Changing Fortunes – How Nice are turning their season around
At the beginning of November this season, OGC Nice found themselves in a very precarious position. Domestically, they were as low as 17th with 10 points after 11 games. In the Europa League, Lazio had just beaten them home and away. This was a far cry from the podium finish the club achieved in the previous campaign.
Coach Lucien Favre had struggled to adjust to his squad following the departures of several key players in the summer transfer window, and injuries to others. Three of Nice’s regular defenders from the 2016/17 season had moved on, including captain Paul Baysse after his contract expired. Central midfielder Wylan Cyprien was still recovering from a long term injury and Jean Michael Seri had a downturn in form following interest from Barcelona.
Favre looked certain to lose his job, but then the club’s fortunes began to turn around. In the 11 league games played since Nice sunk as low as 17th in the table, the Aiglons have lost only twice and taken 21 points. Their most recent game was a disappointing loss to bottom team Metz, but they can still be happy with their performances of late. The club also won their remaining games in Europe and qualified for the knockout stage, overcoming the inferior teams in the group.
So what has changed since the beginning of the season?
The stand out performer has been maverick Mario Balotelli. The controversial Italian striker has contributed the highest percentage of goals scored for his team in the league (barring Ivan Santini of Caen), netting 45% of Nice’s league total (13 of 29). Balotelli has actually been the constant in his team; his goals have been quite evenly spread throughout the campaign and he has not gone more than two games without scoring. It is the form of the players around him that has changed more so.
Jean Michael Seri is the biggest example of this. In August, he was rumoured to have thrown a tantrum after Nice took a strong negotiating stance against Barcelona, who had courted the Ivorian. As a result, Seri was in and out of the team for a period. However, he has started the last nine league games and is getting back to his form of last season. Since the 5-0 thrashing at home to Lyon, Seri has averaged 91 passes per start, compared with 86 beforehand. By getting on the ball more, it allows him to express the creative side of his game and help Nice in the attacking third. Nice have not failed to score in a single league game since the defeat to Lyon and Seri has started all of those matches.
One player whose form seems to have dipped more severely is young goalkeeper Yoan Cardinale. The 23-year-old missed only two Ligue 1 fixtures last season, but he has lost his starting spot to Argentine Walter Benítez following a poor start to the season. Cardinale claimed that he had lost his confidence following a poor run of games, but Benítez has not looked back since taking the Frenchman’s place in the starting 11 and is now even targeting the World Cup squad for his country. Cardinale was given a chance of redemption in the Coupe de France recently, but another goalkeeping error gifted a 1-0 victory to Toulouse, knocking Nice out of the tournament. It looks like a long way back for the young French goalkeeper as Benítez is doing more than enough to justify his inclusion in the first team.
Favre’s summer signings are also improving in form as the season progresses. Allan Saint-Maximin is one of the most exciting talents in Ligue 1 currently. The Saint-Etienne youth product has completed the fourth most dribbles per game in the league and adds a cutting edge to the Nice attack with his direct play. His goal contribution has really taken off as the season has gone on. In his first 10 league appearances, Saint-Maximin had only registered one assist, but in the following eight league matches, he has four assists and a goal to his name. Although he has enjoyed this upturn in form, the young talent has suffered a minor injury and missed the most recent defeat away at Metz. If he can return to full fitness soon, Nice will benefit enormously.
The other acquisition who has had a large impact since arriving on the Côte d’Azur is Pierre Lees-Melou. His strong debut Ligue 1 campaign with Dijon last season, in which he scored nine goals, convinced Favre to bring him to the Allianz Riviera for €4m. This season, only Seri and Saint-Maximin have provided more key passes and assists respectively per match than Lees-Melou, and no one has played more matches. He received a first-half red card in Nice’s most recent outing, a large factor in their defeat, but Lees-Melou has been a strong performer for the Aiglons so far.
One of the biggest boosts for Nice will be the eventual return of midfield engine Wylan Cyprien. After an ACL injury midway through last season, Cyprien was out for a long period, missing the rest of the campaign and most of the first half of this. He was one of the main reasons Nice climbed as high as they did in 2016/17, and as such, his team’s form capitulated in the latter part of the season. Following his lengthy recovery, Cyprien made his return to the first team at the beginning of 2018 and even produced the match winner against Saint Etienne a week ago. Unfortunately for the central midfielder, he picked up a fresh minor injury and after missing the defeat to Metz, will be absent for two more weeks of action. Once he is back to full fitness, Lucien Favre will be sitting much easier.
In terms of the management, Favre has not really tried to change his possession-heavy style too much throughout the course of the campaign. This is one of the reasons the start to the season has been so poor: key players who the coach based his play around have been absent or out of form, and Favre has not been willing to do something different to accommodate this. Nevertheless, as the team got familiar faces back, results picked up.
Prior to their most recent match, Nice had the longest unbeaten streak in Ligue 1; a real testament to the turnaround in form of the team. The board has been vindicated in their decision to keep faith with Favre and the club now find themselves within striking distance of fifth place and a likely Europa League spot. As the season continues and key players come back to the first team from suspension and injury, Nice will be hopeful of finishing with a flourish.