Following two drastically contrasting seasons prior to this one, where they went from finishing fourth in 2012/13 to fourth-bottom just twelve months later, this campaign has been a much more unremarkable, steady and middling-out one for Nice in Ligue 1. Their most recent game though, a quite surprising 2-1 away win against the then league leaders Lyon which should secure their place in the top flight for next season, produced a couple of standout moments.
Carlos Eduardo’s stunning overhead kick to open the scoring, alongside the shock end result which leaves Nice sitting 12th in the table, was undoubtedly the highlight of this match for them. The other notable and unusual incident of the match ended up happening just off the pitch however, courtesy of their young left-back, Jordan Amavi. After getting into a contest with Lyon’s Nabil Fekir near the touchline, Amavi was pushed to the ground and ended up sliding towards the small wall bordering the outside of the grassed area.
Carried by his momentum, he quickly stood up to avoid hitting the wall and jumped – over a sizeable gap behind the wall – into the crowd where there were fortunately a few empty seats in the front row. The Frenchman then negotiated his way back to the pitch and play resumed; but not before attempting to go the wrong way down a set of stairs and then needing to ask for directions from some of the local fans.
Excluding that rather bizarre moment, Amavi (who was arguably the best player on the pitch) didn’t look at all lost throughout the game – in fact he hasn’t in the entire season. That’s despite only making his Ligue 1 debut last year when he played second fiddle to Timothée Kolodziejczak, whose versatility and ability to play both left-back and centre-back allowed Amavi a few instances to impress.
With the consistently solid Kolodziejczak somewhat begrudgingly sold to Sevilla in the summer, Amavi was given the opportunity to make the step up from an understudy to a first-team regular: and he’s rapidly gone from starting just nine games in 2013/14 to playing every single minute of their 30 league matches so far. Any doubts about his lack of experience at the start of the year were removed almost instantly, and the recently-turned 21-year-old has impressively managed to keep that form up over the whole campaign to date.
He’s been one of the outstanding players in Ligue 1 as a whole, adding more competition to the seemingly ever-growing list of young French left-backs. Lucas Digne (21, PSG), Layvin Kurzawa (22, Monaco) and Benjamin Mendy (20, Marseille) are all at clubs in the top four as of right now, with their standing making it easier to accommodate – and even encourage – defenders with attacking instincts, but the fact that Amavi’s performances have come whilst playing in a mid-table side have, to a degree anyway, made his showings even more impressive.
An average of 1.9 dribbles per game is the 15th highest (excluding any player who has made less than ten starts) in the division, and is better than any other defender too – a signal of how comfortable he is with the ball at his feet. That stat-based implication quickly becomes an ever-apparent truth when watching Nice, and he offers an excellent outlet for them on the left, with his athleticism acting as a great propellant and facilitator for his surges forward.
It’s on the overlap up the line where Amavi’s threat is greatest for now, where he combines well with first-choice left winger Éric Bauthéac and crosses to a good standard, but there’s potential for his attacking influence to continue increasing. He has an excellent right foot for a left-sided full-back, and utilising that to a greater extent on the underlap in combination with his dribbling skills (similarly to how Marcelo and Leighton Baines do so for example) could cause havoc in a more central area of the pitch. He already does so effectively on occasion, but with hints of ambidextrousness about him there’s the potential for more variety in his game to make him an utterly devastating attacking influence from deep.
His success in one-on-one situations isn’t restricted to just attacking situations though, and his defensive performances this season have arguably been even more impressive. There’s a brilliant balance to Amavi’s game, something which is again somewhat enabled (or rather enhanced) by his physicality, and that’s heavily reflected in his astounding number of tackles and interceptions completed. The left-back averages 4.1 tackles and 4.3 interceptions per game, figures which are respectively the fourth-highest and highest of all players (excluding those with less than ten starts) in Ligue 1 this season.
Playing for a lesser quality team who have lower levels of possession (51.5% average in each game) may have slightly boosted his defensive performance on paper, and with Nice averaging the highest number of tackles (23.1) and interceptions (22.9) per game on top of that he’s bound to average a little more than he would in a team with less defensive actions, but Amavi – as a result of his excellent reading of the game and an ability to position himself accordingly in most phases of play – certainly has a big impact on those numbers being so high.
On top of that, despite him not necessarily being the tallest full-back around at 5’9, his aerial ability is another reasonably impressive attribute of his. He’s contested the 11th most aerial duels in the league and has a success rate of 60.5%; ranking him eighth-highest in the top 20 (in terms of the 20 with the most duels contested). That shows that he can’t be overly targeted by direct sides from long balls and set-piece situations, such as in the manner of how Atlético Madrid use Raúl García to pull wide and flick the ball on against aerially-weak full-backs.
He’s also converted that ability in the air into a couple of goals, with two of his three goals being scored from headers at set-piece situations. The third one was also scored as a result of a free-kick, where he reacted quickest to get to the rebound after the goalkeeper pushed the initial effort onto the post. As continuously shown by his defensive actions, quick reactions, a brilliant thing to possess in one-on-one situations too, is a big part of his game.
Perhaps a weakness in the defensive side of his game is a slight tendency to pick up yellow cards, with six this season being the drawn second-highest of all the players in what is – quite ironically – a rather aggressive Nice squad. That gives a bit of an excuse to Amavi in that sense though, seeing as you could suggest that he’s simply ‘playing his role’ in a Claude Puel side which have got the worst disciplinary record in Ligue 1: a consequence of their high intensity defensive approach.
That focus on hard work is something which Puel implemented at both Lille and Lyon in previous jobs, and can help to explain just why they’re at the top of the completed tackles and interceptions statistics in the division as mentioned earlier – another piece of context which has to be considered when considering Amavi’s high individual performance in those categories.
Again, though, that definitely shouldn’t be used to disregard his defensive capabilities in any way. He’s been quite simply brilliant in all aspects of his play in this campaign, certainly doing enough to put his name amongst the more well-known personnel who are fighting for France’s left-back spot in the near future. A first cap (albeit in a very brief substitute appearance) was earned for the Under-21s back in September and he’s been deservedly called up to the most recent squad too, alongside huge names like Aymeric Laporte, Adrien Rabiot and Yassine Benzia.
Also in that talent-filled side is Mendy, the young Marseille left-back, but Amavi has the right to feel at least partially aggrieved if he isn’t considered the first-choice after such an excellent season so far. With a long list of superb candidates, Les Blues have a true headache-incurring decision to make for the first-team left-back in the future – though if he can keep performing like this then Amavi could be right at the fore of them all.