OGC Nice is having an incredible season in France, currently unbeaten from their first 12 games of the season and sitting top of Ligue 1. Their season so far has included a famous 3-2 victory over superteam Paris Saint Germain, and without a European club competition cramping their schedule, Nice could be set for a strong season.
One only has to watch Nice this season to understand why the small French side is doing so well. However, upon digging deeper into their squad and playing styles, their incredible form can be broken down into two key philosophies.
Youth, experience and hunger.
The Nice squad may not be large, however, the make-up of players and combination of youth, hunger and experience have made for an incredibly strong team. For example, French starlet Khéphren Thuram, formally linked with Liverpool, is a dominant force in midfield, whilst young Nigerian striker Terem Moffi has continued to improve season after season.
Jean-Clair Todibo, 23, formerly of Barcelona, has begun to fulfill the potential he demonstrated at youth level, and is now a rock in Nice’s defense. However, this Nice squad would be nothing without leaders, and there are several highly experienced heads in the team.
For example, Brazilian veteran defender Dante, who, at 40, is still a week-in-week-out top performer. Even backup goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu brings a level of experience at the highest level. Nevertheless, arguably the biggest strength this squad of players has is their hunger, and this largely comes from a history of rejections, failures and a strong desire to prove themselves.
For instance, Todibo was used as a financial pawn at Barcelona and Dante was tossed away to Nice as if he was an old broken toy, however, arguably the best example is Jérémie Boga. Boga was of many players who suffered in Chelsea’s consistent loan cycle which saw young players traverse the globe on often pointless loan spells.
After impressing in Italy with Sassuolo, Boga has finally found a home in Nice, and this season so far has terrorized full-backs with pace and trickery. Finally, head coach Francesco Farioli has somewhat of a chip on his shoulder and a point to prove.
Farioli spent years restricted to being a goalkeeper coach, and having never had a playing career, he lacked the name and prestige to initially succeed in the game. However, after he spent two years working under head coach Roberto De Zerbi at Sassuolo, Farioli decided to strike out on his own.
Farioli has captured all these emotions and different strengths across his side, and brought a true sense of ‘us against the world’ mentality to this Nice squad. At only 34, Farioli is one of the youngest coaches in the ‘Big 5’ leagues, and he is currently one of the best-performing as well. This leads to the second philosophy, Nice’s incredible playing style and tactical approach.
Farioli sets Nice up in an expressive 4-3-3 formation. However, this is just the base shape, and in-game Nice can often appear in an attacking 3-2-5 formation. At they same time, they happily drop into what can resemble a five-man defense when Thuram drops deep between the center backs.
This has played a part in Nice’s impressive defensive record this season. Nice ranks best statistically for expected goals against and goals against, and has also faced the third-fewest shots in the league. Naturally, as the old cliché goes, the best defense is a good attack, and this is true for Nice, in that their defense starts in attack.
Nice presses from a mid-block aggressively in a 4-4-2 shape, but is not afraid to create a staggered shape in midfield. This is achieved by pushing one central midfielder higher, and dropping Thuram deeper to protect against long balls. This adds added protection between defense and midfield, allowing the former to sit a little deeper, to accommodate a lack of pace, particularly in the case of Dante.
However, one feature of Nice’s game that has let them down this season is their attack. Nice is currently shooting below their expected goals. Yet, their attacking shape is still impressive nonetheless and should produce more goals with time. Nice’s left back, Melvin Bard, often inverts into midfield alongside Thuram, whilst the makeshift back three stays compact on the ball side.
The attacking five is made up of two wide wingers, one central striker, and two attacking midfielders in the half-spaces, hence the 3-2-5 shape. This shape often allows Nice to camp in their opponent’s half and more easily press after possession is lost. If Nice continues to attack with this fluidity, the goals will come.
Finally, Nice not only imitates top European sides with their flexible attacking shape, but their style of play aligns with the elite ball-playing sides such as Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain. As detailed by Opta Analyst, Nice’s sequence style to their play is more based on slow intricate play as opposed to direct and fast. This is reflective of their desire to control the tempo rather than have an end-to-end battle for dominance. Although the season is still relatively young, Nice’s unprecedented strong start cannot go unnoticed.
Having finished ninth last season, the expectations were not high. But, the arrival of Farioli in June changed this. Nice may yet tail off as the season progresses, but the small French team is an enjoyable watch and has brought excitement and refreshment to the often one-horse race that is Ligue 1.