The story of the underdog is the feel-good story. Witnessing the little guy rise above and be counted amongst those with money, prestige, and tradition, if but for a moment, is a story which inspires positive headlines all round.
We’ve seen them in tennis, golf, cricket and boxing; you name it. Just last season we were able to live through one of the greatest underdog stories of all time in England’s top football league, as Leicester City completed a highly improbable title winning season. This was one season removed from fighting the relegation fight. Underdog stories maintain their charm partly because they are few and far in between. For the most part, the status quo holds. This season we have been blessed with two across football’s top leagues. RP Leipzig lead the might of Bayern Munich in Germany, and in France we have the story of Nice.
Olympique Gymnaste Club Nice Côte d’Azur, or OGC Nice for short, was founded in 1904 originally as Gymnaste Club de Nice. One of the founding members in France’s top division, Nice have been Ligue 1 champions on four occasions and Coupe de France winners three times. They know success; well, they knew success. The last of those triumphs came in the Coupe de France in 1997 and Ligue 1 all the way back in 1959. They were fourth last season. The problem is that this was all of 33 points behind an utterly dominant Paris Saint Germain who boasted a +83 goal difference in what was their fourth consecutive title. Leicester City were way back in 14th position in 2014/15, but were 38 points behind second placed Manchester City and a further eight behind runaway winners Chelsea. What Nice is trying to do is a slightly lower magnitude of reversal on a team whose only major loss was Zlatan Ibrahimović. As combined squad transfer fees go, Nice, the youngest squad in Ligue 1 with an average age of 23.7 years, stands 9th with €18.35m compared to PSG’s €428m, and Monaco‘s €138.75m.
Another Favre, quite a Pléa, and the makings of a true team
The name Favre is synonymous with sporting excellence. More associated with the legendary American football quarterback, Brett Favre, the name is gaining fresh light in the European version which is truly the global game. Whilst not being a household name, Lucien Favre, the Switzerland native who is a former midfielder himself, nurtured the careers of Marco Reus, and Barcelona goalkeeper, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, during his time at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Then, Favre inherited a side mired at the bottom of the Bundesliga with just 16 points after 22 games and piloted them to safety before finishes of eighth, sixth, third and fourth in the seasons to follow.
The German club largely have his stewardship to thank for their resurgence despite him having left soon after a horrific start to the 2015/16 campaign. He is now doing another improbable job in France. However, he had some help and can thank his predecessor for his input. Now Southampton manager, Claude Puel, was instrumental in beginning to turn around the team’s fortunes. The similarities in their styles have made the transition easier and Favre has hit the ground running. Both favour a high-tempo, fluid attacking game that is more reminiscent of this year’s refreshing English team, Liverpool, than last years’ small ball-playing Leicester City.
Nice began the season with 4-3-3 formation. However, Dante’s signing from Wolfsburg meant that three centre backs in teenager Malang Sarr, club captain Paul Baysse and Dante were now preferred, and the fullbacks were then allowed the freedom of wingbacks. An injury to the captain has meant a move back to 4-3-3 and this has allowed the attacking trio of Alassane Pléa, Mario Balotelli, and Younès Belhanda to thrive.
Although Nice finished fourth last season, the gap behind the winners meant that they were never seen as contenders in a league dominated by the Paris club. The club lost rejuvenated Hatem Ben Arfa to none other than PSG. Add the losses of Nampalys Mendy to last year’s fairy-tale Leicester, and loanee Valère Germain, and an unlikely task was seemingly made that much more improbable.
The French team are built on youth and reinforced by experience. Favre has had the confidence in youth to start seven players 23 years and younger in more than half their matches. From this group, the standouts have been young Frenchmen Wylan Cyprien (maybe their best player this season), Pléa, in-demand right back/right winger Ricardo Pereira, and goalkeeper Yoan Cardinale. Balotelli’s re-emergence is garnering a lot of attention because of his previous exploits but Plea is also proving to be quite the player for Nice this season, already with seven goals coming every 124 minutes.
What Nice has done this season to bolster their team has been wise and may have flown under the radar. An astute transfer strategy that whilst appearing to release their talisman players, opened the way for the remaining existing players to flourish and for the new arrivals to shine. Pereira is making use of being reverted to a more favoured position after the departure of Jérémy Pied to Southampton and he is now the subject of apparent interest from Italian giants Juventus. Sarr may only be 17 years old but he’s in the team on merit. He’s managed to start every game, another indication of Favre’s trust in youth if they’re good enough. Having the experience of now 32-year-old Dante alongside him has made his internship and full introduction run even more smoothly, with both combining with the club captain to arrest what has been a problem area for Nice. The club have conceded eight goals after 13 rounds; an average of 0.67 per game, compared to 1.08 and 1.39 per game in 2015/16 and 2014/15, respectively.
Even then, there have been sterling contributions from the tireless (Leicester City anyone?) Ivorian Jean Michael Seri, the Moroccan Belhanda, and Baysse amongst others. It has been a true team effort which has spilled over to those who were the unlikely signings, none more than Mario Balotelli.
Super Mario returns
So much has been written and said about this enigmatic footballer. At first he was the enigma bad boy who had this prodigious talent that we all assumed would be explosive if he could be tamed. The boy-man had stints at some of the top clubs across Europe and worked with some of the game’s best managers, but there was disappointment after disappointment and the world forgot about Mario for quite some time. He was done, a failure along the lines of Ravel Morrison. Story closed. Wait…
In the world of Super Mario nothing is ever certain, but his seeming revival does send a beacon of hope to his many fans and well-wishers. For all his bad behaviour, making headlines for the wrong reasons, and just being a general annoyance to his managers, Mario has always inspired a following. Whether it be his endearing ultra-calm penalty kicks, his non-celebration celebration of goals or moments like the assist to Sergio Agüero that was a source of joy for most who don’t support Manchester United and the supreme celebration against Germany in the 2012 Euros; many just love to support him.
His start is promising; OGC Nice have started promisingly. There are signs of weakness in the fact that they’re leading the league on the back of seven one goal victories from 10 in total and on less chances created (9.25 per game) than Leicester City (10.16 per game) did last season or 60% of the 15.33 per game created by Liverpool this season. They also shoot less than both which is remarkable given how little of the ball Leicester had. Working on their favour is the fact that their defence is conceding just over half as much as Liverpool and less still than Leicester did.
Regardless of outcome, Lucien Favre is attempting to pull a Swiss job in France against the money of Monaco and Paris, and we wish them well. Nice going.