The following piece is based on a trio of sources: some excellent work from our friends at Ultimo Diez (here), today’s newspaper edition of L’Équipe and their article on why Ivorian forward Nicolas Pépé chose Arsenal & sources inside the game and other reputable journalists contacted by Get French Football News.
The story begins at Christmas 2018, when Luis Campos appeared on weekly French football television programme Téléfoot to set out his stall for Nicolas Pépé: “€80m, that’s his price,” he said in an utterly convinced tone. He got exactly what he wanted.
The great irony in this entire saga is that at the end of last summer’s transfer window, Lille President Gérard Lopez had received and accepted a €30m bid from Ligue 1 rivals Lyon for the Ivorian. But the 24-year-old rejected Les Gones’ advances, insistent that he had yet more to prove in the north of France. LOSC were frustrated, but ultimately accepted, this decision, despite the fact that they needed to raise cash in their ongoing feud with French football financial watch-dog the DNCG. Sporting Director Luis Campos was particularly persistent in his view that the final decision should come down to the player.
Pépé would not have known it then, but it turned out to be a pivotal moment in his fledgling career. Ultimo Diez insist that Lille’s approach to his future was also to listen to exactly what he wanted. When Inter Milan verbally offered the €80m demanded, LOSC left Pépé and his agents to negotiate with the Serie A side. The same can be said of Napoli. This particular outlet claims that whilst the Ivorian did not close the door on any specific club, he secretly hoped, at least initially, to make a move to Liverpool. This bucks the trend that existed across the French press over the last few weeks, that Pépé’s dream move was to PSG, to return to a city where he began his footballing career as a teenager at Solitaires Paris-Est (where he played in goal).
Yet, as Mohamed Bouhafsi told Get French Football News exclusively on June 25th last month, the Reds’ interest was more than genuine:
“This is an €80m situation. So it is a situation that needs time and calm. What I can say is that there are very concrete discussions with Liverpool. Discussions that are not even denied by Lille, at Lille they don’t deny the very concrete interest and discussions from and with Liverpool. Even Bayern Munich, I haven’t checked in on this situation for a couple of days, but it is possible that other clubs have inserted themselves into the running. I know that one of my colleagues, Bilel Ghazi, who does an excellent job, who I want to congratulate because on top of that he is a very nice person at L’Équipe, speaks about Atletico Madrid and Inter Milan.”
“I don’t have any information on Atletico Madrid. For Inter Milan, I did speak about an unnamed 3rd club, following my exchanges on Nicolas Pépé and with Liverpool fans, and I think that this 3rd club could be Inter Milan. But I think that at €80m, this deal is too expensive for the Italian side. Then, I know that Jürgen Klopp adores Nicolas Pépé’s profile, he brings a lot of speed and he is made to play in England, with quick transitions and an exceptional ability to counter-attack. Discussions have been had with Liverpool, who have a very profound interest. The other thing that I know is that Nicolas Pépé is at AFCON and wants a couple of days to make his decision…”
“Liverpool haven’t denied (interest in Nicolas Pépé). I know that Bayern Munich are still following the situation closely, even if the Ivorian is not #1 on their shortlist. Their interest is still there like it was in winter. It is a situation that will decant in the coming days, or coming weeks, maybe just after AFCON. It needs time, because Nicolas Pépé is asking for time, and we have to respect the player’s wishes, who wants to concentrate on his national team. And don’t be surprised if other clubs dive into the race in the coming days, at Lille, I’m told that they are anticipating other Premier League clubs to get involved. It is not unthinkable.”
Why Nicolas Pépé did not end up moving to Liverpool is explained in his own alleged personal decision-making later on in this piece.
Ultimo Diez insist that there was contact from Bayern Munich, PSG and Manchester United too and on the basis of this French media was portraying the situation accurately. However, Lille made sure that all of these approaches filtered through into the press, thus generating hype around the situation and convincing the sides that were realistically intent on signing him to front up the demanded asking price. What fans often don’t understand is that top European clubs are approaching representatives or agents to check in on the situations of over 100 players every transfer window – that is called doing your job correctly.
Not only did these pieces of information filter through, but so did the existence of multiple meetings taken by Pépé’s troika of agents: Samir Khiat, Aboubakar Traoré & Michaël N’Cho, and prospective clubs. One day in Naples, another in Milan and another in London – everyone seemed to know about it and Ultimo Diez insist that Lille were not innocent in this.
Where these three individuals fit into the story is also highly intriguing. Pépé is represented by them because of his close relationship with French U21s international and fellow Lille winger Jonathan Bamba. This unlikely trio’s first foray into the agency world together came about through managing the young career of Bamba then at St Étienne. The promising Franco-Ivorian winger, whose majority of his family comes from the latter country as the 3rd child of four boys with multiple father figures involved, decided to entrust his footballing interests into the hands of his elder brother, Aboubakar Traoré, known affectionately as Bouba. Traoré had 0 agency experience, but soon represented Pépé too in 2017 where Bamba joined him at Angers, on loan for 6 months from St Étienne.
Michaël N’Cho is a cousin of Bamba’s family, and quickly also became involved. Samir Khiat’s prior relationship with this pair of individuals with 0 football agency experience is unknown, but back in 2017 he was seen as an agent whose expertise lay particularly on the legal side of things. It should also be noted as an interesting anecdote that the first ever transfer dealing they embarked upon together was a real mess: Bamba, then 21, was exiled to St Étienne’s reserves after not accepting the contract terms offered to him.
To get into the nitty-gritty of it, in November 2017, the player was on €18k a month gross excluding bonuses, St Étienne offered €35k a month and were willing to move up to €55k a month, but Khiat, N’Cho & Traoré had other ideas: they wanted a progressive three year contract that would see their client earn €130k a month in the 1st year, €140k in the 2nd and €150k in the third, plus a fixed yearly €650k bonus and other bonuses relating to performances which would have oscillated between €135k and €300k. A crazy demand for a player who had shown a promising 12 months, not more. Everything fell through, but Khiat – N’Cho – Traoré earned their player a significantly better deal with Lille the following summer as he joined Les Dogues on a free transfer, although not the conditions that they demanded of St Étienne, but still better than what Les Verts were offering. Somewhere in the middle therefore.
The rest of the French football agency world has looked upon the way the trio have conducted themselves this summer relating to Pépé with intrigue. One agent told Get French Football News after Samir Khiat’s appearance on the L’Équipe Mercato show on July 12th: “They are amateurs, they are about to make sure that all the interest they have is lost.”
This agent was referring to the fact that Khiat spent most of his appearance on this show talking about how PSG could be a possible destination when the Ligue 1 champions had not actually made any sort of offer whatsoever.
Lille adopted similar tactics to Khiat on their end, half-truths about the seriousness of bids made by Europe’s elite. Never completely lying, the interest shown by all clubs stated in this saga appear to have been genuine, but certainly embellishing somewhat, like with the report fed to Yahoo Sport FR about a supposed Manchester United bid last week, which was never formally made, although certainly discussed between both relevant clubs.
This is a tactic that Lille owner Gérard Lopez is said to have used elsewhere in the footballing world, notably during his media offensive to try to buy fellow Ligue 1 club Olympique de Marseille when he tried to force Margarita Louis-Dreyfus’ hand before he bought Lille. Multiple journalists contacted by Get French Football News insist that the project Lopez publicly claimed he would bring to Marseille from a financial and sporting ambition point of view was not viable within the restrictions placed on clubs by the DNCG and this is even said to have played a role in Louis-Dreyfus’ ultimate decision not to sell to him, but to Frank McCourt instead.
Perhaps Lille’s greatest achievement though is how they maximised Pépé’s on-pitch potential within the space of 24 months. Under Marcelo Bielsa, Pépé learned an awful lot, moving into a centre-forward role despite being more comfortable on the right-wing and becoming a more complete player as a result. El Loco’s stewardship allowed Pépé to develop his ability to attack from deeper positions and put himself in a position to shoot more often that allowed him to become more clinical in front of goal. It also brought him to become incredibly disciplined in terms of tracking back defensively.
Under Galtier, he worked on being more direct, allowing him to explode. LOSC became dependent on him for much of last season, but were only able to become so as Galtier masterfully shaped his team that way, playing counter-attacking football and bring other attacking players to repeat dummy runs time and time again in training to draw opposition defenders away from the Ivorian in competitive matches. Within the timeframe available, the managerial situation at Lille and the consequent exposure to different styles under two exceptionally competent tacticians has made Pépé more complete than any player could possibly become.
Then there is the issue of supply and demand. Kylian Mbappé aside, no player was more productive in an attacking sense in Ligue 1 in 2018/19. With the reputation that the division now has as the most successful export market for the Premier League, it was inevitable that LOSC were going to win big, in the order of €80m. Another thing that made Pépé particularly attractive to European clubs was how low his existing salary with Lille was: €120k a month, meaning that interested parties felt there was considerable room for negotiation on his wage, which was attractive. This contrasts starkly with other Ligue 1 wingers on the market this summer: Florian Thauvin earns around €410k a month and Lyon winger Bertrand Traoré receives around €300k a month. This also prevents the pair’s respective clubs from asking for €80m, with OM lucky if they get €40m for Thauvin this summer if Valencia decide to go all-in for him.
All in all, without the work of Gérard Lopez, Luis Campos, Christophe Galtier and Marcelo Bielsa combined, Pépé would surely have gone for a fee not dissimilar to the one that Bordeaux commanded from Barcelona last summer for Malcom (€41m).
What is perhaps more impressive about the whole affair is that throughout, Lille achieved this feat by remaining true to the player’s wishes. As highly-respected L’Équipe joint editor-in-chief Joël Domenighetti wrote as far back as in April, Pépé himself is an extremely considered individual and had set out clear parameters for his summer move:
“His eventual decision will be made on the technical and tactical project on offer by clubs, as well as whether or not they can offer Champions’ League football, which he dreams about. The former Angers man knows that he needs space to be able to showcase his immense pace and dribbling capabilities in his eventual future team. He would like to be in a team where he can build a relationship with the full-back behind him quickly who is attack-minded and offers overlapping runs.”
The move to Arsenal obviously somewhat negates what Pépé set out to achieve: play Champions’ League football. But as Domenighetti wrote today, more important than these objectives was the idea of becoming a key player in a club at a level above Lille. Whilst Liverpool clearly enticed him, another highly-respected French journalist has since told Get French Football News that LFC’s inability to offer Pépé consistent playing time brought an end to talks before they reached an advanced stage, despite Jurgen Klopp’s enormous desire to sign the Ivorian. Alexis Bernard, who has been impressively on top of the Pépé saga this summer, insists that he was hours away from signing for Napoli before Arsenal’s timely intervention which came about through Jorge Mendes. As Gianluca di Marzio indicated, Arsenal were more willing to meet the demands made by Pépé’s trio of agents on commission (€5m minimum) and salary (€8m a year) than Napoli were and this played a pivotal role as Mendes’ main point of argument to convince Pépé and his clan to accept Arsenal’s proposal, despite the fact that they are currently only offering Europa League football.
L’Équipe reported today that Pépé’s move to Arsenal is strategic: “In an ideal world, this could be the final step for him before joining a top 8 European club for the long-term.”
As ever, the reality almost certainly lies in the middle: at Arsenal he becomes important immediately, at a club with a proven track record of nurturing talent originating from Ligue 1 that has shown with their business this summer that they are building an exciting team for the future. The statement made by landing William Saliba was not lost on Pépé’s representatives. Either Arsenal become a top European side again, and then Pépé is installed as a key cog there from the off, or their project further stutters and Pépé makes another move to one of Europe’s biggest in two or three years time.
This is the outlook from the Ivorian’s camp. Of his other conditions set out, Pépé would logically be excited to work with one of Europe’s brightest prospects at right-back in Hector Bellerin, who has the pace and energy to enable Pépé to constantly cut inside onto his favoured left foot. Napoli had a lot more on paper going for them, not to mention Pépé’s relationship with ex-Lille team-mate and right-back Kévin Malcuit, but in the end, especially for a group of relatively inexperienced agents, money talks.