After a busy summer transfer market in Ligue 1, most teams look radically different, especially those at the top of the table. PSG lead the way – more than half of 15 players who took to the pitch during their 4-1 win over Lyon joined this summer – but they are far from alone. Marseille (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ismaïla Sarr, Iliman Ndiaye), Lens (Elye Wahi, Andy Diouf, Stijn Spierings) and Rennes (Ludovic Blas, Nemanja Matic, Enzo Le Fée) have also invested heavily.
League leaders Monaco used the money they made from selling Axel Disasi to Chelsea to bring in a few new faces. And even Reims, dark horses for a top-six finish under Will Still, have not been shy with their chequebook, spending €50m on players this summer, even if much of that is balanced by the sale of Hugo Ekitiké to PSG.
Nice, though, have barely budged, despite the arrival of new manager Francesco Farioli, a somewhat surprising successor to Didier Digard. A lot of the deadwood in the squad has been jettisoned, with Kasper Dolberg, Calvin Stengs and Ross Barkley all leaving, and loanees such as Nicolas Pépé and Joe Bryan returning to their parent clubs.
The attacking midfielder Jérémie Boga, formerly of Sassuolo and Atalanta, was the club’s only marquee arrival this summer. Morgan Sanson and Romain Perraud look like canny additions who will add experience and depth in midfield and at left-back, respectively, but neither has box office appeal. The team that Farioli put out against Strasbourg on Sunday consisted of 10 players who were at the club last season and Sanson, who started because Khéphren Thuram was unavailable in midfield.
Crucially, Jean-Clair Todibo, who was the subject of sustained interest from abroad this summer, has stayed. He put in a magnificent performance in defence as Nice won 2-0, maintaining their unbeaten start to the season. Todibo and the ageless Dante act as a de facto double pivot, their range of passing from the back allowing the midfielders to concentrate on controlling the game and winning duels.
Nice have used the familiar 4-3-3 deployed by Lucien Favre and Digard last season. And like last season, they are solid defensively – they had the second best defensive record in the league last season after Lens and no team has conceded fewer goals so far in this campaign. Four games in, they have conceded twice.
Farioli arrived with the reputation of being a more attack-minded manager – someone who could produce more goals from the front three of Sofiane Diop, Terem Moffi and Gaëtan Laborde. An acolyte of Roberto De Zerbi, under whom he worked at Benevento and Sassuolo, Farioli has often preferred a 4-2-3-1. One would think this was behind the signing of Boga, as it would allow Diop to play centrally, but it also raises questions about the central midfielders. Thuram would likely partner Hicham Boudaoui or Youssouf Ndayishimiye, but given the France international’s dynamism, it may be a waste to play him in such a deep-lying role.
A 4-2-3-1 may limit the potential involvement of Youcef Atal, the attacking right-back. The Algeria international was sensational a couple of years ago and was linked with a €40m move to Tottenham. Injuries have held him back since, but his goal on Sunday – an Arjen Robben-like turn inside – offered a firm reminder of his talent. He would not be as potent an attacking weapon if picked alongside a two-man midfield with no recognised holding player.
Terem Moffi scored one goal against Strasbourg and probably should have had two. The powerful but mobile striker is a fulcrum for the team, often dropping deep to hold up the ball and let runners move beyond him. He opens up space for the full-backs and for the likes of Diop and Laborde to come infield. Slight tweaks like this, and the use of Atal in a freer role, suggest that Farioli is constructing his team with the same patience that his players showed on the pitch.
The changes are necessarily incremental. “It’s part of a journey,” says the manager. “We are asking this team to do something that wasn’t really in its DNA. The players are getting closer and improving. Their growth shows in terms of awareness, and the ability of midfielders and defenders to manage the game.” This progressive thinking, balancing swashbuckling attacking play with aggressive pressing without making too many changes to a settled squad, should continue to pay dividends.
Farioli’s progressive philosophy is increasingly common in Ligue 1, with managers such as Still, Hütter and Franck Haise all succeeding with a similar approach. Matches against PSG and Monaco after the international break will prove far sterner tests for Nice but, even at this early stage, Faroli is striking a good balance with his side, by melding his approach with his players’ individual talent and familiarity with one another.
If this is Kylian Mbappé wanting away, what would he be like if he wanted to stay? Yes, Lyon were missing several key players but the champions could not have turned in a more complete attacking performance, racing to a 4-0 lead in the first half, with Mbappé scoring a brace. There is still plenty of uncertainty about his future but, after a bumpy start to the season, PSG appear to be going through the gears. Unseating them domestically will be tough and, with a revamped defence, they could be tough opponents in Europe this season.
What a difference a summer makes. Monaco fell apart spectacularly in the run-in last season, losing five of their final seven matches to slide from Champions League hopefuls to missing out on Europe entirely. Their draw with Nantes last weekend dampened some of the enthusiasm aftera fast start, but Hütter’s side offered an immediate riposte against Lens, comprehensively beating last year’s second-place side to retain a two-point cushion at the top of the table.
Finally, what’s going wrong at Rennes? The Breton side invested heavily this summer, bringing in Ludovic Blas and Enzo Le Fée, but are yet to impress, with just one win in four matches. Martin Terrier’s return from a long-term injury should give the attack a focal point but, with European football returning after the international break, as well as tricky matches against Lille and PSG in the next month, they should be higher in the table than they are given their outlay.