Christophe Galtier’s new-look Nice leave Ligue 1 champions Lille in a spin

The French poet Paul Valéry once wrote that “nothing beautiful can be summarised”. While there is some merit in this idea, it’s hardly a sufficient way to approach football journalism. So, when appraising Christophe Galtier’s return to Lille on Saturday as Nice manager, words will sadly have to suffice as a proxy for the football his new team played in their 4-0 thrashing of his former side.

The scoreline flattered the hosts. Nice could have scored more. Kasper Dolberg had a shot crash off the crossbar early on and Lille goalkeeper Léo Jardim made several fine saves. The fact that Lille could be so soundly beaten, even though they fielded a similar team to the one that won the title last season, was something of a shock. They conceded three goals in a game just once last season; they have already done it twice this season.

There had been hints of their malaise in their trip to Metz last weekend, when they conceded three goals and needed a stoppage-time equaliser from Burak Yilmaz to escape with a point. Yes, the champions have said goodbye to some players over the summer, with Mike Maignan moving to Milan and Boubakary Soumaré joining Leicester, but the team did not look that different to the one that captured the title in May.

However, the truth is more complicated. With Renato Sanches absent due to a knee injury and Xeka also injured, new Lille manager Jocelyn Gourvennec turned to Yusuf Yazici in midfield. Like his Turkish teammates, Yilmaz and Zeki Çelik, Yazici had a challenging summer with his country, having been eliminated from the European Championship in disappointing fashion.

Fellow midfielder Benjamin André was quick to brush off the suggestion that Yazici would struggle in this role, saying the team would “make the difference collectively.” But struggle he did, as Nice’s midfield, composed of summer arrivals Mario Lemina and Pablo Rosario, overran André and Yazici. The Lille defence was also at sea as a result, with the normally solid pairing of José Fonte and Sven Botman struggling to communicate, and getting little help from the full-backs.

There is still time for Lille. They did not click into gear immediately last season, and their new signing Amadou Onana needs time to settle, so we should not judge them too early. But what about Galtier’s new team? Nice spent heavily in the summer, reinforcing their midfield and also bringing in wide players Calvin Stengs and Justin Kluivert. Defender Jean-Clair Todibo’s loan move from Barcelona was also made permanent. With Stengs injured and the loanee Kluivert continuing the same fitful form as he has displayed in previous spells at Roma and RB Leipzig, it fell to Dolberg and Amine Gouiri to lead the attack.

Dolberg impressed mightily in his first season in France in 2019-2020, scoring 11 goals in 23 starts before the season’s premature end and looking every bit the player who was so instrumental in helping Ajax reach the Europa League final in 2017. However, last season was a tough one for the Dane. In addition to having an expensive watch stolen by one of the club’s youth players, he also had his car stolen, was the victim of a home invasion, had a case of appendicitis and contracted Covid-19. That Dolberg managed to make 25 appearances last season was really something of a miracle.

Now, though, after some fine performances at the European Championship, Dolberg looks every bit the player he was two seasons ago – if not better. He is powerful, has a good touch and is a clinical finisher, making him an ideal physical centre-forward. He lacked support in previous seasons but, with Gouiri now fit, their relationship can blossom.

Not every opponent will be as obliging as Lille were on Saturday, but Galtier keeps reinventing his style of football to be more positive and bring the best from the attacking talent he has at his disposal. He did it at Lille and is now repeating the trick at Nice. In the same way that Yilmaz and Jonathan David formed a partnership based on their complementary skills (physicality and dribbling), the same seems to be happening between Dolberg and Gouiri.

Add in the parallels of a defence composed of an elder statesman and promising youngster in Dante and Todibo, as well as some exciting attack-minded full-backs (Youcef Atal on the right, and one of Melvin Bard or Hassane Kamara on the left), and the likeness of this Nice side to Lille of last season only grows.

That is not to suggest that Galtier can make Nice title challengers but, with many of their rivals for European places off to middling starts and involved in other competitions, it would be no surprise to see Nice among the sides chasing PSG – with Galtier again responsible for an impressive revival.

Marseille once again thrilled at the Vélodrome, roaring into a 2-0 lead against Bordeaux thanks to goals from Dimitri Payet and Cengiz Ünder. That thrill, though, was short-lived. Bordeaux roared back to draw the match 2-2, with Marseille’s Leonardo Balerdi being sent off late on. While this newly revamped Marseille side have been cracking going forward, and remain unbeaten, conceding four goals in two matches is hardly encouraging. Jorge Sampaoli has plenty of work to do to help this talented group reach their potential.

Unlike Marseille, Clermont Foot have looked surprisingly solid at the back. The promoted side are yet to concede a goal and sit level at the top of the table with PSG and Angers. They have won both of their first two matches, something no promoted side has done in 50 years in France. Tougher tests than Troyes or Bordeaux will come, but early signs are encouraging for Pascal Gastien’s side.

Lyon should offer Clermont a tough test when they meet on Sunday but they have not yet hit their stride under new manager Peter Bosz. Lyon were abject again this weekend, losing 3-0 at Angers. They were missing Jason Denayer, and both Lucas Paquetá and Bruno Guimarães are still coming back to full fitness after a busy summer. They had some fine moments in attack, with Angers keeper Paul Bernardoni having to be sharp on occasion, but their defence looked every bit at sea as it did in pre-season. Bosz has urged patience, telling the media “we’re not ready yet”, but the Dutchman may already be on borrowed time.

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