Given the absurd levels of staff turnover, the very concept of player loyalty in modern football has frayed to breaking point. Moments of genuine affection between player, club and fans can still be seen, but the irony is that this is probably clearest when that player leaves the club in question. Such a moment occurred in early July, when Valère Germain moved on loan from Monaco to Nice.

Monaco fans’ unreserved adoration for their sometime captain needed little explanation. He was the promising youngster who, having joined the club at the age of 15, was left disconsolate on the pitch at the end of just his second appearance for the first team when it was confirmed that they would be getting relegated. He was the player who stuck around and kept scoring goals in his first full season as a professional despite Monaco teetering to the brink of non-existence.

He was the player who, after Dimitry Rybolovlev’s buyout and despite an influx of new arrivals, was utterly instrumental to Monaco’s 2012-13 Ligue 2 triumph. He was the player who, during a crucial spell after the Christmas break that season, was central to almost every goal Monaco scored. He was the player who, by the season’s end, had accounted for over a third of Monaco’s points with his goals and assists.

Upon promotion Monaco went out and acquired a new strike force. Only once in the two years since was Germain given an extended run in the first team – after Falcao’s season-ending injury back in January 2014. In the nine consecutive matches he started thereafter, Germain scored four, notched two assists and generally played like someone at ease at this level. He may have been starved of minutes during the second half of last season, but the fact that several clubs in France as well as others from Spain, Italy, England and Belgium showed an interest over the summer suggests that his qualities are not in doubt.

Jorge Valdano once said of Raúl that while he might not be a 10/10 in anything, he was a 9/10 in absolutely everything. Although Valère Germain may not be in the same class, he fits the same profile, boasting no significant weaknesses. His technique won’t draw gasps from the crowd, but neither does it let him down, and while his shots lack power, they find the corners with remarkable regularity. He is most effective at centre forward, but he will play capably in any attacking role and at his best he is a remarkable fusion of playmaker and goal poacher.

Amongst other attributes, and despite not being noticeably tall or strong, Germain is very good in the air – mostly because he’s good with his head in another sense: this is a very smart footballer, all intelligent movement and quick anticipation. He’s not the quickest, but he knows when and where to run, both to open up spaces for others and to create chances for himself. It’s easier to plant headers into the top corner when your movement has separated you from whoever was supposed to be getting in your way.

Above all else Germain is a brilliant team player, always seeking the open man, always willing to run himself down, and always content to play whatever role the coach demands of him to the best of his ability without fuss. In this light, his close connection to Monaco’s fans makes more sense. Just as his loyalty to ASM was a throwback to an age when more footballers felt a sense of belonging at any given club, so his lack of pretence is a throwback to a time when fewer footballers had monstrous egos.

As good and as smart as the player may be though, he is just one part of this equation. In a loan deal, like with any transaction, consideration must be paid to where he’s going. Germain was adored by Monaco’s fans but at Nice he’s effectively replacing Alexey Bosetti, the Nice ultras’ on-pitch representative. He might be living and working in the same region, but there is still a change in environment to deal with.

The loan does not have a purchase option, which might suggest that Monaco’s long term plans still have a place in them for Valère Germain. However it is more likely that, for Rybolovlev and company, Nice is merely a shop window. A place where their asset is guaranteed to play games, likely to score goals, and has a chance of increasing in value beyond what Le Gym could ever afford.

Before we get to that stage, however, there is a season to play, and the early signs are promising: Germain told France Football last week that he feels valued in Nice and has settled quickly. Partly this is because some of his new teammates are players he met during his time as a French youth international, but he also expressed pleasure at finding a dressing room where, in contrast to Monaco, everyone speaks French. Events on the pitch seem to reflect this sense of contentment, with Germain scoring three goals in Nice’s first two warm up matches, and the winner in their gala friendly against Napoli last weekend. Nice on the whole have had a strong pre-season, mostly due to the burgeoning on-field relationship between Germain and his colleagues in Nice’s front 3, Alessane Pléa and fellow new recruit Hatem Ben Arfa.

The real test will come when the season starts. For both Nice and Valère Germain that first match promises to be a rather awkward encounter: August the 8th, Allianz Riviera, OGC Nice vs… AS Monaco.



Some Nice Things that Happened this Year in French Football

PSG 1 Rennes 2

Remember when Rennes could play football? Remember when they could win matches with nine men? Rennes’ form in the last few weeks of the season has been so bad that it is easy to forget just how entertaining they were in the early parts of the campaign. With Julien Féret spraying brilliant passes around in his own inimitable style and Romain Alessandrini staging his own goal of the season competition, Rennes’ matches before Christmas were really worth watching, none more so that their astonishing win in Paris in week 13. Aside from the ridiculousness of the second half, this game makes it into my end-of-season selection for the fact that all three goals were utterly brilliant.

First Romain Alessandrini bashed a screamer in from 25 metres, then Nêne ran on to a fantastic pass from Pastore to clip a beautiful finish over Benoît Costil. Ten minutes after the Rennes goalkeeper was sent off for a lunge at Jérémy Ménez, Rennes retook the lead. PSG were so worried about the potency of Alessandrini’s left foot that when Rennes won a free kick on the edge of the area no-one thought that Julien Féret might take it. But take it he did, and he pushed an intelligent and well placed shot into the bottom corner.

Barely five minutes into the second half Jean II Makoun had one of those brain explosions he is prone to and picked up a second yellow for a pointless foul on Nenê, the first having been awarded for protesting the decision to send Costil off (the cards for Costil and Makoun were the only ones Rennes received all game). Left with 40 minutes to play with nine men, Rennes did not appear to have much of a chance, but despite PSG throwing on more and more attackers (by the game’s end they were playing a 1-0-9 formation) and creating chance after chance the goal would not come.

The statistics entered surreal territory: PSG had 24 shots, 18 corners, crossed the ball 59 times and on the hour mark hit the woodwork twice during the same attack. Substitute goalkeeper Cheick N’Diaye had the match of his life, repelling everything that PSG threw at him. At the full time whistle the Rennes bench cleared, all hurtling towards N’Diaye to celebrate him like a man who had just saved the penalty that won his side the Champions League. It was quite an afternoon.

Nice 3 Evian 2

Nice’s come back from 0-2 down to win 3-2 in week 18 was first and foremost an excellent game of football, but also a fascinating case-study in momentum, and how it can be generated or quelled. Evian opened up a two-goal lead inside fifteen minutes but Nice, who were on a hot streak of 17 points from their last seven games, hit back immediately. Dario Cvitanich received the ball just outside the area and clipped a superb chip over Bertrand Laquait and into the top corner.

Cvitanich’s goal was excellent, but it was also fascinating to see the effect the nature and timing of the goal, not just the goal itself, had on proceedings. Had Evian held on to their two goal lead for just ten minutes more, and conceded a scrappy goal from a corner they probably would not have been so obviously perturbed. But to concede straight away, and to a goal that brutally yet beautifully exposed the gulf in class between the sides, suggested that this would be Nice’s night. The home side pressed relentlessly against a clearly subdued opponent, and Cvitanich equalised early in the second half with a goal as inglorious as his first was glorious. Nice dominated the rest of the second half and finally got the winner in injury time, 16 year old Neal Maupay controlling Timothée Kolodziejczak’s hopeful cross and powering the ball in for his first goal in Ligue 1 before disappearing amongst a pile of bodies.

Anything Mathieu Valbuena did in 2013.

Already playing at a high level in the first half of the season, Mathieu Valbuena was at the forefront of a cadre of senior players at OM who in 2013 simply played at an astonishing level. André-Pierre Gignac was scoring important goals, Nicolas N’Koulou was stopping dangerous forwards and Steve Mandanda was making saves he had no right to make (his performance away at Lille was that of someone playing the lead role in their own superhero comic book). But Valbuena trumped them all. “Relentless” is rarely a word associated with creators. It is often reserved for goalscorers who cannot be contained, or defensive players who simply will not let themselves be beaten. Yet the only way I can describe Valbuena’s impact on his side is to refer to his relentless creativity. Constantly seeking out space, making himself available for passes and doing the hardest work in football – unlocking packed defences – with very little help. Qualification for the Champions League would trigger an automatic one year extension in Valbuena’s contract at Marseille, and the little man played like someone determined to stay on the south coast.

Samuel Umtiti’s goal at White Hart Lane

Occasionally a goal is scored that no words can fully describe, but that you yearn to read and write about nonetheless. Samuel Umtiti’s equaliser in Lyon’s Europa League tie away at Spurs was just such a goal. Usual attempts at describing this goal would leave me disappointed, but I found that calquéing as much as possible the description of it in l’equipe’s online report amused me, so I wrote it down.

“But the young defender of Lyon will remember for a long time his evening at White Hart Lane because in the 55th minute, he scored an extraordinary goal. Rebuffed by the head of Gallas, the cross of Malbranque bounced before Umtiti who did not ask himself any questions and dispatched a superpowered half-volley into the top corner of the powerless Friedel”

I do not know why this amused me, but it did. For what it’s worth, when I saw Umtiti’s goal live on TV my exact words were “Jesus fucking CHRIST!” Not that the son of God ever hit one this cleanly.

PSG 3 Nice 0

On the 21st of April PSG played Nice at home and recorded a regulation win in their end-of-season stroll to the Ligue 1 title. This match was memorable for two reasons. The first was Renato Civelli, who is massive, going head to head with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is also massive. Both players seemed to enjoy the physical confrontation, so much so that Civelli felt the need just before half time to give Zlatan a little kiss on the neck. It said, “see you in the second half.” Lovely.

This game was also to be remembered for Thiago Silva scoring quite possibly the best disallowed goal of all time. I am still unsure as to how Thiago did it. Joris Delle left a through ball, confident that it would roll out of play. Thiago hurdled the prone Nice keeper and, still going at full pelt, clipped the ball from behind the byline near the edge of the area into the back of the net. Like all the great goals it gets better each time you see it. The most amazing aspect for me was the fact that when the ball bounced it was already over the goal-line. The look on Thiago’s face when he saw the linesman (correctly) signalling for a goal-kick was rather endearing, like a little boy being told that his puppy died.

Also on the weekend of the 20th of April…

The oft-forgotten coda to the story of Thiago’s disallowed goal is that less than 24 hours later Nabil Dirar scored a goal (that did count; it put Monaco 2-0 up against Clermont) in near identical circumstances which was possibly more beautiful for the way the ball span and span along the goal-line until it gripped the turf and rolled in.

However my favourite thing that happened that weekend was Nancy’s 3-1 win over Evian. Nancy scored three goals. The first was a shot that barely crossed the line (if it did), the second was a free shot at the far post from a corner and the third was a shot that barely crossed the line (if it did) from a free shot at the far post from a corner. As I wrote at the time in a brilliant joke that was understood by precisely one person (thank you Raphael), it was a football as classical essay writing: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

The goals of Adrian Mutu

Bear with me. Adrian Mutu made some waves back in August when he claimed that he would score more goals this season than his one-time Juventus team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That he failed in this particular endeavour should not come as a great surprise. But the Romanian, who either side of his ill-fated spell in the Premier League was one of the most decisive players in Serie A, nonetheless made a huge contribution to keeping Ajaccio in Ligue 1, top-scoring with 11 goals (only one other Ajaccio other player got more than three goals: Chahir Belghazouani, who scored six). Taken in isolation, those goals (more than a quarter of his team’s total of 39) directly earned 10 of Ajaccio’s 40 point total. This is without discussing his role alongside Belghazouani and Johan Cavalli as the technical leader of the side and the attacking and defensive contribution that aspect of his game entailed. Zlatan may have got 30 goals and walked off with the title, but Mutu still deserves a mention for a productive and influential first season in Ligue 1.

Alternative team of the year.

We all knew that Zlatan would score a ton of goals, and it is no great surprise to see guys like Dimitri Payet or Mathieu Valbuena playing to such high standards. This, then, is a team of those who played well beyond a level that could reasonably have been expected (4-3-1-2)

Mandi, Lotiès, Pejčinović, Harek
Krychowiak, Camus, Cavalli
Aliadière, Modeste

Token nice things that happened elsewhere in Europe this season:

The team you manage is 0-3 up in the final minutes of the first leg of what could have been a far more complicated Champions League knockout tie. Trying to hold onto possession from a corner, your players make a bit of a hash of it and end up ceding possession. What do you do? You threaten to kill your players of course!

If last year you were told that Borussia Dortmund would get to the Champions League Final playing scintillating football and amid incredible drama, you probably would have said, “What?”

It surprised me that Loic Rémy’s goal against Wigan did not come up amid discussions of the Premier League goal of the season. All the other goals mentioned were of a type we have seen before (to take on example: Robin van Persie’s goal against Aston Villa, impressive though it was, was a pale imitation of the similar strikes against Everton and Liverpool while he played for Arsenal). Rémy’s goal against Wigan was like no other goal I have ever seen before. Having run three-quarters of the length of the pitch, he slowed up to get in line with Stéphane M’Bia’s pass and gently pushed the ball into the top corner. The speed with which the ball travelled was totally out of keeping with how Rémy approached the ball and how he struck it, rather like the Noisy Cricket gun from the first Men in Black film. Unassuming, but it packed quite a punch.

Ligue 1 2012-13 Season Preview. Sort of.

The new Ligue 1 season starts tonight (!), and while most of the attention is focused on the capital I say “PSG, schmee-ess-gee”. There are several more interesting stories to follow in the coming season, and here are four that I found it easiest to write about.

Life on Mars: Marseille

Marseille, both the town and the football team, were not put on this earth to make sense. But even by their own bonkers standards last season was pretty weird. Most analysts backed them to retain their league title, and at the very least be challenging for it during the run in. I don’t think anyone predicted what actually happened: the club’s form going off the end of a cliff, Didier Deschamps losing the will to try anything to stem the bleeding and all but losing the will to live on the sidelines despite an absurdly flukey run to the Champions League quarter finals where, playing at the level of a pub team, they were dismissed by Bayern Munich. André Ayew’s development stagnated, new signing Jérémy Morel had a tough introduction, and amazingly, the always reliable Benoit Cheyrou had an absolute shocker of a season.

Coach Elie Baup has taken a lot of flak before the season has even begun, most of it related to his less than stellar managerial record to date. His perceived deficiencies notwithstanding, it’s all but inconceivable that a talented squad can play quite as badly again, but at the same time it is hard to escape the conclusion that OM’s season rests on the form and fitness of Loïc Remy. Capable of providing width, dragging defenders all over the inside-forward channels, being a target man, poking in half-chances from close in or smacking them in from 25 metres out, Marseille’s one international-class forward will have to play out of his skin to keep his team competitive. Don’t be surprised if he manages to head in one of his own crosses this season.

The one-man formation: Bordeaux

Mariano was probably the signing of the last winter transfer window. His presence permitted Bordeaux to switch to a system with wing-backs and the team jumped from 10th in January to fifth (and a Europa League place) by the season’s end, losing just three games in the process. The juxtaposition between their performances with a back three and a back four was noticeable, to say the least.

The squad is fairly thin, so an injury to a key player (particularly the two wingbacks, Nguemo and Plasil, a quartet that forms the engine of the team) would give them a serious headache, but if they can stay fit then another tilt at a European place is not out of the question. In pre-season Francis Gillot has also introduced a 4-2-3-1, but the overall effect will be the same: one of the defensive midfielders will drop back and Mariano and Trémoulinas will be encouraged to do what they do best and attack. If Bordeaux begin the new season anywhere near the level at which they ended the last one (performances that earned them six straight wins), and start demonstrating an ability to break down defensive teams more easily, then a progressive campaign in the league and some success in the cups is on the cards.

Coping with loss: Valenciennes and Nice

Over the last few years some of the best football in France can be found in a small town down the road from Lille: Valenciennes. Their progressive play earned former coach Philippe Montanier a shot at taking over Real Sociedad, and successor Daniel Sanchez has kept things going with a similar style, all quick passes and smooth counter-attacks. But with Carlos Sanchez leaving on a free and Renaud Cohade moving to St Etienne, a key part of the Valenciennes engine has been lost. It will be very interesting to see if Foued Kadir and Gaël Danic will be able to create as many chances now that the men responsible for winning the ball back (Sanchez) and providing them with it in space high up the pitch (Cohade) are gone.

Nice have also lost a key man, arguably the single most decisive player for any club in the division: Anthony Mounier. Acquired for a scandalously low price by Montpelier, his incisive running and ability to create chance after chance will be terribly missed at Nice. Unlike Valenciennes, however, Nice have moved quickly to replace the men who are leaving. The excellent David Ospina was expected to leave (and may yet do so) but Nice brought in France’s under-21 goalkeeper Joris Delle, an excellent piece of business and probably a good move for the player too who was bound to leave Metz even before they were relegated the National. Dario Cvitanich is probably an upgrade on the Abu Dhabi-bound Eric Mouloungui. The hardest job of all, replacing Mounier, falls on Eric Bauthéac who has joined after a solid first season in Ligue 1 at Dijon.

Awesome twosome: Romain Hamouma and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

At the start of last season Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was an inconsistent but talented forward who had yet to really make a mark. He’s now a star, the poster boy of the 2012 Cup of Nations and the man whose goals propelled St Etienne to 7th place, their highest finish in five years.

This season the resident Neymar impersonator of Ligue 1 should be able to increase his tally, with Romain Hamouma added to the mix. Hamouma has been linked with just about every team in Ligue 1 over the last year after his impressive first season at Caen, and if the two can create an effective partnership quickly then expect lots of goals.

Sainté have now had several very good transfer windows in succession and the combination of smart acquisitions and a productive youth system means Christophe Galtier has a strong team that, with a little luck, could be capable of finishing the season ahead of rivals Lyon for the first time in twenty years.