One of the recent hottest transfer stories is the story of the transfer of an Ivory Coast international star, who grew up in the region of Paris, had a fantastic season in Ligue 1 and then moved to an elite club in London for a club-record fee. No, the year is not 2004, and this story is not about Didier Drogba, but it sure has some resemblance.
Nicolas Pepe just completed his move from Lille to Arsenal for a club-record fee of £72 million. He had an excellent season in Lille, finishing as the second-best goal scorer in Ligue 1 with 22 goals, just after Kylian Mbappe. Mbappe’s golden boot, Pepe’s extraordinary season and the outstanding seasons of Pepe’s teammates, such as Jonathan Ikoné and Jonathan Bamba, with all four growing in Paris’ suburbs, serves as another testimony for the large pool of talent lying in the new mecca of football. Pepe himself, in an interview from November 2018 acknowledged that when he moved to Poitiers, a small city far from Paris at the age of 16 was good for him: “It is well known that in the region of Paris there are a lot of football players who can’t manage to progress. So, it was good for me to move because the level of talent in the region of Paris is so high that by moving from there it was easier for me to make myself a name.”
Like Drogba, who moved to Chelsea from Marseille in 2004, both players had decent seasons in low-profile French clubs before moving to a bigger French club ahead of their move to elite clubs. For Drogba, it was his journey in clubs such as Le Mans and Guingamp before his move to Marseille, while for Pepe it was his spells in Angers and Orleans before moving to Lille in 2017.
Pepe was widely compared to Thierry Henry, in part due to the fact they both arrived at Arsenal on the same date, with a 20-year difference. No doubt that if Pepe manages to end his first season in the team with 26 goals and nine assists in all competitions, like Henry, it will be a great success. However, Pepe might be more like Drogba, his fellow compatriot. In fact, in last season’s ceremony of UNFP, the National Union of Professional Football Players in France, Drogba was asked about Pepe and stated that “Pepe has a lot of room to progress and improve as a player” and that he is “very proud of him as a player of Ivory Coast”.
The resemblance to Drogba is also manifested in the improvement both had before their move to London. Pepe had a vast improvement in just two seasons, and in a way, Arsenal paid so much just because of that. While in 2016/2017 season he scored only three goals, he finished the 2018/19 season with 22 goals and 11 assists, averaging 0.6 goals per game. To compare, Drogba had 19 goals and six assists in his last season in Marseille and an average of 0.5 goals per game that season, after scoring only three goals two seasons before. Moreover, from an average of one dribble per game, Pepe jumped to two dribbles per game, and from less than two shots, he increased to more than three per game.
Some might say that with Pepe, Alex Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang upfront, Arsenal is coming back to its “roots” from 20 years ago, at the times when stars such as Henry himself, Nicolas Anelka and Robert Pires were shining above Highbury stadium. But Pepe can also be seen as the heir of many talented Ivorian players who played for Arsenal, including Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Gervinho.
Interestingly, similar to Pepe, Gervinho signed for Arsenal after a successful season in Lille with 15 goals and three dribbles per game. However, unlike Drogba who became a Premier League legend for Chelsea, Gervinho left Arsenal after two mediocre seasons. For Pepe, these two extremities can serve as borders for the potential burden expectations can create on the one hand, and the legendary success he can achieve on the other. Thus, the real question should not be if Pepe is the new Henry that Arsenal has been waiting for so long, but whether can he be its Drogba.