The prospects feature makes its long-awaited return as Nathan Staples looks at the progress of an understated frontman in an OGC Nice which has very recently forced the rest of Ligue 1 to take notice of them.
Nice underwent a considerable squad overhaul this summer, and when any football club undergoes such a revolution in playing staff, the key is always that the outstanding constants in the squad must step up to the plate to fill the voids left by their predecessors before the new recruits have time to settle on.
One such individual we anticipate to have a break out season is Alassane Plea, a striker who is no stranger to dealing with the weight of expectation on his shoulders.
Having started his career with Lyon, the youngster made just one appearance with the club before spending the 2013-14 season with Auxerre on loan. Plea did not exactly set the world alight, scoring three goals and creating one assist, but it was apparently enough to convince Nice to make a move for his services in the summer of 2014.
He was almost instantly a regular within Claude Puel’s side, starting in a multitude of positions in Ligue 1. The forward played all over the attacking third, having spells on the wing, just behind the striker and as the main hitman, all helping Plea to earn 33 appearances in his debut season.
Plea’s goal-scoring record again was far from impressive enough to grab the headlines, scoring on just three occasions in the league last season, but his assist tally, while also going largely unnoticed, was more than impressive, especially at a club of Nice’s standing in 2014/15.
Plea notched up seven assists, with one coming in the club’s 2-1 win against Marseille, proving that the young Frenchman has a greater pallet of technical ability and awareness than his standout characteristics, a muscular frame and blistering pace, might initially suggest.
Having played six times during this new season, Plea has shown that he can become a focal point of this side. Two goals and two assists at the time of writing demonstrates that OGC Nice’s tactical shift to a formation that now sees them play without attacking wide men has benefited Plea.
Whilst the additions of Hatem Ben Arfa and Valere Germain ensure that Plea is surrounding himself with better attacking talent, his positional play and ability to hold the ball up has markedly improved over the summer.
His greatest display thus far this season was arguably against Ligue 1 new-boys ESTAC Troyes. Grabbing a goal and an assist in a 3-3 draw, Plea was a constant menace to the Troyes back-line, especially in the first half. It was he who earned Nice a penalty to draw level before scoring a wonderful goal from outside the box to put his side ahead.
His trickery and strength then forced Chris Mavinga to foul him for his second bookable offence and to cap off a magnificent 45 minutes, Plea put it a sublime cross for Maxime Le Marchand to nod home. Nice buckled towards the end but take nothing away from Plea’s attacking play, he was a real threat.
The 22-year-old is also starting to find the target on a more consistent basis; he has hit nine of his 20 shots on target, a massive improvement so far on his 26/64 conversion last season.
His increased accuracy in front of goal was showcased in his goal against Caen, after being played through, the forward surprised Remy Vercoutre with an early strike that bamboozled the Caen goalkeeper, resulting in an OGC Nice goal.
The apparent effortlessness with which Plea put the ball away made the goal look rather straightforward, but it was a decision that not many Ligue 1 strikers would have taken in fear that the goalkeeper might have anticipated the shot or due to a lack of belief in getting a clean enough swipe on the ball.
Plea has the confidence to express himself given to him by a manager that wholeheartedly believes in his ability and a fantastic team spirit within this current OGC Nice side.
It is difficult not to admire the gutsy approach Plea is taking to his football this season, with a willingness to hang off of the last defender up top, whilst retaining the appropriate foresight to spot the appropriate moments to drop deeper and acts as that crucial bridge between the midfield and attach.
He also likes to feed off short balls from the other frontman in Nice’s 4-1-2-1-2 whilst maintaining an awareness of where his attacking midfielders are. That latter trait will only improve as Puel’s first choice attacking troika of Ben Arfa, Germain and Pléa receives more competitive minutes on the pitch together.
Plea is also adroit cutting in from a wide position, with a desire to drift to either wing and deliver the occasional cross from either foot. Not only does this showcase his versatility but also demonstrates his abilities as a second striker, moving into the channels and feeding off the fox-in-the-box frontman that is Valere Germain.
The question is whether or not Plea will be able to further adapt this season to a target man role that Puel might occasionally desire from him when Les Aiglons come up against the less physical and more technical Ligue 1 defences. If he can continue to develop his aerial game then Plea can reach a new category of potential reserved only for the best strikers in the world.
His link-up play with Valere Germain has been excellent and the wily veteran (although only 25) will help Plea improve, but the fear remains that the former Lyon man is yet to command enough of a presence as a solo forward. Some might argue that this is an unnecessary issue because Nice will not be playing with a single striker this season, but it is essential for Plea’s future career, having already flirted with a Premier League move in recent transfer window.
For Nice, this will not hold him back because as a complimentary piece to other attacking players, Plea really is shining. He seems to have a great understanding with those around him, he wants to be a part of every attacking move and his assists along with his goals show that.
Plea turns 23 in March and he is reaching a point in his career where “potential” is no longer enough, he cannot be considered as merely a prospect for much longer. Therefore, it is crucial that Plea proves this season that he can consistently use his talent effectively for Nice in the form of goals and assists into double figures during the 2015/16 campaign.
He will likely not ever have a better chance to do so, with Nice boasting one of the most talented set of attacking players that they have arguably ever had during their illustrious history. If Plea can making a lasting contribution in what bodes to be an exciting season for Les Aiglons, he can dispel fears once and for all that he could turn into another of France’s ‘if only’ stories.