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Pepe to Liverpool? Why Arsenal's record signing was never a transfer target for Klopp

11:00 GMT+3 23/08/2019
Jurgen Klopp Nicolas Pepe
The Reds had nothing more than minimal interest in the Ivorian and went out of their way to let Lille know that they wouldn't be making a move

Get ready for a fire-fest at Anfield this weekend.

Liverpool versus Arsenal is, traditionally, a fixture which guarantees goals. The last 14 meetings between the sides have produced 59 of them, while the last six on Merseyside have brought 30. You get your money’s worth where these two are concerned.

That looks set to continue on Saturday as the top two in the embryonic Premier League run into one another. Unai Emery’s new-look Gunners take on Jurgen Klopp’s "mentality giants" in the game of the weekend.

Arsenal may well travel with a sense of trepidation – understandable given they have conceded five, four, three, three, two and five on their last six visits – but after a perfect start to the new campaign, and buoyed by a host of eye-catching new signings, the Londoners will be looking to cause an upset this time.

At least two of those new signings will start the game: David Luiz will be at the heart of Arsenal’s defence, while the on-loan Dani Ceballos will bring class to an otherwise workmanlike midfield.

And what of the Gunners’ biggest capture of the summer? What of the man they bought for £72 million ($87m)?

Liverpool fans will be particularly intrigued to see what Nicolas Pepe can offer, given the Ivorian was linked with their club prior to his switch to the Emirates. Indeed, many Reds would have liked to see him at Anfield permanently.

That scenario, though, was never really on the cards. Sources have told Goal that Liverpool’s interest in Pepe was minimal, and that persistent reports out of France suggesting otherwise were to be ignored.

This, in fact, was communicated directly to Lille in June, when speculation was rife that the Reds had held talks with Samir Khiat, Pepe’s representative, about a potential switch to Anfield.

Michael Edwards, Liverpool’s sporting director, took the unusual decision to telephone Christophe Galtier, the manager of Lille, to clarify the matter. The two had crossed paths at Portsmouth in the mid-2000s, when Edwards was a young analyst and Galtier was assistant manager to Alain Perrin. The pair have maintained a good working relationship since.

Edwards’ message, sources have told Goal, was simple; Liverpool had not spoken to Pepe or his agent, and had no interest in doing so. He was, they said, not a target, and the feeling on Merseyside was that their name was being used to flush out interest from elsewhere.

Indeed, Anfield sources say it was long suspected that Pepe would eventually join Arsenal, even if the move seemed to take a lot of people by surprise in the end.

Cynics will wonder why Edwards would take such a step, and why Liverpool would be happy to have it known that they were not actively pursuing one of Ligue 1’s brightest young stars.

Pepe, after all, had been seriously impressive following his move to Lille from Angers in 2017, scoring 37 goals in 75 appearances.

Last season, he was one of only two players in Europe’s top five leagues to reach 20 goals and 10 assists. Lionel Messi was the other.

Liverpool’s summer, though, was to be a quiet one.

They paid a small fee to sign teenage defender Sepp van den Berg from PEC Zwolle, and convinced 16-year-old Harvey Elliott to snub interest from across Europe and move to Anfield. Later in the window, Adrian was signed as a replacement for the departing Simon Mignolet.

A bold move, some would say. A downright risk, others will argue. Liverpool are European champions, but still look short of cover at full-back, and lack the kind of attacking options upon which Manchester City, for example, can call. Their lack of interest in Pepe is, to some, baffling.

It is also, though, entirely in-keeping with the club’s recent strategy. Liverpool have shown a willingness to spend significant money over the past two years, but their aim has been to sign players – Mo Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker, Fabinho - who will strengthen the first XI. Naby Keita, they hoped, would be on that list too, but has seen his progress in England hampered by injuries and a tougher-than-expected adaptation period.

The Reds’ forward line – Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino – is firmly established, and will not be broken up any time soon. Klopp does not, as a rule, rotate his front three, and the trio, so far, have proved remarkably durable too. They played 52, 50 and 48 games respectively last season; 52, 44 and 54 the year before.

The idea, then, of spending £50m or more on an attacking player is, at this stage, simply not viable to Edwards and his team – even if many fans would love to see it.

It is the same reason players such as Christian Pulisic and Timo Werner were not pursued. Both have registered on Liverpool’s radar, both are admired for their talent, but neither would be in a position to become first choice this season.

The same, ultimately, went for Pepe.

Arsenal will hope they can be the beneficiaries. Liverpool will hope their decision does not come back to haunt them this weekend.