Following a podium finish in Ligue 1 for the 2016/17 season, hopes were high for OGC Nice. They qualified for the play-off round to reach the UEFA Champions League, and Mario Balotelli had rediscovered his best form on the French Riviera.
Three months into the season, though, and things could not be much worse. Nice find themselves in the bottom half domestically, sitting in 14th position. They also fell short of qualifying for Europe’s premier competition in August, losing home and away to Napoli at the last hurdle. Although Lucien Favre’s side are into the knockout stages of the Europa League, they did not put up much of a fight against Lazio, the other qualifier of their group, and will go into the Round of 32 as second seeds.
What Has Gone Wrong For OGC Nice?
A Sorry Summer
In the 2016/17 campaign, Nice started strongly and sat at the top of Ligue 1 for 14 consecutive weeks in the period leading up to the winter break. Although the second half of their season was less impressive, they still finished nine points clear of Lyon in fourth place, a comfortable margin.
So what changed for Nice over the summer? Two of their first team regulars from last season, Ricardo Pereira and Younès Belhanda, left after loan spells. Other key departures included Paul Baysse, Valentin Eysseric and Dalbert. Left-back Dalbert, in particular, was heralded as one of Nice’s most important players on their way to the top three in Ligue 1 last season and the club recouped €20 million from Inter Milan for his services.
Looking at these outgoing players, Nice let three of their regular defenders from last season leave: Baysse, Pereira and Dalbert. The remaining members of their defence from last year are the ageing Brazilian, Dante, who recently turned 34 years old, and Frenchman Arnaud Souquet.
Favre brought in the veteran France defender Christophe Jallet from Lyon who has been vastly disappointing for the Aiglons, playing on the left side of defence rather than his traditional right. The manager has also promoted Maxime Le Marchand, who made only ten league appearances last season, to a first-team role.
One of the largest woes for Nice has been their goalkeeping, though. Young goalkeeper Yoan Cardinale had cemented himself as the club’s number one, playing all but two of the club’s league matches last season. This year, after a string of poor performances, he lost his place to Walter Benítez, who has not been much better, conceding ten goals in his first five league appearances.
This defence has already shipped 26 goals since the beginning of the domestic campaign, having conceded only 36 in the entirety of last season. Favre has not replaced his outgoing defenders well enough, nor strengthened in between the sticks, which he was rumoured to be considering over the summer.
Offensively, Nice have not reached the heights of last season either. Of their 17 goals in the league, six have been scored from the penalty spot. To score so few goals from open play is a real concern for the club and this comes from the lack of penetration in the side.
Gaps in the Midfield
The lack of game time for central midfielders Jean-Michael Seri and Wylan Cyprien is what has hurt the team the most going forward. These two players have the ability to pick out the penetrative pass that others do not. Nice have the third most possession in Ligue 1 this season and the second highest pass accuracy. Sadly, these statistics count for nothing if you are making simple passes in the middle of the park.
Seri was courted by Barcelona over the summer thanks to his impeccable form in the 2016/17 campaign, scoring seven goals and providing nine assists. Following the links with the Catalan club, Seri missed several games. He reportedly threw a tantrum due to Nice’s refusal to negotiate. However, the Ivorian international now seems to have settled down and is set to reclaim his starting spot in the team. Against Toulouse on Wednesday night, he had an impressive 98.3% pass accuracy.
Cyprien, on the other hand, has been injured for a significant amount of time. He was among Nice’s top performers last season, contributing with eight goals and three assists before rupturing his cruciate ligament. Favre will have missed his tenacity in midfield, providing stronger defensive capabilities than Seri. Fortunately, Cyprien has recently returned to training and should be back in the first team soon.
For goalscoring, Balotelli is the only player to have netted more than three goals this season, with seven. Three of those have come from the spot. While Nice’s forwards have not been scintillating, they are still not part of the real problem for the club. For example, Allan Saint-Maxim, signed from Monaco in the summer, has been a highlight for the team. He sits third in the most dribbles per game in Ligue 1 and is dispossessed less than Neymar and Nabil Fekir, the two players who rank above him in that statistic.
Nice’s victory over Toulouse with a last-minute winner on Wednesday may just about keep Lucien Favre in a job. Now he needs to pick up important wins before Christmas so that he can strengthen in January. With Cyprien and Seri returning to the first team squad, and the attack looking in better shape, defensive reinforcements should be top of Favre’s wishlist. Expect Nice to be challenging for the Europa League places come May if they strengthen.