INEOS-owned Nice have declined dramatically in 2024 – what’s gone wrong? – The Athletic

By Tom Burrows6h ago

It’s the end of November and after victory over Toulouse, Nice are second in Ligue 1 and just one point behind leaders Paris Saint-Germain.

All the talk was how INEOS, which bought Nice in the summer of 2019, appeared to have finally cracked it following a revamp that resulted in 34-year-old Italian Francesco Farioli arriving as manager in the summer. That came after a string of other backroom hires, including Florent Ghisolfi as sporting director, Laurent Bessiere as performance director and Fabrice Bocquet as CEO following an audit led by Sir David Brailsford.

Advertisement

Fast forward five months and that sunny optimism on the French Riviera has faded as Nice have won just two Ligue 1 matches in 2024. They have dropped to fifth, outside the Champions League places, and are 19 points behind PSG.

The fact has not been lost on Nice’s fans that their slide has coincided with Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS agreeing, and then completing, a deal to purchase a 25 per cent stake in Manchester United.

As Jean-Philippe, host of the Avanti Nissa fan podcast, said: “It’s my opinion, but I do think it’s linked. It’s like, ‘Now we have United’. I can understand it, but it filters down and I think the club, the players, they can all feel that kind of stuff. I’m not even sure those in charge know what’s next, the big picture and what the plans are for the next three or five years. Will INEOS still be there? How much money will we have for the next transfer window? Is the Champions League still a realistic aim? I think the fans are feeling this more and more.”

But is that too simplistic a reading of the situation? What other factors are behind Nice’s loss in form? And what is the prevailing mood among the fanbase?

Francesco Farioli was appointed by Nice last summer (Francois Lo Presti/AFP via Getty Images)

Nice’s impressive early season form — which included a standout 3-2 victory against PSG at the Parc des Princes on September 15 — was built on a steely defence.

After that 1-0 win over Toulouse on November 26, they had conceded just four goals in their opening 13 matches. Marcin Bulka, arguably their most talented goalkeeper since Hugo Lloris, and centre-backs Dante, rolling back the years at 40, and French international Jean-Clair Todibo, linked with Manchester United, were especially impressive.

GO DEEPER

The cautious contenders: How Nice became the most effective team in Ligue 1

Yet even then there were signs it wasn’t sustainable as five of their victories in that period were by a 1-0 scoreline. When their defence started to creak, they came unstuck as their stuttering attack has consistently failed to fire this season. Only Clermont Foot (bottom of the league) and Le Havre have scored fewer goals than Nice’s 28 in 28 league matches.

Advertisement

As Luke Entwistle, editor of Get French Football News, said: “Nice’s attacking sector is where this downturn has come from because they have been too reliant on their defence. For a team that has spent money in attacking areas — they signed Jeremie Boga (from Atalanta in July 2024 for €18million; £15.4m or $19m at today’s rates), Terem Moffi (from Lorient in January 2024 for €30m), Gaetan Laborde (from Rennes in August 2022 for €15m) and Mohamed-Ali Cho (from Real Sociedad in January 2024 for €12m) — they are not giving them the licence to showcase their abilities. They have not found the solutions to unlock the potential of those individual players. What’s interesting is they didn’t actually invest much money in their defence.”

GO DEEPER

Terem Moffi: The lightning-quick forward who is utterly lethal on the counter-attack

The form of talented midfielder Khephren Thuram, another French international, has also dipped as Nice struggle to find an attacking spark.

Another of Nice’s problems has been when they play against a team that defends deep, which is often the case with sides towards the bottom of Ligue 1. Nice have also failed to rally when going behind in matches and are the only side in Europe’s top five leagues who have failed to earn a single point when conceding first.

Entwistle explained: “When they come up against the low block, one way is to commit more numbers, but they have been reticent to do so. Farioli’s game plan is contingent on the team coming out to play and pressing the centre-backs, but when teams don’t do that — and they’ve figured out relatively quickly not to do that — they have struggled. That’s been the image of ‘Farioli-Ball’, weird phases of play where Dante and Todibo pass the ball to each other.”

Thuram’s form has dipped (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

A former senior employee of the club, who wished to remain anonymous to protect relationships, agreed with this.

He said Farioli was an inexperienced manager who was struggling now his Plan A had been rumbled. He also said there was a communication issue — he still works in a strange hybrid of Italian and English.

Advertisement

He also claimed summer recruitment had been overhyped. He pointed out how Nice’s regular back four and goalkeeper all arrived before Ghisolfi joined from RC Lens in October 2022, while the sporting director’s full-backs he brought in on loan — Romain Perraud and Valentin Rosier — had played infrequently.

Ghisolfi’s best signing has been defensive midfielder Youssouf Ndayishimiye from Istanbul Basaksehir FK for around €11.5m in January 2024. He has dropped out of the team recently with suspensions and niggles that have disrupted his rhythm.

In the former senior employee’s view, INEOS’ commitment to the Nice project had waned.

Ratcliffe’s deal to purchase a minority stake in Manchester United was agreed on Christmas Eve and then completed on February 20.

(Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

“There’s a vacuum of sorts,” Entwistle added. “Nice has its place in the INEOS hierarchy. It’s not level with United and it’s certainly not above it. I think there is a mental effect of that if you know you are part of a project in which you are not the main focus. But there isn’t any strong anti-INEOS sentiment. That has been the case even when Nice were at their lowest point last season. They finished ninth. There’s a little bit of questioning about what the future holds, but nothing close to a protest. It’s a world apart from Strasbourg (owned by Chelsea’s Todd Boehly and his Clearlake Capital consortium), for example, where there are protests and banners at every game.”

Jean-Phillipe explained why Nice’s fans have mixed feelings about their owners.

“On the one hand, we are happy with INEOS because it offers financial stability,” he said. “I can see why United fans are happy, especially as Ratcliffe is local to the area, although he now lives in Monaco. But if they failed with Lausanne-Sport in the Swiss League and didn’t manage to make Nice a great club in Ligue 1, I don’t see how they can manage to make United a legendary club again in the Premier League. I really doubt they can manage it. The feeling from Nice fans is we don’t know what’s going to happen next season or in the future.”

Advertisement

However, he added: “INEOS have the money and the passion. The key thing with INEOS is if one day they can put the right people in charge, they are going to smash it.”

INEOS’ first foray into football was with Lausanne-Sport, who it acquired in 2017 and where there has been mixed success — including two relegations and two promotions.

Ratcliffe has acknowledged this previously and admitted to making some “really stupid decisions” at both Lausanne and Nice. His stated objective when he first arrived at Nice (after buying the club for €100m) was to challenge PSG, but this was scaled back in the summer with the new aim to qualify for Europe.

In response, a senior employee at the club, who wished to remain anonymous to protect relationships, strongly refuted any suggestion INEOS was not fully committed to Nice. Brailsford, the man tasked with turning around United’s fortunes on the pitch, has still been in attendance at Nice matches this calendar year. For example, he was pictured at Nice’s 1-0 home victory against Metz on January 27, when he was sat next to Bocquet.

The senior club employee played down any idea Nice were in limbo and was adamant there were no signs of discontent. He agreed their main problems were linked to their attack — especially because they largely underperform their expected goals.

Another club source said Nice had overperformed at the start of the season but had not got carried away and were not panicking now. They pointed out how Boga and Moffi — who both reached the final of AFCON with Ivory Coast and Nigeria respectively — had also missed a good chunk of the season this year. They insisted INEOS was still invested in the project at Nice with a weekly Tuesday meeting that happens with key players including Jean-Claude Blanc, CEO of INEOS Sport, Nice’s chairman Jean-Pierre Rivere, Brailsford, Bocquet and Ghisolfi.

Before the season, their ambition was to finish in the top six and Nice are still on course to do that. On Farioli sticking to his Plan A, he claimed every coach in Ligue 1 described Nice as a difficult match this season and said the performance last time out against Reims (a 0-0 draw) was an improvement.

Advertisement

INEOS was contacted by The Athletic over the issues raised in this piece but declined to comment.

As results have tailed off in 2024, Todibo clashed with Nice supporters after their 2-1 defeat at home to Montpellier on March 8. He had to be pulled away by team-mates and was escorted off the pitch by Dante and Thuram.

“I was just trying to explain to them that we are all in the same boat,” Todibo told Prime Video. “Instead of arguing in public, we expect support from them. Can we talk about a crisis? Yes because we lost a lot of points, but we will get back up.”

In the same match, Nice fans held up a banner reading “not another year without Europe — move yourselves”.

Off the pitch, there have also been some unwelcome distractions for Nice.

In December, their former manager Christophe Galtier was acquitted of harassment and discrimination when he was in charge of the club. Galtier, who later became PSG head coach, had been charged over “alleged moral harassment and discrimination on the grounds of membership or non-membership, real or supposed, to an ethnic group, a nation or an alleged determined race or religion” in June as part of an investigation into allegations of discrimination during his time at Nice.

A month later, Algerian defender Youcef Atal was convicted of inciting religious hatred in a social media post about the conflict in Israel and Gaza and handed an eight-month suspended sentence. He was suspended by Nice and eventually joined Turkish club Adana Demirspor in a permanent move in February.

For Nice’s fans, what’s left is a nagging sense of what could have been this season.

“It’s a missed opportunity of something that could have been really great,” Jean-Phillipe says. “It felt like this was the year to compete for Champions League qualification. Brest, a very small club in France, are second and the other big clubs in the league, like Lyon and Marseille, have struggled, so it was a chance for us to make it.”

Advertisement

Another Nice fan, Cedric, said: “We were dreaming about the Champions League, but now it could end up being a Conference League ticket instead.

“The fans feel there’s no clear project or visibility. With the help of INEOS, we thought we would be able to fight each year for the European spots, targeting the top three, but that hasn’t happened. Before INEOS arrived, we finished fourth (in 2015-16) and third (in 2016-17), yet since they came in, our best finish has been in fifth place.”

(Top photo: Dante and Marcin Bulka; by Damien Meyer/AFP via Getty Images)s)

Get all-access to exclusive stories.

Subscribe to The Athletic for in-depth coverage of your favorite players, teams, leagues and clubs. Try a week on us.

Start Free Trial

Tom Burrows is a football news writer for The Athletic UK. He was previously a staff editor for almost three years. Prior to that, he worked on news and investigations for national newspapers. Follow Tom on Twitter @TBurrows16

Source

×