After getting in at 3am following a few drinks with friends, I scoffed down a terribly put together ham and cheese sandwich and noticed that BT Sport were showing highlights of Nice vs. Lyon which was played just a few hours earlier. Oblivious to the result, I sat there and watched, mesmerised by the home team and the football they were playing. It was bloodie brilliant. They were bloodie brilliant. Ergo, that night was the inspiration for this piece.
Ligue 1 has been ridiculously topsy turvy thus far. PSG, the division heavyweights sit comfortably in first, but elsewhere results continue to shock and surprise on a regular basis as we approach Gameweek 17. Minnows Caen and Angers are flying high in second and third place respectively, whilst the likes of Lille, Bordeaux and Montpellier walk the tightest of ropes above the relegation zone.
As Caen manager Patrice Garande and Angers' Stephane Moulins receive deserved praise for the incredible jobs that they are doing, I will be putting Claude Puel’s Nice under the microscope as they look to maintain their status as one of Europe’s most captivating sides. But how does a team that defined mediocrity last season, end up with a tag like that and more importantly, challenging for the Champions League?
Claude Puel has been in charge of Nice since 2012 and it has been a reign of contrasts for the 54 year-old. After finishing fourth in his first season at the club, they then avoided relegation by two points only 12 months later, before steadying the ship to finish eleventh last time out. But after such varying experiences of both the highs and the lows, the Frenchman seems to have finally cracked it.
This season, Nice have played primarily with a 4-1-2-1-2 (4-4-2 diamond) formation, but the 3-5-2 has also been used on occasion to suit different types of game and opposition. Both of these formations suit their players and team ethos down to the ground, as they can play their favoured passing style with the former, but counter attack with the latter.
Nice tend to dominate the ball in most matches, averaging 56.4% possession this season with an 83.5% passing accuracy which are the fourth and third highest percentages in the league. Not only impressive with the ball, Puel’s men are also dangerous on the counter, able to break with considerable speed and incisive passing, scoring an impressive 17 goals away from home and finding the back of the net every 4.8 shots – the best rate in the whole of Europe.
Every successful team needs a key man, and in the rejuvenated Hatem Ben Arfa, Les Aiglons have just that. The former Newcastle man has been excellent for Nice this season with seven league goals and two assists, and often thrives on the responsibility that he is given in the final third. Now 28 years of age, he has matured, kept in good physical condition and added a consistency to his game that was severely lacking in the past. But in spite of this, he is still capable of producing those magical moments.
In addition to their key man, Nice are also blessed with experienced leaders at the back who provide the sturdy spine for the rest of the team to flourish. The 33-year-old club captain Mathieu Bodmer is a perfect example of this. He is the communicator and organiser of the defence, brave in the tackle and with a mentality that makes him the perfect right hand man for Puel. His impressive defensive partnership with the robust Romain Genevois has been one of the highlights of the season for the men from the south coast.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Nice have a selection of extremely talented youngsters at their disposal. Nice have always had a good academy, having brought through the likes of Hugo Lloris, Patrice Evra, Jordan Amavi and Timothee Kolodziejczak, but now Puel is ready to bring through the next generation of stars. Their energetic defensive midfielder Alexandre Mendy is 21, whilst pass master Vincent Koziello and Mouez Hassen are both only 20 years of age. The youngest of them all, Olivier Boscagli is 18 and is regarded to be one of the brightest French talents in the game.
What other factors may have led to their success? Intelligent recruitment. Working with a relatively low transfer budget, they signed Ivorian international Jean Michael Seri from Paços de Ferreira for a measly £700k, who has brought an unrivalled energy and enthusiasm to this exciting Nice midfield. Puel & Co also dipped into Ligue 2, signing Mickael Le Bihan and Maxime Le Marchand from Le Havre for a combined £1.5m.
Les Aiglons also brought in three loanees: Wallyson from Sporting, Ricardo Pereira from Porto and Valere Germain Monaco who have contributed to six goals and seven assists between them over the course of the season.
Nobody is backing Nice for Europe, or for their challenge to crack into the top four to last. But quietly, the ambitions of the owner, the manager, the squad and the fans are fusing to create something really special. Easy on the eye, with a sprinkle of magic here, with a helping of experience there, topped by the energy and fearlessness of youth, nobody knows what Puel and his men could achieve this season - but they’ve certainly started well.