We all like free flowing football right? It’s fun seeing teams express themselves on the ball and do stuff that make your jaw drop; whether it be against a set defense and a team making intricate passes to bypass them (See: Arsenal, Bayern, Man City), or a wild counter attack that tattles the line of functional chaos and rips apart the souls of their opposition (See: Dortmund, Crystal Palace, PSV). Defense is fun and there’s a special place for defensive steel, but in the end we’re some form of degenerates on the inside that love bucket loads of goals. Let’s play a quick exercise: name the teams in Europe’s top six leagues who are averaging 2.5 or more goals per game this season. Okay so you probably would’ve guessed teams like Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund. Maybe if you had a little hipster in you, you would’ve picked Ajax or PSV from the Eredivisie. Barcelona and Real Madrid would’ve been logical guesses as well considering the talent at their disposal. Now what if I said that there was a team that was averaging a goal scoring rate better than the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Manchester City and it’s not a traditional super power, and they play in France as well. No seriously, it’s OGC Nice from Ligue 1. They’re scoring goals for fun this season through a fun mixture of possession football and counter attacks focused on capitalizing individualistic moments. The form Nice are on is equivalent to playing FIFA online against an overmatched opponent and they’re scoring goals for the fun of it. Like this: And this: Nice through ten games so far have been by far the most breathtaking attacking team in France. In many ways, their form is reminiscent of that which Marseille showed during the early stages of last season when the Bielsa effect was at its peak. Before Alassane Plea’s knee injury, the front three of Plea, Hatem Ben Arfa and Valerie Germain was probably the most in-form attacking trio in France. Hatem Ben Arfa’s career at this point could be a great novel about his unrealized talent. There have been bust-ups at training, mood swings whether in Ligue 1 or while at Newcastle under Alan Pardew. Hell, before the beginning of this season there were unflattering pictures of him being woefully out of shape during the suspension put down by FIFA. It was a shame seeing this because Ben Arfa is supremely talented. He is one of the most underrated dribblers of the ball in the last decade or so. The ball is on a string when he gets control of it. In many ways, Nice has been his salvation after the problems he had with Alan Pardew and his horrific tenure at Hull City. I have no idea how much of an effect Claude Puel has had on Ben Arfa but hey, maybe Claude Puel put his arm around his shoulder and had a moment with him like something you would see in a movie and it lifted his spirits. Regardless of what Puel has done or hasn’t done, Ben Arfa is on a run of form we haven’t seen from him possibly ever. He is running circles past the defense, scoring multiple goals from tight angles. It’s the Ben Arfa everyone has wanted for nearly a decade. Nice’s attack isn’t just solely Ben Arfa doing Ben Arfa things. Valere Germain has been fantastic in a supporting role at striker, and he’s so far validating everyone who thought he was a quality striker who just didn’t get the playing time needed at Monaco. Plea before his knee injury was perfect as well as a shot producing third banana in the attacking three. Their midfield has been instrumental because the likes of Jean Seri and Namplays Mendy have been able to place throughballs onto the feet of the attack. Nice have been a great story this season and it’s always fun to cheer for a free flowing attack. The problem is this level of production will simply not last. Nice are converting over 50% of their shots on target this season. 50! For reference, the league average in Ligue 1 is around the low 30’s. It’s an insane mark to have kept up for this long. In the world of expected goals, I have Nice at 14.85 through 10 games versus the 25 actually scored this season. I wanted to see if we could find any comparable teams that have started as hot as Nice have. The cut off I used for the comparable teams in Ligue 1 were ones that averaged at least two goals per game in the first 10 games and I found that there have been five other teams in the Opta era that have done this:
|Team||Games||Goals||Shots per game||G/SoT Conversion Rate%|
Then what I did was look at how the same five teams performed over the rest of the season.
|Team||Games||Goals||Shots per game||G/SoT Conversion Rate%|
Marseille and Lyon are the only teams to come close to match their own conversion rates from the first 10 games for the remaining of the season, and their conversion rates during the first 10 games didn’t come close to Nice. Valenciennes had the closest conversion rate to Nice through 10 games and it cratered back to normalcy. Montpellier and Rennes also saw a drop in conversion of 12%. Nice will regress, that’s not really in doubt. No team can sustain a G/SoT rate that even sniffs 50%. The question is to what degree their conversion rate drops. Nice are in the top five in terms of big chances created in Ligue 1 and it’s made up around 17% of their shots this season. Since big chances are usually converted at a ~40% clip, One could argue that their opportunistic offense will keep their conversion rate at a fairly high clip, similar to Marseille last season. I do like Nice as a team that can have a top 3-5 conversion rate this season, the type of one to beat expected goals by 5-7 goals. There’s genuine talent there and so long as Ben Arfa can hold up as an attacking hub for them, they could create a high volume of big chances and have their conversion rate nestle around the mid-high 30’s while still being this fun swashbuckling side. Just savor their current audacious form because don’t expect them to come close to replicating this for the remainder of this season.