smarterthinking

What's next for Nice's golden generation?

Ligue 1 has long been a happy hunting ground for Premier League clubs seeking young talent. Nicolas Anelka's arrival at Arsenal from Paris Saint-Germain made waves all the way back in 1997. In the winter of 2013, Alan Pardew led a "French Revolution" at Newcastle United by bringing in five Ligue 1 players for a total of less than £20m. This season, with the likes of Nicolas Pepe joining the Premier League for €80m, the pipeline is still flowing. Could a big valve be about to open at Nice?

The southern club led by Patrick Vieira have no fewer than five smarterscout young prospects in their squad, which is something not many clubs in the world can say. These players are all under age 23 and were getting regular minutes before the league went on pause, and each of them has a profile that suggests he could go on to star at a higher level. Two of them play CB, and here are their stats at a Premier League standard:

Link-up play is a big emphasis for Malang Sarr and Andy Pelmard, and this will become a theme.... Both can take the ball forward themselves and have very good ball retention, but Sarr has the better passing range. Neither is particularly active in the air. Sarr also plays LB, where he platoons with another young prospect, former PSG starlet Stanley N'Soki:

N'Soki also has excellent ball retention, and both players do about as much link-up passing as any LB in Ligue 1. Yet as among the players at CB, their overall numbers both attacking and defending are far from impressive. They're young!

Now let's move forward and look at the forwards. Alexis Claude-Maurice is a right-footed 21-year-old who typically plays inverted on the left but can also operate centrally. Not surprisingly, his output in attack is best by the standards of a LM:

Like Sarr, Nsoki, and Pelmard, Claude-Maurice can also take the ball forward. His ball retention is outstanding, and so is his finishing. But he doesn't create many opportunities for himself.

Again, Vieira is asking for tons of link-up play. Perhaps his stint coaching for City Football Group – or his time playing for Arsene Wenger – gave him a distinct taste for walking the ball into the goal. That's a bit of a problem, though, if your name is Kasper Dolberg. The Danish international striker was part of Ajax's dominant squad last season, but Vieira's style seems to have taken the stuffing out of his game. Here's a comparison of this season and last, both at a Premier League standard:

In the Eredivisie, Dolberg was the ultimate target man. No one received the ball in the box and shot more than he did. Being at Ajax, he did have to link up some. But this season, he's being asked to do it much more. Just look at these smartermaps for both seasons:

Rather than just doing some short passing on the left, as he did last season, Dolberg is now passing from slightly deeper areas on the left, closer to the middle of the pitch, and is also being asked to pass from the right. He's just not getting into the box as much.

Of course, Nice isn't as dominant in Ligue 1 as Ajax were in the Eredivisie. And it's impressive that Vieira has given plenty of minutes to these young, relatively raw players and has still placed Nice sixth in the Ligue 1 table. Yet his style of play feels like it's more about developing the close control of these young players than it is about securing a place in the Champions League. That's great news for the players and will surely increase their eventual value to the squad or in the transfer market. But is it what the Nice bosses want?

[Photo: Simon Heseltine]

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