Christophe Galtier led Lille to the title but he has stalled at Nice | Ligue 1

“It’s too early to say,” was supposedly Chinese leader Zhou Enlai’s response when asked in 1972 if the French revolution, which had occurred 200 years earlier, had been a success. The story is probably apocryphal, with Zhou most likely referring to the French student protests of the late 1960s, but long-term thinkers would offer a similar response now if asked to analyse Lille’s footballing revolution following their shock title win last season under the previously uninspiring Christophe Galtier. His current club, Nice, were expected to push for the title this season, but they have dropped out of Ligue 1’s European places this week, suggesting his revolution may be short lived.

Galter’s newfound managerial aura benefits from strong recency bias. After a decade as an assistant at clubs including Portsmouth, Al-Ain, Aris Soloniki and Lyon, he ascended to his first managerial role at struggling St Étienne in December 2009. Galtier kept the club up and kept his job. Over the next eight seasons, St Étienne became regulars in Europe and even won the Coupe de la Ligue in 2013 but, with their resources and quality dwindling, they soon plateaued.

Following that 2013 peak and the departure of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Borussia Dortmund, Galtier’s greatest feat was achieving consistent results with increasingly minimal backing before slumping to eighth in 2016-17, his final season at the club. During his time at St Étienne, their football became increasingly dour and, in a league characterised by physicality and pragmatism, his aggressively functional side represented Ligue 1 in the extreme.

Galtier joined Lille in December 2017, when they were 18th in the table. They narrowly avoided relegation in his debut campaign before achieving second-place, fourth-place and first-place finishes in his three full seasons at the club. Galtier revolutionised his style at Lille. Unlike at St Étienne, where he had been constantly under siege, his Lille team were intense, pacy, positive and expertly balanced.

Although his ideas evolved toward a more rigid structure later on, his success began when he applied a modern twist to the classic 4-4-2 formation. His set-up has become iconic in light of Lille’s shock title triumph last year. Galtier benefited from having a stronger, deeper squad and the famed sporting director Luis Campos, but the way he pivoted from dour pragmatism to precise intensity was both surprising and seismic.

However, at Nice his 4-4-2 is starting to crack. He has clung to it like a comfort blanket this season despite his current squad not suiting the philosophy. His Nice team are starting to feel more like his dull St Étienne side, a much greater constant in his career, than title-winning Lille. Nice have only won three of their last 11 league games – during which time they have fallen from second in the table to sixth – and his obstinance could be their undoing.

The new Galtier 4-4-2 has one successful mode: counterattack. When the onus is on their opponents, Nice are a dangerous proposition thanks to a stoic, well organised defence and their pace and quality in attack, which can thrive when given space. Tellingly, Nice have the third best away record in Ligue 1 but only the ninth best home record.

Defence is the one area where Galtier’s Nice live up to his Lille side. They have not conceded in any of their three games against PSG this season. Mirroring Mike Maignan’s assuredness, Walter Benítez is the league’s most underrated and consistent goalkeeper. Their captain, the Brazilian veteran Dante, has used his experience to nurture his talented young centre-back partner Jean-Clair Todibo through tight spots, much like José Fonte did with Sven Botman at Lille. Both centre-back pairings have benefited from playing alongside reliable, defensively minded full-backs and they have been Ligue 1’s tightest defences for two seasons running. Lille only conceded 23 goals last season and, despite losing 10 games so far, Nice currently have a better defensive record than even runaway leaders PSG.

Further forward, however, Galtier’s system disintegrates. A lack of creativity has been Nice’s main concern all season and it was a problem again in their 1-0 derby defeat to Monaco on Wednesday night. Teams across the division can too easily shut Nice down as an attacking entity. Nice rank just 13th for shots in Ligue 1, managing fewer than strugglers Lorient, Bordeaux and St-Étienne.

Amine Gouiri, a skilful 22-year-old forward, is Nice’s only reliable creative outlet but Galtier has struggled to deploy the Frenchman within the constraints of his 4-4-2. Galtier prefers to use him as a left-sided midfielder as it allows both marquee summer addition Andy Delort and club-record signing Kasper Dolberg to start in attack. However, Gouiri is forced too far from the goal and lumbered with defensive responsibilities, dulling his effect. Galtier has often sought to compensate with more discipline on the opposite flank, via the workmanlike Hicham Boudaoui, but this leads to an awkward asymmetry.

Gouiri, Dolberg and Delort have all been dropped in the name of balance but every resultant combination has failed to flourish and Galtier remains unsure over his best pairing. Delort is the only consistent source of goals but he fails to complement Gouiri and Dolberg’s styles. Gouiri had scored 10 goals by January, but he has not scored in 11 league games.

Galtier’s Lille team were led by Burak Yilmaz and Jonathan David’s partnership, which offered pace, power, vision, interplay, movement and an ability to score all types of goals, without clashing skillsets. At Nice, it often feels like Gouiri is trying to win games on his own without support.

If David and Yilmaz ever stalled in games, Lille leant on Renato Sanches’ combination of vision and dynamism from midfield. Nice’s 4-4-2 badly lacks an equivalent player. Mario Lemina, Pablo Rosario and Khéphren Thuram provide industry and aggression but little guile or grace. As a result, when faced with defensively competent sides, Nice quickly run out of ideas.

A kind run-in could yet rescue their Champions League ambitions but Nice’s 4-4-2 has been rumbled and they need to evolve during the off-season. Dolberg could be sold to free up Delort and Gouiri, and the club must bring in more creativity and greater quality in the wider roles, which does not exist outside Justin Kluivert. Galtier should consider abandoning his 4-4-2 comfort blanket altogether in a bid to get more from young talents such as Gouiri and Thuram. Galtier clearly has game-to-game tactical nous and charisma but, as Zhou might have put it, this season has shown it’s too early to tell if Gatlier’s 4-4-2 revolution will hold.

Quick Guide

Ligue 1


Bordeaux 2-2 St Ètienne

Lorient 1-0 Metz

Monaco 1-0 Nice

Reims 2-1 Lille

Troyes 0-1 Clermont

Angers 0-3 PSG

Brest 2-1 Lyon

Marseille 3-2 Nantes

Lens 2-0 Montpellier

Strasbourg 2-1 Rennes

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Talking points

Marseille’s 3-2 win over Nantes kept the Ligue 1 title race alive for a few more days.
Marseille’s 3-2 win over Nantes kept the Ligue 1 title race alive for a few more days. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

PSG will have to wait at least a few more days for their title party. PSG needed to better Marseille’s result on Wednesday night and, for long stretches of the evening, they were on course to do so. They strolled to a simple 3-0 win at Angers, whose lazy performance suggested their season was already over despite only being three points above relegation, but Marseille battled back to beat Nantes 3-2. Marseille came from behind twice, with two penalties from Dimitri Payet and Amine Harit’s late winner securing a win that keeps the title alive for now. Meanwhile, defeats for Nice and Rennes mean Marseille have opened up a potentially decisive six-point gap to Rennes in third, seemingly securing the automatic Champions League spot with five games left to play.

The situation at 19th-placed Bordeaux is becoming desperate after their 2-2 draw with St-Étienne, who remain four points above Les Girondins in the relegation play-off spot. The bottom six all played each other on Wednesday night. With Lorient beating Metz and Clermont winning at Troyes, Bordeaux are falling ever closer to the Ligue 2 abyss. Although just seven points separate Bordeaux and Angers in 14th, it is increasingly likely that Ligue 1 will lose one of its struggling giants, given Bordeaux’s points deficit and inability to defend, and St Étienne’s tough run-in.

This is an article from Get French Football News
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