Nice Put Monaco to the Sword with Swift Counter-Attacking Game

baloNice hosted local rivals Monaco last weekend, and they probably would’ve gone into the game thinking they were up against it. Their opponents, the reigning Ligue 1 champions, went into the match not only with an unblemished record in the current campaign, but also on a 24 match unbeaten streak in the league. Throw in the fact that Nice had endured a very poor start to their own season, one that had been characterised by both ordinary league form and a loss to Napoli in UEFA Champions League qualifying, and things weren’t exactly looking promising.

Then the match started, and all of that suddenly felt like it was in the very distant past. Jean-Michael Seri, the man heavily linked with a move away from the club during the transfer window, danced around a couple of Monaco markers in order to spark a quickfire counter-attack. He played a vertical pass into the path of Allan Saint-Maximin, a winger Nice had just signed from Monaco for a club-record €10 million fee, who broke down the right-hand side. He followed up with a ball inside for the speedy Alassane Plea. The forward, now one-on-one with Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, struck a shot at goal, but couldn’t do so with any real authority after a heavy first touch.

Subasic’s save then deflected back into the feet of Saint-Maximin, and although he played yet another ball back towards the centre of the park, it didn’t really matter. By that time, Mario Balotelli had already been pulled back by Monaco defender Djibril Sidibe. The referee responded by awarding a penalty, and once Balotelli tucked it away with a customary level of nonchalance, Nice were 1-0 and well on their way.

Lucien Favre’s side spent the rest of the match dominating, eventually running out 4-0 winners to unceremoniously end Monaco’s impressive unbeaten streak. In order to do that, they built upon their early goal by defending in a pretty deep 4-4-2 formation. They weren’t too keen to press and they weren’t too keen to leave spaces in behind them, and they stuck to the task of stopping guys like Thomas Lemar from going to work with plenty of application.

In Favre’s words, they were superb as a defensive unit. “If a player is out of his zone, it puts the team’s balance in danger,” the Nice boss asserted. “Today, everybody defended well, closed down the angles. We needed to stop them from playing their game. When they come with players who move well between the lines, they are very dangerous. This evening, they couldn’t really do that.”

When watching the way Monaco go about it, it’s easy to see what Favre means. Monaco play with a 4-4-2 of their own, and their wingers, Lemar and Rony Lopes in the game against Nice, like to float infield. They are hardly static players who hug the touchline, and their inward drifts allow overlapping fullbacks Sidibe and Jorge to propel themselves into the final third. This means they can be difficult to defend against, especially when the wide defenders get up into attack, and when Joao Moutinho’s excellent ball-playing ability is factored into the mix, it’s not hard to see why this Monaco side have started the season so well.

Nice, however, were determined to ensure that didn’t continue. They operated with plenty of determination, remained compact and tight throughout the lines of midfield and defence, and, as Favre later stated, forwards “Mario [Balotelli] and Plea were the first screens to frustrate the opponent.” In that way, Monaco’s attempts to work it into the guys between the lines were stifled by Balotelli and Plea, who tried to cut off the initial passing lanes into Monaco central midfielders Moutinho and Fabinho. The rest of the team also followed their lead, and were alert in stopping anything from developing higher up the pitch.

The result was that Monaco passed the ball around a lot for minimal impact. They couldn’t penetrate the Nice defence to any great degree, so much so that they only managed one shot on target for the match. That meant much of their 55% of possession was ineffective, and between a heavy amount of crosses, 31, and a number of speculative shots on goal, there wasn’t a lot in the way of production for the Monagasques.

Leonardo Jardim wouldn’t have enjoyed the lack of quality attached to Monaco’s attack, and the players themselves weren’t so keen on it either. That resulted in the reigning champions devoting even more numbers towards their target of getting back on level terms. Jorge and Sidibe flew even further up the pitch, Moutinho tried to get into more advanced positions and even Fabinho, the man who regularly slots into more defensive stations to counterbalance Monaco’s attacking instincts, seemed to struggle to make up for the offensive focus of his teammates.

Nice knew this and, by way of a hugely impressive counter-attacking showing, demolished Monaco in transition. They used the speed and power of Plea and Saint-Maximin to propel themselves forward, often into the spaces left behind by Jorge and Sidibe. Nice’s second goal of the encounter, this time scored by Plea, provided an excellent example of this.

Here, the Monagasques lost the ball on the edge of the area, and Nice took that as their cue to spring forward. Saint-Maximin again offered the inspiration, initially charging upfield before producing a cutting through ball. It dissected the Monaco defence in one slicing motion, and Plea, who had made a run in behind the onrushing Sidibe, latched onto it at speed. Plea still had plenty of work to do from there, but by cutting inside Jemerson and shooting beyond Subasic, he did it with aplomb.

Nice’s fourth goal also came via a moment of transition, this time after a Sidibe shot was blocked by shotstopper Yoan Cardinale. It only took two passes to then breach Monaco’s extremely high backline, and Ignatius Ganago rounded the keeper to score on his league debut. That capped off a thoroughly exceptional display of counter-attacking football from Nice, and with passers like Seri finding the more direct attackers like Plea and Saint-Maximin in promising spots, they looked to have found a lovely level of balance in their side.

Of course, their situation is complicated by some of their new midfield acquisitions. Wesley Sneijder didn’t feature in this fixture and Nampalys Mendy only came off the bench, which means Favre has plenty to think about when it comes to both formation and personnel going forwards. How he opts to address these things remains to be seen, but whether it’s a big game or a small one, he has the flexibility to generate a workable solution.

That is exactly what he did against Monaco, and after losing three of their opening four Ligue 1 matches, Nice are now back on track. It might have taken a while for them to get to that point, but now that it has arrived, Favre will feel confident that they can go to another level and perhaps even replicate the kind of form that saw them flourish last season.