PROFILE | Highly-coveted Jean-Clair Todibo ready to be taken out of his comfort zone

Jean-Clair Todibo’s career began with a failure, however, he hasn’t allowed himself to be defined by that tumultuous spell at Barcelona. At OGC Nice, he is in his comfort zone, however, with considerable Premier League interest in the France international, he may soon be pried away from his safe space. However, unlike when he left Toulouse FC as a teenager, he is now primed to succeed when the seemingly inevitable Ligue 1 departure takes form.

Todibo’s Barcelona move undoubtedly came too soon. The prophecy of solidifying his place in the Catalan defence was not realised, and instead, the unpolished diamond was consigned to a nomadic existence. Having struggled at Schalke and then Benfica, the Frenchman was in dire need of stability. He found that at Nice. 

Back in France, Todibo has rebuilt a career that was left in tatters. Firstly on loan and then on a permanent deal, Todibo has now gone on to make 117 appearances for Les Aiglons. During his three-year spell with the club, he has rebuilt his reputation and the positive career trajectory has been re-established. 

Todibo’s gratitude towards Nice is evidence enough of a maturity that was sorely lacking when he made the move to Barcelona after just 10 professional appearances for Le TéFéCé. “I don’t have a short memory. I know what the club gave me when I arrived. I have the trust of a club with whom I have flourished and the possibility to perform in France,” he told L’Équipe in September. Francesco Farioli also clearly sees a leader in Todibo, electing him vice-captain upon his arrival in the summer.

Todibo growing alongside the experienced Dante

Alongside Dante, a perfect mentor for a player who needed to develop mentally and tactically, Todido has made huge strides in past years. “Playing with him is great because I really benefit from it,” said Todibo after a win against FC Metz in October, describing his centre-back partner as “a book” – Todibo would do well to emulate some of the chapters written by Champions League winner Dante. 

Despite his advanced years, it is in fact 40-year-old Dante who is the more progressive defender of the two with the ball at his feet, but Todibo is still the third-highest progressive carrying distance in Ligue 1 this season. 

Dante is also the more progressive passer of the two. Todibo says that he is still learning from the Brazilian, and he would do well to pick up his teammate’s progressive attributes in possession. In Ligue 1, Todibo is nonetheless still an elite progressor, even if in this regard, he is the weaker of the two Nice centre-backs. 

However, Dante has his faults. He recalls playing under Pep Guardiola and being scared of the space in behind when playing a high line. At 40, Dante’s lack of pace can be exposed now more than ever, but Todibo’s recovery speed, positional awareness, anticipation and reading of the play are exemplary, allowing him to cover the space in behind his partner and cut out threats. 

Todibo is by no means an error-prone defender, but his pace allows him to make up for any error in possession, as he did against Lille OSC in January, sprinting over half the length of the pitch to make a last-ditch recovery interception, preventing a certain goal. 

The France international is also an astute tackler and uses his body well to dispossess dribblers when in full flight. Despite in many regards typifying the ‘modern defender’, Todibo has a much firmer grasp of the essentials of defending, relative to counterparts of a similar age. 

Once again, Dante has certainly played a role in this development. The Brazilian has been a constant amidst a backdrop of instability and managerial change at the club. Todibo has played under five managers in his three years with Les Aiglons, and so within this context, Dante’s role as a mentor, almost a manager, has been heightened and his influence perhaps more exaggerated than it would have been within a more stable context. 

It is just as much the symbiotic, complementary relationship that he shares with Dante as the environment at the club that have created the conditions for the Frenchman’s rebirth. 

Todibo is in his comfort zone, but given his accelerated growth in recent months, he may soon need to step out of it. His choice to remain with Le Gym could easily be interpreted as a reticence to test himself, but it is much more likely to be a wariness of making another faux pas in his career, just as he did when he left Toulouse for Barcelona. 

Todibo forces his way into Deschamps’ plans

“I didn’t want to make the wrong choice. I wait for people to present me with full projects. What is expected of me? Why bring me in? You can’t arrive at a club like that. I know what I have at Nice. Why step into the unknown,” said Todibo in September following reported late interest from Manchester United. 

He admitted that he may have needed to make a move in order to break into the France set-up ahead of EURO 2024, however, he has managed to do that while at Nice. Todibo started against Gibraltar in November, and according to reports, would have started against Greece, if not for an injury. Didier Deschamps clearly wanted to get a good look at Todibo, suggesting that he won’t only be a part of Les Bleus‘ squad in Germany at the end of the season, but could even be in contention for a start. 

Todibo is convincing Deschamps, and he is also convincing Europe’s top sides that his worthy of their significant investment. Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea are all linked with a move for the Frenchman this January. Todibo, a pillar of the best defence in Ligue 1 this season, is now capable of succeeding wherever he goes. He may have failed at Barcelona, but that shouldn’t – and won’t – ward off suitors. Nice pulled Todibo in from the cold and turned a once-lost boy into the best defender in Ligue 1 and a France international – he is a different person and player to the one that left Barcelona and he is ready for the next step. 

GFFN | Luke Entwistle

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