“We can’t allow ourselves to look at the table or to dream,” were the words of Franceso Farioli in the wake of OGC Nice’s derby-day victory over AS Monaco. The comment felt out of kilter with the euphoric optimism that has surrounded Les Aiglons’ in recent weeks, but Farioli is less a pessimist and more a realist.
The table makes for pleasant reading for Nice. Farioli’s side are second, one point off table-toppers Stade Brestois, are one of only two unbeaten sides in the league, and have the strongest defence in the division having conceded just four goals in their opening six games.
It took a little time for Nice to hit their stride, but they are now on a three-game winning run. Victory against RC Strasbourg Alsace just before the international break got the proverbial monkey off Farioli’s back, but it is their form since that has sewn the sides of optimism at the Allianz Riviera.
A surprising but deserved victory over Paris Saint-Germain was followed by a victory against Les Monégasques on Friday, and temporarily at least, sent them top of the table. Both Luis Enrique and Adi Hütter have praised Farioli’s side’s pressing, undoubtedly the strongest facet of this new project. “We really couldn’t get out of our own half in the first 20 minutes. Credit to Nice’s young coach, they did really well in the press,” said Monaco’s manager on Friday.
Despite the novelty of the systems implemented, Nice’s players, especially their forwards, have quickly adapted and are already stifling teams. If not for Sofiane Diop’s profligacy, the press would have allowed Nice to take the lead just three minutes in against Monaco, but Morgan Sanson’s intelligent interception went unrewarded.
“We aren’t the favourites” – Farioli
But there is a commonality between Monaco and PSG in that they both like to build from the back. Not all teams adhere to this philosophy, which in other divisions has become the standard. Other sides will begin to notice this and adapt. Monaco’s most dangerous moments came when they were more vertical, and there is no doubt that there is a vulnerability to the long ball. Despite Dante’s age, Nice deploy a high line and that does leave space to exploit. Jean-Clair Todibo certainly has the recovery pace, but Dante does not. Perhaps rivals’ adaptation to Nice’s playing style was what Farioli was referring to when he said, “Difficulties will await us. We have to anticipate them and know how to avoid them and continue to work, as we’ve done so far, perhaps even more.”
Farioli has begun brightly at Nice, but the 34-year-old may already have reached a point where he has to adapt his playing style to counter his opponent’s response. Monaco and PSG are also two sides that press themselves. More often than not, Nice had the solutions to this, however, there are many sides in Ligue 1 that are happy to sit in a low block. This was the case against Lyon. Farioli wants to invite the opponent into the press before bypassing it, but when the opponent is unwilling to press, Nice look at best ponderous, if not lost in possession. This weakness has not been evident since a 0-0 draw against Laurent Blanc’s Lyon, but it is one that will rear its head again soon, perhaps even against Brest this weekend.
That match will be a battle between first and second in Ligue 1, but it is perhaps naive to think that either are in the running for the title. A top-half finish still constitutes success for Brest, whilst for Nice, the early season form perhaps alludes to a challenge for the Champions League places, rather than for the title. “We aren’t the favourites. If we start to think like that, we’ll make a false step,” said Farioli after the victory over Monaco. Perhaps the major reason that Nice can’t be considered favourites is because of PSG’s mere existence. Under Luis Enrique, they are starting to hit full stride, and it remains to be seen whether anyone can stop them.
Farioli’s dose of realism is therefore a timely one, but he isn’t ignorant to the progress his side has made in a relatively short period of time. “I come back to my presentation press conference where I said I wanted to bring a spirit of work and heads down. Since then, we have come through contrasting times: sometimes positive, sometimes with good performances, but without the results. Now, we’re where we need to be in terms of points, of absolute value,” said the Italian manager. Farioli has alluded to perhaps having to work even harder to maintain the club’s current trajectory, and they may need to adapt too.