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Aykun Gencoyan takes a look at Nice’s early season surge and the reasons behind their success.
Having played 13 games in their Ligue 1 season, OGC Nice is on the top of the table at the time of writing, and they’ll be at the top at least for one week too. It has been more than fifty years since they were crowned champions, but will this era end? We have time to learn the end of the story, but we can easily say that Lucien Favre’s team is changing some strict opinions about a certain playing style. In this article we’ll analyse the elements and the facts that changed Nice’s profile.
OGC Nice finished last season in the fourth position behind PSG, AS Monaco and Olympique Lyon. By qualifying to the Europa League, they earned after 36 years the opportunity to play in a European competition. They managed to score 58 goals and conceded 41. Last season they only conceded 16 goals at home. We can see this as a signal for this season’s magnificent defensive performance. Undoubtedly last season’s outstanding player for Les aiglons was Hatem Ben Arfa, who scored 17 goals and made 6 assists in Ligue 1.
I felt the need to talk about the special relationship between Ben Arfa and the supporters. After several seasons where the team finished in the middle of the table with average players, the arrival of Ben Arfa changed the direction of the club. Ben Arfa was an inconsistent performer in the Premier League, and he needed a place where he could prove himself. In fact, we could say that Ben Arfa needed Nice and Nice needed a player like Ben Arfa. With good performances, the French attacker became an icon in the city of Nice. His contract was only for one season and at the end of his spectacular season there were transfer rumours linking him to the likes Barcelona. But he chose to go to Paris Saint Germain. Normally in these situations the supporters are really angry towards the players and they sometimes forget what the player did for the club. However, the people of Nice are paying tribute to Ben Arfa on various occasions.
OGC Nice had an incredible summer transfer window. Even though the departure of Ben Arfa for free to PSG was an incredible loss for the club, they knew that to keep improving, they needed some flashy transfer moves. They bought important players like Wylan Cyprien, Paul Baysse, and others but the chain of shocking transfers began with Dante, and then Younes Belhanda joined the club.
And at the end of the window, there were rumours about Balotelli, but nearly no one believed it. The day of his signing, the city went crazy. The local press dedicated an important place to this crazy project. I call it a project because, like I said with Ben Arfa, clubs like OGC Nice needs to play this Russian roulette game. Players who aren’t at their full potential, who possess a certain experience in the football business, for example last season we saw this kind of a situation with Mario Gomez at Besiktas.
This summer the club changed their manager as they appointed Lucien Favre. Favre is known for his excellent performance at Borussia Mönchengladbach. In January 2011 the club was struggling in the second division but only after 2 years, he brought the team to the Europa League and managed to finish second in the group behind Fenerbahce.
Briefly, Favre’s OGC Nice is based on a defensive mentality. They play with 5 players at the back and Dante is certainly making a difference in all aspects of the game. The midfielders are always trying to play forward and the wing backs are always supporting the midfield. Balotelli has enough space in the attack to create chances, sometimes this creates problems because he is lost in the opposition’s defence.
The manager is trying to fit Belhanda into his attacking plan, but in a 5 at the back system, an attacking midfielder often finds it hard to adapt. Frequently Favre is giving the role of center forward to Belhanda and it causes damage to the organisation of the team. If only the manager can use Belhanda effectively, the team would be more creative in front of the goal. Yoan Cardinale is an important young talent for the team and also for the future of the French national team, he is only 22 years old but when it’s needed he can be a good leader and manage some hard situations on the pitch.
The team is in good form, but it lacks of experience and that is obviously visible at the Europa League games. A club with big ambitions like OGC Nice can’t concede five goals in a single Europa League match.
Above we can see three different football mentalities, and Nice won all of these games. That shows us that the coach is taking the risk of changing the play style of the team against different opponents. At the bottom we can see a goal scored by the right-back Ricardo Pereira who was transferred two seasons ago from Porto. First of all he receives a long pass, and calmly controls it. For this match, he was playing as a RM/RWB in a 3-5-2. Then, he dribbles onto the penalty box and finishes with a simple touch. Only a player with extreme confidence would do that. And that kind of confidence is provided by the fact that he trusts his teammates, and himself. Because when a player has this role of a wingback on the field, he should always be careful with his runs. In this kind of strategy, the wing backs are the only one who are responsible for what’s happening in their corridor. That goal shows us that the technical staff are working on the polyvalence of the players, and that every player in the team should be a part of the game with and without the ball, because the play is started by an excellent pass from Bodmer, who is a center-back.
The Allianz Riviera was finished in 2013, and hosted three matches in Euro 2016. The supporters are really excited about this new stadium. It’s like the club obtained a different identity with their new home, and a different environnment as well. The new stadium is a motivational element for the supporters, and it’s clearly visible how the players are performing on the pitch. But the important question to ask is:
Do they really have the mental and physical abilities to lift the trophy at the end of the season in their new stadium? Only time will tell.