From the outside, Nice appear to be in trouble. They have lost their coach, Claude Puel, who qualified them for Europe last season while playing the most entertaining football in Ligue 1.
The have also lost their three most important players from last season: Ben Arfa, Germain and Nampalys Mendy with the latter being a little underappreciated yet he was vital to Nice’s success last season. Coming in to replace them have been players such as Wylan Cyprien, Arnaud Lusamba and Anastasios Donis.
While these new players are talented and have good potential they lack the pedigree and experience with which to replace the output of players like Ben Arfa. Factor in the added fatigue of playing in Europe, and one could not be blamed for thinking that Nice’s season is doomed to failure. However, there is one factor that cannot be underestimated, and that is the coaching ability of Lucien Favre.
Lucien Favre is no stranger to challenges. When he took over at Borussia Monchengladbach in 2011, they were bottom of the table with 16 points after 22 games played. The appointment was quite a surprise because of Gladbach poor league position.
Favre was highly regarded for having taken Hertha Berlin within inches of qualifying for the Champions league after a long fight for the title just two years ago. Nobody expected him to save Gladbach. The expectation was that he would put together a team that could achieve immediate promotion from 2. Bundesliga.
Thanks to his efforts however, they managed to qualify for a relegation playoff against Bochum. They won 2-1 on aggregate thus defending their place in the Bundesliga. The next season, Gladbach exploded onto the scene, finishing fourth and qualifying for the Champions league thanks mainly to the efforts of talented young players such as Marco Reus and Marc Andre Ter-Stegen.
However, at the start of the 2012-2013 season, Reus was signed by Dortmund and Gladbach started the season by being knocked out of the Champions league playoff. Their disappointing season continued when they only finished 8th in the Bundesliga. Gladbach improved greatly during the 2013-2014 season and finished 6th thanks to the astute signings of Raffael, Max Kruse and Christoph Kramer.
The 2014-2015 season was Favre’s most successful at Gladbach, as they finished 3rd directly qualifying for the Champions league and stunned the Bundesliga with their organized counterattacking style. Unfortunately Gladbach began the 2015-2016 season disastrously and Favre abruptly quit. Despite the sour note Favre ended on, he will always be remembered for taking a relegation threatened club and taking them to the Champions league in just four years.
One of Favre’s main strengths is his tactical ability. During his time at Gladbach he favoured a 4-4-2 formation which relied on intense defensive discipline and quick incisive counterattacks.
This was best showcased during the brilliant 2-0 win against Bayern Munich during the 2014-2015 season. Nice, on the other hand, played a much more attacking style of play under Claude Puel. This was especially evident during the 2015-2016 season when they played a 4-1-2-1-2 shape with an emphasis on possession.
Ben Arfa usually started in the number 10 role, but with freedom to roam and Germain and Plea playing upfront. Nampalys Mendy was also essential playing as the lone defensive midfielder and shielding the centre-backs.
This was very important because Nice’s main weakness last season was their central defence. However, one wonders if after losing Germain and Ben Arfa who scored 31 league goals combined and the solidity that Mendy provided, Nice can continue to play so expansively this season.
This is why hiring Favre is a masterstroke. He may not be the most exciting manager, but with the players at his disposal, playing a more counterattacking style is much more feasible. He will certainly make them more defensively solid, which will make them much harder to play against, especially in Europe.
If there’s one thing Puel and Favre have in common, it’s their faith in youth. Puel has a long track record of giving young players opportunities with Koziello and Cardinale benefiting from this policy last season. During his time at Gladbach, Favre developed young players such as Reus, Ter-Stegen, Kramer and Xhaka.
This will be welcomed at Nice considering that the average age of the squad is just 23. Players like Koziello and Cardinale will continue to develop under Favre, while Alassane Plea will hope to have a breakthrough season and become a consistent goalscorer under his tutelage.
Nice are facing an uphill battle this season. The losses of Ben Arfa, Germain and Mendy will hurt, and qualifying for Europe again this season will most likely be a struggle. However, Nice fans should have reason for optimism.
By appointing Favre, Nice have taken a huge step towards continuing Claude Puel’s legacy, cementing their position as one of the best teams in Ligue 1, and maybe some day playing in the Champions League!