Nicolas Pépé celebrated his 25th birthday on Friday - an opportunity to look back on the Arsenal star's time in France, with a focus on his huge performance in Ligue 1 Conforama in season 2018-19.
Nicolas Pépé is perpetual motion incarnate. He's quick on the pitch, no doubt, but he has also had a steady rhythm in his career, which saw him make the jump across the Channel from LOSC to Arsenal last summer.
Although he had to 'step back' the National for one season (2015-16 at US Orleans) after his Domino's Ligue 2 debut with boyhood club Angers SCO (seven matches in 2014-15), he quickly bounced back in the other direction. For, after this season in the third division, which saw the native of Mantes-la-Jolie being voted best player in the league, he returned to an Angers side who had secured promotion to Ligue 1 Conforama.
Pépé thus made his top-flight debut at the age of 21, turning out for Stéphane Moulin's side mainly as a super-sub (33 matches, 11 starts) in season 2016-17. Pépé took the opportunity to score his first three Ligue 1 Conforama goals (see below the first at Rennes) and to showcase his great qualities, notably his pace with the ball at his feet.
Revelation with Galtier
The wealth of promise shown by the young Ivorian caught the eye of LOSC, who snaffled him up in the summer. Under tempestuous Argentinean coach Marcelo Bielsa, Pépé would get some Ligue 1 Conforama game time, but it was a complicated season for the club in general and it wasn't until the arrival of new boss Christophe Galtier that Pépé returned to his favoured place on the right wing and exploded onto the scene.
Between Rounds 25 and 36, Pépé bagged eight goals (including a brace in the relegation dog-fight against Toulouse) and went on to finish the season with 13. The Pépé train had left the station.
Confirmation and new status
What next? Frankly, Pépé picked up where he had left off and had an undeniably stellar season 2018-19. The second-top scorer (22 goals) and assists provider (11 assists) in Ligue 1 Conforama, Pépé was involved in 33 of Lille's 68 goals and proved decisive in 20 of his 38 appearances, making a huge contribution to LOSC's superb second-placed finish and confirming that his star had plenty of rising left to do.
This was reflected in his being named in the Ligue 1 Conforama Team of the Season and his selection as one of the top 5 players in the championship in the UNFP Trophies. The Ivorian international then left France with a record of 38 goals and 18 assists in 107 games in the elite, having beaten Didier Drogba's record for the number of goals scored by an Ivorian in a single season in the championship, before following in his footsteps across the Channel.
Drogba is huge fan of his mercurial compatriot and confided the following in March 2019: "He is a fast, complete and very effective player. He is very high level."