 22 goals this season, nine of those were penalties which does take something away from Pepe, but not to the point where people should have concerns he couldn’t replicate it at Liverpool. Despite being very one-footed, Pepe has all the tools and traits to prove himself to be one of the elite wingers in Europe at the European champions.
How he’d fit in at Liverpool
Due to Pepe being used as a right winger in the 4-2-3-1 formation for Lille, the Ivorian could well see himself doing the same job at Liverpool
With Klopp using the 4-2-3-1 earlier in the season – which has proven to be the best formation in terms of unlocking deep defences for Liverpool’s players – Pepe could see himself deployed as the right winger with Salah going up front, Mane on the left and Firmino behind.
Even if the manager persists with the 4-3-3 and the typical front three, having the option of Pepe being an important squad player would be invaluable. Matching Man City’s quality off the bench would hopefully close the gap between the two best sides in the Premier League.