In their penultimate game of 2020, six days before Christmas, Nice’s defence was ripped to shreds by Lyon. In fact, even that might be too generous a reading of what transpired. Nice’s defence ripped itself to shreds for Lyon’s benefit.
Before half-time, the Aiglons had handed two goals to Rudi Garcia’s Lyon, who added two more after the break.
It was another setback in a poor season and the sixth time Nice had conceded three or more in a game since they were hammered 6-2 by Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League on October 22.
Between the Leverkusen and the Lyon games, Nice’s manager Patrick Vieira had been fired by his bosses at INEOS Football and their Brazilian defender Dante had picked up an ACL injury that will keep him out for the season.
Though INEOS have splashed the cash to bring in forwards Kasper Dolberg, Alexis Claude-Maurice and Amine Gouiri, as well as Morgan Schneiderlin in midfield, their defensive recruitment had not been as well planned.
Without Dante, they were left playing a back three of 23-year-old Robson Bambu, 20-year-old Stanley Nsoki and Austrian teenager Flavius Daniliuc. With little experience and insufficient quality, they were extremely vulnerable.
Come the January transfer window, Nice had to act. The obvious thing to do would have been to hire an old head, either on a free or on loan, to provide some calm guidance to their young backline.
Instead, Nice went bold. In came two more youngsters, William Saliba and Jean-Clair Todibo, on loan from Arsenal and Barcelona respectively.
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It was a risk. In a team that was struggling, how would two players who had barely played a senior game all season cope?
But the gamble appears to be paying off. Just three games into their new defensive partnership, Saliba and Todibo are already on the lips of followers of French football as the new defensive double act to watch in Ligue 1. As a L’Equipe headline read on February 13: “Jean-Clair Todibo and William Saliba, a duo already indispensable to Nice.”
Nineteen-year-old Saliba was the first to come in, arriving on January 4. For player and parent club Arsenal, it was an obvious move. Saliba had been the great hope of Arsenal fans when he arrived in north London in the summer of 2020, but manager Mikel Arteta was unwilling to throw him in.
In a press conference in November, exasperated with questions about the Frenchman, Arteta said: “I explained that [Saliba] needed that transition year when we decided to buy him… For many reasons, that didn’t happen – he didn’t have that transition year and he needs to go through that.”
Saliba was clearly frustrated, too. As he admitted on his unveiling in southern France: “My first six months [at Arsenal] were difficult… The coach immediately told me that I was not ready. I would have at least liked to have a chance to rediscover my rhythm. But this is football, it’s like that.”
The approach from Nice, who were short in the department, guaranteed game-time in a league with which Saliba was already familiar.
Yet despite Saliba’s quality, it was not immediately clear it would work out. The 19-year-old slotted into the back three with Daniliuc and Robson Bambu, and though he was the pick of the bunch, displaying his fine footwork and aerial presence, Nice remained inconsistent, winning narrowly over Lens but losing to Brest and Saint-Etienne and getting walloped by Bordeaux.
Saliba makes the game of football look much easier than it really is… pic.twitter.com/Wo0egh4wDa
— Sam (@afcsammm) February 16, 2021
Needing another reinforcement, they turned to Todibo in late January.
Todibo moved to Barcelona from Toulouse two years ago on the back of some exceptional performances for France’s Under-20 team and a great start to his senior career in Ligue 1, form that led his then Toulouse team-mate Manu Garcia to refer to him as a “special player”.
Yet, like Saliba, Todibo found it hard to get minutes after his big transfer. With Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Samuel Umtiti and more recently Ronald Araujo ahead of him, Todibo was loaned out to Schalke then Benfica, struggling to adapt to two opposing climates and cultures.
Like Arsenal loaning out Saliba, the loan made sense for player and parent club. Todibo would be guaranteed minutes and knew the country and league.
But another player still eligible for Under-21 football going into a team without any defenders over the age of 23?
Again, the obvious thing would have been to go for experience. Received wisdom dictates that for their development both Todibo and Saliba, like Nice’s other young centre-halves, should be playing alongside an experienced defender from whom they can pick up the dark arts of defending.
But Nice were unfazed by the supposed folly of their actions, trusting that quality would weigh more heavily than experience. And immediately, with Saliba and Todibo in the team together, things picked up.
They lost their first game – as a pairing in a back four now, rather than in a three-man defensive line – but the margin was narrow, a 2-1 defeat in the derby to in-form Monaco when only a Wissam Ben Yedder wonder-strike eventually broke their resistance.
As So Foot’s match report said: “The return of Morgan Schneiderlin and the debut of Jean-Clair Todibo allow us to predict better [things to come] for the Aiglons.”
Loan watch: Jean-Clair Todibo has been named in L’Équipe’s team of the week. [l’equipe] pic.twitter.com/xhnosOJ8I4
— barcacentre (@barcacentre) February 9, 2021
The article was prescient. In the following game, Nice kept just their third clean sheet since early December and won for the first time at home in the league since October 3, running out 3-0 victors against Angers.
Before their next league game against PSG, Vieira’s replacement Adrian Ursea was asked about his new defenders and told L’Equipe: “Despite their young age, they bring a lot of personality and control, and it affects the stability of the team. A defender must first know how to defend, and [they] both do.
It was not only their defensive nous that impressed Ursea. “We want to start attacks from the back,” he continued, “and Todibo and Saliba give us peace of mind in this. We try to take advantage of it because what we can do in the last 30 metres depends on how we use the ball from our defence.”
The pair, as one would expect from French youth internationals, have exceptional quality in possession. In the game against Angers, they made a combined total of 119 passes, both with success rates of 91%.
Amine Gouiri, who has been Nice’s outstanding attacking player this season, appeared equally impressed: “Saliba and Todibo are very good technically, they are quick and they are strong in duels. They allow us to play football the way we want, to keep the ball and to stay high up the field.”
Against PSG, Todibo and Saliba started together for the third time. While Nice did lose, 2-1 was a far more meagre scoreline than they might have suffered had they not brought in their young centre-half pairing.
Asked to explain the ease with which they have adapted to Nice and to each other, Saliba told BeIn Sports: “I’ve known [Jean-Clair] for three or four years now. I played against him in youth football, and at professional level. We were together with France’s junior teams, so of course that helps our relationship.”
For Nice, the pair provide promise of a much better second half to the season and for their parent clubs, the development of Saliba and Todibo can only be a positive. The duo are out to prove Arsenal and Barcelona wrong for not giving them more opportunities by proving the two clubs right in showing the type of form that prompted their transfers in the first place.
Just over four weeks after joining Nice, Saliba was named the club’s Player of the Month for January, and for the Arsenal man in particular, his current manager Ursea will provide a glowing reference when he does return.
“You can see he has character and above all he reassures the others,” Ursea told BeIn Sports. “He’s not vocal, but he’s a leader in his own way. To see you a young boy who isn’t even 20 yet playing with such assurance… it really is quite amazing.”