When Nice splashed €5m on Christophe Galtier last summer, the biggest ever inter-Ligue 1 transfer fee for a manager, they were aiming for a major play in the upcoming season. The 55-year-old had just led Lille to a historic Ligue 1 title, and he was granted €50m worth of talent ahead of the 2021/22 season in transfers to back his charge for the higher echelons of French Football with his new club.
They may be preparing for a Coupe de France final against Nantes, but Nice fans will feel disappointed by their current fifth-placed standing in Ligue 1, even if they are just two points off third-placed Rennes. Still, it’s worth looking at how Galtier’s Nice statistically differ from his title-winning Lille side. On the face of it, Nice have been as golden defensively as Lille were last season.
Both this season’s Nice and last season’s Lille are at the bottom of their respective tables for goals conceded per90. Nice are conceding just 0.85 goals p90, 0.6 less than a star studded PSG side. However, that doesn’t paint the full picture. Non-penalty-expected-goals, or NPXG, is a measure of the quality of chance created, excluding penalties, by FBRef. For example, a chance worth 0.55 XG could be considered a 55% chance of scoring. By that number, Nice are conceding 1.08 NPXG per 90, or in other words, opposition teams are on-average creating chances worth just over a goal per game excluding penalties. That puts Strasbourg, Lens, Rennes, Lille, PSG, Marseille and Monaco in front of Nice’s defence, with all these teams facing less in NPXG per 90.
This points to a goalkeeping overperformance and, while few keepers compare to Mike Maignan, this season Walter Benitez has helped Nice to the largest post-shot-expected-goals (PSXG) overperformance in France. Post-shot-expected-goals are a measure of the quality of shots faced, and FBRef suggests Benitez has saved enough to mean Nice have conceded around six goals less than they would be expected to. Again, in other words, they’re being bailed out by their goalkeeper.
A further example of Nice’s defence being less protective than the surface numbers suggest is the number of touches they allow inside their own box. They are decidedly midtable for this category, as teams are finding as many touches in the box of struggling Saint-Etienne this season as Galtier’s Nice.
In fairness, his former side, Lille, have seen their touches faced inside the box double since last season. It goes to show how imperious that defence under Galtier were, featuring Sven Botman, José Fonte, and the likes of Reinildo Mandava and Zeki Celik.
Nice have a similar age profile in their defence to that of Lille’s last season, with the experienced Dante starting 29 league games alongside the up-and-coming Jean-Clair Todibo, flanked by Melvin Bard and usually Jordan Lotomba. Perhaps it’s simply a case of getting used to the former Saint Etienne coach’s tactics.
Going forward, there’s urgent need for improvement in southern France. Amine Gouiri is yet to contribute a league goal since late January while Andy Delort has only recently reached the 10 goal mark. By XG, Nice have underperformed in the finishing department, with FBRef suggesting they have had the chances to score 7.5 goals more than they have. The blame is shared around, with Calvin Stengs and Delort two players who fans would confirm have had tough seasons.
As a final note of comparison to Lille though, there’s some hope provided to Nice fans (or worry depending on your outlook). Nice are creating more chances per 90 by NPXG than Lille did in 20/21, but Les Dogues were simply more clinical.
It’s readings like that which will provide Galtier with some self-reflection during the summer. Perhaps his Lille side overperformed even more than we thought they did last season, and the same tactics he has been trying to employ at Nice are failing to bring the same luck. Alternatively, this could be one of Europe’s top coaches laying down the foundation work for a stellar 2022/23 campaign where his side will overperform and find their finishing.
If the continuous wins against PSG and that French league title proved anything, it’s that we shouldn’t rush to doubt Christophe Galtier.