Nice players were quick to toe a line of togetherness and self-flagellation after their 4-0 home defeat to Dijon. Captain Dante was at once blunt and prosaic: “It hurts a lot, it’s hard, but we mustn’t lower our heads. We have to increase our level of concentration. We missed a lot of chances, but next time we can put them away. We must show character, even if there are things to say to each other, especially after going down 2-0. In front, in attack, we are all responsible.”
Midfielder Wylan Cyprien, 12 years younger and less experienced than his captain, was less diplomatic, saying: “The coach hasn’t yet found the formula to get the best performance possible. It hurts, especially at home, but I’m staying positive.”
With just one goal and one point from matches against Dijon, Caen and Reims, Nice certainly haven’t found the right formula. While the suspension of Mario Balotelli has not helped – he is available to face Lyon on Friday – their insipid start to the season is frustrating. Patrick Vieira was moderately successful for New York City FC in MLS but Nice are quickly becoming a club in crisis.
They clearly miss the departed midfielder Alassane Pléa, a more-than-able deputy for Balotelli last season, who signed for Borussia Mönchengladbach in the summer. The lack of a focal point in attack has proved exasperating so far this season. Myziane Maolida is an intriguing prospect, but he does not have the physicality or hold-up play required to lead the line; Allan Saint-Maximin remains a brilliant presence in the final third, but he is also ill-suited at the head of a 4-3-3.
Vieira has done little to give his team any sort of focus, despite having had a full pre-season and no absences as a result of the World Cup – a luxury most other ambitious Ligue 1 sides in have not enjoyed. He has retained Lucien Favre’s possession-oriented 4-3-3, but how he has populated it has been a source of frustration, starting at the back.
The departure of Maxime Le Marchand to Fulham was a disappointing one, but Olivier Boscagli seemed to show enough on loan at Nîmes last season to warrant being given a chance at left-back, while Christophe Herelle looked like a capable centre-back partner for Dante in front of the enigmatic Malang Sarr. At right-back, Arnaud Souquet has been absent owing to contract issues, but Patrick Burner has shown enough in the season’s early stages to warrant a place in the team.
Herelle played on Saturday but did little to distinguish himself, being thoroughly embarrassed twice by the Dijon forward Jules Keita. He was far from the only defender worthy of criticism. Adrien Tameze, a defensive midfielder by trade, was a shambles at right-back. Tameze has looked like a capable midfielder since joining Nice last summer, but in losing Nayef Aguerd for Dijon’s opener and being spun with ease by Keita, he proved a disappointment in Vieira’s experimental side.
Things were no better in central midfield, where Pierre Lees-Melou had been shunted from the right wing to the left side of central midfielder, with Cyprien and Danilo enduring a confusing evening as they tried to negotiate the space in midfield. Dijon, particularly the youngster Enzo Loiodice, worked hard at breaking up Nice’s midfield triangles, but Vieira’s unwillingness to settle on a first choice XI should shoulder the bulk of the blame for his side’s poor start.
Balotelli’s suspension was not a surprise and the manager could have organised the attack in pre-season. Saint-Maximin started as the nominal centre-forward, even though Maolida had been earmarked for this role. The lack of continuity had echoes of France’s debacle against Australia at the World Cup, with three similar players (Saint-Maximin, Bassem Srarfi and Maolida) struggling to not only find space or combine with each other.
Dijon were less than obliging opponents, but the way Vieira changed his system and personnel smacked of desperation. Reims, Dijon and Caen should have been an ideal start to what was looking like a promising season. However, by chopping and changing, Vieira has left a clearly talented squad in danger of a relegation battle.
Balotelli’s return should improve Nice’s fortunes, but his injury and suspension record mean an alternative should have been firmly in place, rather than the improvised XIs of the past three weeks. With the international break and the return of Balotelli, Vieira will have time to whip his squad into shape, but even with these mitigating circumstances, it is hardly far-fetched to call Nice the first crisis club of the season in Ligue 1.
• Ominously, PSG are already top of the table with maximum points. For their latest victory, 3-1 at home to Angers, Thomas Tuchel moved away from the near ubiquitous 4-3-3 of previous eras, adopting the 3-4-1-2 he trialled in pre-season. There were obvious growing pains, with an unusually open first half forcing Tuchel back to 4-3-3, but there were also hints of progress. Kylian Mbappé and Edinson Cavani looked dangerous as a pair and Neymar was elusive in behind. However, the use of Ángel Di María as a wing-back and the decision to play Marquinhos at the base of midfield may need some revision. Nevertheless, with some cohesion, a more dynamic and unpredictable PSG could be a puzzling prospect for the rest of Europe after Christmas.
• While discussions continue, the decision on the part of a pair of Bordeaux fans who arrived for their side’s win over Monaco with “Henry 14” emblazoned on their shirts may prove a little premature. Having met with prospective American buyers this week and with Arsène Wenger’s encouragement, the Arsenal icon’s appointment as the new Bordeaux coach seemed imminent. However, negotiations have stalled as investment fund GACP aren’t willing to match Henry’s salary demands nor do they agree on the number of signings that should be made before the end of the window. Claudio Ranieri and Antonio Conte have been contacted should any deal evaporate.
• Having won both of their opening games, promoted sides Nîmes and Reims were stopped in their tracks this weekend. Ten-man Reims, who started their season with wins over Lyon and Nice, were eventually demolished 4-1 by Amiens. Nîmes lost 1-0 to Toulouse, a scoreline that flattered the newly promoted side. Nîmes did not have a shot on target as Manchester City loanee Manu García shone in midfield for Toulouse. Survival may not prove as simple as the newcomers had previously made it seem.
Ligue 1 results
Lyon 2-0 Strasbourg
PSG 3-1 Angers
Amiens 4-1 Reims
Montpellier 0-0 St Étienne
Nantes 1-1 Caen
Nice 0-4 Dijon
Toulouse 1-0 Nîmes
Lille 3-0 Guingamp
Bordeaux 2-1 Monaco
Marseille 2-2 Rennes