atrick Vieira has never been one to hold back but, after a cup defeat to lowly Le Mans last season, he was furious, telling the press he was “gobsmacked, disappointed and annoyed” by the result. During a game in the 2018-19 season, he used the half-time interval to tell his players: “We had a catastrophic first half in every capacity. If I could, I would substitute you all apart from three of you. I don’t give a shit about the score.”
Vieira will not have any more opportunities to criticise his players. Nice were knocked out of the Europa League last week following a 3-2 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen – their fifth loss in a row – and Vieira was sacked the following day. Despite being linked with the Arsenal job last year and coming through some difficult times at the Allianz Riviera, it was perhaps inevitable that his time at Nice would end unhappily.
This season, Vieira’s third with Nice, was judgement time for the 44-year-old. He arrived at the club in the summer of 2018 and both of his full seasons had been tempestuous, with turmoil above and below Vieira. He kept an unbalanced squad and ailing club together admirably, while achieving some respectable results.
Under Nice’s previous coaches, Claude Puel and Lucien Favre – who were guided by the club president Jean-Pierre Rivère and sporting director Julian Fournier – the team played an intelligent brand of football, forcing their way into the upper reaches of Ligue 1 and even challenging for the title in 2016-17. That success was built on meticulous scouting across European football’s cost-effective backwaters.
Building on such success would prove tricky for Vieira given that the team’s lynchpin, Jean-Michaël Seri, and the forward, Alassane Pléa, were sold upon his arrival. Nice’s early displays were inconsistent at best, with Vieira continually changing his team selections and formations. “The coach hasn’t yet found the formula to get the best performance possible,” said midfielder Wylan Cyprien after a 4-0 defeat to Dijon in August 2018.
Vieira had been uncertain about leaving New York City FC for Nice, but the presence of Rivère and Fournier at the club – as well as their success before he arrived – were crucial in convincing him. However, by February 2019, both of his key allies had resigned, citing an inability to work with new majority owner Chien Lee. “He took our departure badly,” Rivère later conceded.
Vieira’s future was repeatedly questioned in the aftermath of those departures, with his position weakened. Nevertheless, Nice finished seventh in Ligue 1 in Vieira’s first season, an impressive achievement given the owners’ refusal to strengthen an unbalanced squad. Having fallen out with Mario Balotelli, who forced a move to Marseille, Vieira was left in charge of a dull and uninspiring team. But they somehow scraped through, with unpredictable winger Allan Saint-Maximin providing their main goal threat.
Last season brought renewed hope. Ineos, the chemical company founded by British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, bought the club and brought back Rivère and Fournier. Vieira now had a supportive board and the ability to compete with some of France’s biggest clubs in the transfer market. The £30m spent on Kasper Dolberg and Alexis Claude-Maurice in the summer of 2019 was an early sign of intent. Nice again posted some respectable results, finishing fifth in the shortened 2019-20 Ligue 1 campaign and securing a place in the Europa League.
Despite that influx of creative talent, Nice were never truly convincing. Their defence, though solid, relied too often on the heroics of keeper Walter Benítez, and Vieira jumped from one formation to the next seemingly at random. Devoid of cohesion and creativity, Nice struggled to fashion chances for poacher Dolberg. Vieira’s philosophy was close to indecipherable.
When asked about his style of play by L’Équipe upon his arrival at the club in 2018, Vieira had been vague. “I’ll try to impose a style of play, with lots of one-twos, but play attacking football, all while having a compact defensive block,” he said. “Taking risks to score as many goals as possible is something that I am ready to do. What matters for me is getting the most out of my players while playing well. I don’t think there is any system or style of play that is better than another. Great coaches like Mourinho, Wenger or Guardiola have different philosophies, but they have all won, like Antonio Conte has done at Chelsea.”
Meanwhile, the development of young players – which had been central to Rivère’s model and expertly handled by Favre and Puel – stalled. Stanley Nsoki, a promising 21-year-old defender signed from PSG for €11m, was played out of position and struggled. Malang Sarr, once the next great hope for the club, was shifted around the team and was eventually allowed to leave on a free. And 22-year-old forward Alexis Claude-Maurice, who has been linked with Arsenal, regressed.
Nice’s recruitment has been baffling. The 21-year-old striker Ignatius Ganago looked promising but was sold to Lens this summer, where he has impressed with five goals so far this season. Important defender Christophe Hérelle was allowed to join Brest for a cut-price fee, leaving 37-year-old Dante as Nice’s only established centre-back. That decision looked even more foolish when Dante suffered an ACL tear in his left knee and was ruled out for six months. Key midfielder Wylan Cyprien joined Parma on loan and was not replaced.
This season was meant to be the true barometer for Vieira. Speaking in August, Nice CEO Bob Ratcliffe said: “Last season was something of a transition year. Dolberg came in late, a number of players, like Claude-Maurice, came in late.” With investment from Ineos, the hope was that Vieira would build a competitive squad. Morgan Schneiderlin joined from Everton; left-back Hassane Kamara arrived from Reims; thrilling young striker Amine Gouiri signed from Lyon; and forward Rony Lopes and attacking midfielder Jeff Reine-Adélaïde came in on loan. Since the start of last season Nice have spent more than £70m as part of the third highest net spend in Ligue 1 behind PSG and Monaco.
However, the team has disintegrated. They suffered an embarrassing exit from the Europa League in the group stage; they have conceded 30 goals in 17 games; and they have lacked creativity. Dolberg, who looks increasingly sulky, has only scored one goal in his last nine games. Vieira’s philosophy, amid his continually shifting set-up, remains uncertain. The 3-1 home defeat to bottom-of-the-table Dijon last weekend left the club 11th in Ligue 1. It was the last straw for some fans, who showed their disgust by turning up at the club’s training ground on Thursday and preventing the team bus from driving to the Europa League game against Bayer Leverkusen.
If Vieira had stayed, Nice might have forced their way into the top eight this season. But, with no clear strategy, it is difficult to see how they could have achieved any long-term success. The club had not sacked a manager midway through the season since 2011, which shows just how bad it had become. For an increasingly ambitious club, the performances simply became unacceptable.
Ligue 1 results
Lille 2-1 Monaco Angers 2-0 Lorient Bordeaux 1-0 Brest Dijon 0-0 St Etienne Nantes 0-4 Strasbourg Reims 0-0 Nice Metz 1-3 Lyon Rennes 0-2 Lens Montpellier 1-3 PSG Nîmes 0-2 Marseille
Monaco vice president Oleg Petrov joined us on the Presidents Podcast last week and shared some interesting thoughts on the club. Petrov says Monaco will play “the long-term game” for success under new sporting director Paul Mitchell. Petrov explained that Mitchell “impressed me as a person and as a professional – and a humble and intelligent man” when they met. Mitchell previously worked with RB Leipzig and Petrov thinks Monaco can learn from the German club. He said the goal under new manager Niko Kovac is to become “the most athletic team in France – an extremely fast and extremely aggressive team with quick transitions.”
Petrov also discussed the excellent contributions from Cesc Fàbregas so far this season, notably during the match against PSG. “It was an interesting game,” said Petrov. That is why people love football so much. Cesc is a very intelligent, smart player, with a lot of ambition, a lot of leadership qualities and it is really amazing how he made his entry, it is not the first time, but the first time in a game of this calibre, but on a couple of occasions his entry into the game brought about a good change. As it was rightly said, he is maybe not the fastest runner but he is still one of the fastest thinkers in the team.”
Petrov says the ambition at Monaco is to build a “structure that will stay for years [and] keep producing sporting results,” with owner Dmitry Rybolovlev recently investing majorly to improve youth facilities. After a few difficult years, Monaco finally seem to have found a consistent sense of purpose and strategy. They are on course to return to Europe’s top table once more.