Christophe Galtier has arrived at Nice. Armed with some fascinating signings, and a talented squad, they will be a force to watch in coming years.
The 2020/21 season was certainly not one to cherish at OGC Nice. Manager Patrick Vieira had been in the post for two years, and whilst not igniting the house alight, had stabilised and laid foundations for growth.
Vieira was sacked in December 2020 after five successive defeats, and being knocked out of the Europa League. Assistant coach Adrian Ursea took to the helm and shepherded the club to a respectable-if-uninspiring ninth placed finish. Down from the previous two year’s finishes of fifth and seventh under Vieira.
For such a grey campaign, it would have been hard to imagine Nice acquiring a manager of great calibre. Perhaps a younger profile, looking to build a resume in the way Vieira had, could be realistic. Or a wilier, experienced head looking to prove they still had the touch. Vieira’s predecessor Lucien Favre is a case and point.
Current league winning coach Christophe Galtier would not be immediately thought possible. Having wrestled the Ligue 1 title from the PSG juggernaut, Galtier was thought to be interesting the likes of Tottenham, Everton and Napoli. Not the pond fished in by France’s ninth best side.
Yet for an accumulation of factors, Galtier stepped away from the league champions. His destination? A side that finished eight places and thirty one places lower in the league. Until Pep Guardiola is unveiled as the head coach at Aston Villa, these are rare conditions to observe.
The question therefore, is how will Galtier pull this club up to the level he demands? What can he do with a talented, varied, yet thin squad? And what will the results be?
Galtier and Nice: Why and How?
Under normal circumstances leaving a post at the league winners for one so much lower in the table would be unthinkable. Yet Galtier’s move to Nice has been forecast for some time, and not entirely unexpected.
His former employer Lille had struck gold with his arrival in 2017. After avoiding relegation by a mere point in his first campaign, he took the club to second the following year. Fourth place would follow in the shortened 19/20 season. then of course came the triumphant title winning side of 20/21.
Their model requires a manager such as he to survive. Their player turnover is consistent and highly profitable, albeit disruptive. Sales of the likes of Nicolas Pepe, Rafael Leao, Victor Osimhen and Yves Bissouma totalled £176 million in the last four years.
Such a model only works with successful recruiting to replace these talents. Identifying these players, and bringing in players such as Jonathan David, Jonathan Bamba, Renato Sanches, Boubacary Soumare and Sven Botman, validates this. This activity was completed under the eye of the acclaimed Luis Campos.
Campos’ work and recycling of young players is impressive. However without a worthy coach that is able to pick up these rough diamonds and turn them into sellable profits, it is not sustainable. Galtier is the perfect coach for this, and the final incarnation of his Lille team testifies to this fact.
Campos however left the club in December 2020. The club had been sold to Luxembourg firm Merlyn Partners with a view to reducing the club’s significant debts. This, plus the disastrous Ligue 1 broadcasting debacle that has seen Canal+ and BeIN Sports pass rights between themselves in the wake of the MediaPro deal collapse, has left Ligue 1 clubs such as Lille financially handcuffed.
These are no conditions for growth. Even on the back of a glowing season, the loss of Campos and the stormy waters ahead for Lille made Galtier’s decision for him. And so this most industrious of coaches moved the entire country’s length south to Nice. To build, again.
The resourcefulness, and capacity to coach players and teams to improve, of Galtier is what stands him apart. Whilst his Lille side were not always pretty, their functionality and understanding of Galtier’s demands are what stood them out.
Maximising the towering aerial abilities of his centre backs and goalkeeper (Botman, Jose Fonte and ‘keeper Mike Maignan), Galtier formulated a compact and efficient defensive unit. By defending narrowly and allowing opposition teams to keep the ball, they would be forced wide into crossing channels. From there, Botman and Fonte could head clear with ease, or Maignan could catch and punch.
This base would then be used to spring forward in transition. His in possession 4-4-2 utilises two lightning quick ball carrying wingers that gallop into space on the counter. Tasked with maintaining a similarly narrow shape as they do in defence, it allows attacking width to be held and exploited by overlapping full backs.
The midfield pairing seek to protect the centre backs by screening any line breaking passes, and by stopping any dribblers breaking at them. Boubacary Soumare and Benjamin André recorded 3.9 and 5.4 tackles and interceptions/90 last season as a result.
This structure and collevtive ideology was sprinkled with individual quality. Renato Sanches, albeit playing a reduced role to that he may have expected, impressed from the bench. Strikers Burak Yilmaz and Jonathan David caught fire towards the campaign’s end. Soumare has earned a transfer to the Premier League off the back of his stellar season.
Galtier’s Lille were a lesson in order, system and consistency. All the traits a side that finished ninth last season, will be hoping to acquire.
The tools at his disposal
The idea of bringing in a coach such as Galtier is to utilise his excellent player progression abilities. First and foremost, his capacity to improve a squad of players to levels beyond reckoning is his key attribute.
A disjointed, albeit interesting, squad such as Nice’s is therefore ripe for Galtier to work with.
In many regards, Nice profile very similarly as a squad to Galtier’s brilliant Lille. In possession, the two sides are nearly inseparable for passing and possession metrics except for long passing. Last season, Lille were far more reliant on long passing than Galtier’s new side. Similarly, Lille’s creative passing outshone Nice’s, completing nearly 100 more key passes across the season than Nice.
Only Rony Lopes came close to completing two key passes per 90 for Les Aiglons in 20/21. This is an area Glatier will no doubt look to target in the coming season. The talent in attacking areas is certainly there to improve in this capacity.
Similarly again to his Lille side, Nice have dynamic full backs to increase attacking width. On the left, Hassane Kamara is a major ball progressor who attempted more carries (and carried further) than any other player in the Nice squad last year. Jordan Lotomba on the right ranked third across the squad for these same metrics, and at 25 and 21 respectively, the pair have a great deal of value to carry forward in this team.
Having headed back to parent club Lyon, it is a shame that Jeff Reine-Adelaide will not be part of Galtier’s plans. The Frenchman’s season at Nice was ravaged by injury and restricted him to just over 1,000 league minutes. He still managed to impress in this little time however. Playing as a central midfielder, left midfielder and even a supporting striker, Reine-Adelaide’s versatility and creative spark was a welcome addition. 2.72 shot creating actions and 7 progressive carries per ninety is enough to remind fans of the talent supposed during his youth at Arsenal.
Nice to meet you, Mr Stengs
Reine-Adelaide’s departure is a disappointing one. However the arrival of Calvin Stengs to France’s south coast is both fascinating, and exciting.
Stengs is a product of the impressive AZ Alkmaar academy. The last three years have seen this production line of varied and technical talent explode. Stengs, Teun Koopmeiners, Owen Wijndal and Myron Boadu have all progressed to the first team in this time.
The nature of the Eredivisie is that talented players such as these are afforded little time to raise their head above the parapet. A glimmer of ability, in a league of great technical ball quality, is instantly surrounded by European interest.
There has been such interest in Stengs for a few years now. Now twenty three, it appears the time to strike has arrived, For Nice to be the side to lure him however, is an interesting twist. Whilst it is foolish to regard transfer rumours as anything but unreliable, clubs in England, Italy and Germany were said to be interested in Stengs. Clubs of Champions league pedigree too.
Nice’s project under Galtier is clearly an attractive one. A fee of only £13million for a player of such ability, and scope to grow, is remarkable business.
For all their competence in holding the ball, Nice’s chance creation last season was very poor. 16.34 SCA/90 in Ligue 1 last season was better than only five other teams in the league. This is Stengs’ USP. His 95 smart passes were head and shoulders above any Eredivise player last season (a pass that attempts to break the opposition line to gain an attack advantage).
Attempting over five dribbles and taking two shots per 90 last season, Stengs is a creative gem. His seven goals and five assists were a reverse return from the previous season, where AZ had kept up with Ajax only for the season to be cancelled in March.
Elegant and smooth in possession, his light touch and calm demeanour can give the impression that he coasts. Under a coach like Galtier however, playing as the right sided midfielder and moving inside onto his delightful left foot, Stengs could really hit his stride.
The arrival of Stengs addresses a desperate need of this squad; creativity. His presence, acnd capacity to play both on the wing and as a central creator, changes the outlook of the Nice attack.
Versatility is the name of the game here. Stengs can fill multiple roles to great effect. Amine Gouiri, the shining light for the club last season, will be glad of the Dutchman’s support. Gouiri scored 12 and assisted seven last year, and proved to be a rare find. 3.96 SCA/90 showed that the twenty one year old was creating roughly a quarter of the side’s shots. A heavy burden to place on a player so young.
A rejuvenated Kasper Dolberg is a further boost. Three goals in four EURO 2020 appearances for Denmark were a reminder of the talent at his disposal. Six goals and two assists last season for Nice were little to write home about. Concerns about the player’s development, and talk of wasted potential, were hastily chucked around press circles.
Yet his performances this summer show what he is capable of. A strong and imposing forward, dangerous both in the box and in linking play deeper, Dolberg will only build on his summer performances with the right creating network around him. Stengs and Gouiri are certainly the men to do that.
Throw Alexis Claude-Maurice into the mix, and Nice are looking very dangerous. The French twenty three year old can play as a wide attacker, and as a more conventional progressive midfielder. His carrying capacity is exceptional, with only Gouiri completing more dribbles in the squad last season. 2.92 SCA/90 show a creative thrust to his work, but the pleasure is in watching this dynamic young player. A rasping long range shot, and lightning quick feet under pressure, the thought of Claud-Maurice dovetailing with Stengs and Gouiri is truly mouth-watering.
Khéphren the key?
For all the rejuvenated and added forward thrust, perhaps the most exciting prospect in this Nice side lies further back. Having seen the work Christophe Galtier did with Boubacary Soumare, Benjamin Andre and Renato Sanches, there could be another name to add to France’s growing midfield talent pool.
Khéphren Thuram is arguably the lesser sung of the Thuram clan. Father Lilian is France’s most capped player, and brother Marcus is a dynamic international attacker. This is not to say that the youngest Thuram will not challenge those same heights however.
Thuram is a destructive defensive midfielder. Statistically, he is arguably unremarkable. He is not a particularly strong progressor nor carrier of the ball. Nor is he a ball winner of epic proportions, in the same way as an Aurélien Tchouaméni for example.
3.69 interceptions/90 in Ligue 1 last season certainly points to an aware and astute defensive mind. On the eye, Thuram is certainly an impressive watch. When required, he is responsible and tidy in possession. Yet when given space, his footwork and sharp movements carry the ball into space and move the team forward.
Thuram certainly can improve in this regard, and utilise this dynamism to hurt teams more readily. Any reluctance might be the after effects of the stifling Patrick Vieira years. To see this midfielder, of extraordinary height and range, move directly as the likes of Eduardo Camavinga does, could give Nice a further edge.
The Thuram family name certainly carries weight. For Khéphren, he has the perfect place to grow into such shoes. Away from the brighter lights of France’s top performing clubs, he can grow and develop as the likes of Soumare did under the same coach.
Here for more than just Nice-ties
The expectations for the coming seasonwill throw up a number of predictions as to how Nice will perform. Here is a club that has finished in the top four just three times in the last decade. To expect their re-emergence as a force to be immediate could prove naive.
However the role and effect of Christophe Galtier cannot be undersold. At both Lille and Saint Etienne, Galtier broke the stratosphere of their potential. Both were at the lowest ebbs of the division. By the end of his work, both clubs had won significant honours.
The arrival of Stengs, plus the permanent signing of Jean Clair-Todibo, show a structured and planned vision throughout the club. There is so much untapped, or partially realised, ability within the side. A coach such as Galtier can produce something really special out of these components.
It may take some time, but Galtier will improve Nice. His eight years at Saint Etienne and four at Lille are testament to this. Whether it is this year, or next, or the one after, Nice are already a different prospect with he as their custodian.
Lille might not challenge PSG this season again. The Parisians will have a different Galtier force to reckon with however, and could once again have a fight on their hands to reassert their domestic dominance.
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