In an interview with Get French Football News’ Luke Entwistle, midfielder Mario Lemina (29) spoke about the revitalisation of an OGC Nice career, the arrivals of Aaron Ramsey and Ross Barkley and the impact that Lucien Favre’s rumoured departure had on the dressing room.
How do you evaluate your start to the season?
I’m a competitor. I don’t like losing, I hate it. What’s important for me is that everything goes well for the whole team. If that happens through the performances that I’ve had recently then that can give momentum to the side. I will do my best to keep that consistency. But I’m not the only one in this circumstance. There are others like Todibo and Dante who are very consistent in their performances. That allows me as well to the young players that there is a direct path to follow.
I think everyone is beginning to understand their role in the team, everyone is starting to understand what they have to do. That’s starting to show at every level, from the goalkeepers to the forwards. That allows for a certain cohesion in the performances.
Do you feel in the best form of your career?
Not necessarily. It’s true that the fact that injuries are leaving me alone a bit allows me to use the maximum of my potential. To say that this is the best period of my career, it’s too early. The season has only just started. I’m hoping to play a whole season to draw up a report on that. For now, it’s really too early. Touch wood, I’m hoping that no injury will come.
Is this consistency the fruit of all the different experiences throughout your career?
The fact that the injuries are leaving me alone, allows me to turn up every time, on the pitch and off it. It also allows me to be confident in my mind. Knowing what I can do, who I can be, and what I can bring to the team. I want to really emphasise that, the injuries that I’ve had. Now, I don’t have any ‘apparent’ injuries and so that really allows me to be who I want to be on the pitch.
Does it give you confidence being able to get into this competitive midfield?
For sure. There are very good players at this level. They have recruited Aaron Ramsey, Ross Barkley, even Hicham [Bouadoui] can play there, as can Khéphren [Thuram] and Pablo [Rosario]. But I do what I have to do. I know myself well, I know who I am and what I want to do in order to be able to give the maximum to the team. It’s up to me to be consistent and I think that I can help the team reach their objectives.
What was your reaction to the arrivals of Barkley and Ramsey?
[My reaction] was positive. It’s important for Nice to have players like Aaron and Ross. It also gives the club more visibility, and Nice is now a club that attracts very big players. They bring something positive to the dressing room. They bring lots of experience, they speak a lot. They still have this hunger to learn and to progress and their presence is very important to us today.
But did their arrivals ever make you doubt your role within the team?
Lots of people asked a lot of questions. No one is in my head, or in the head of the coach. Today, me and Lucien Favre are on the same wavelength. I am here and I give the maximum of my capacities to be able to bring positive things to the team and that’s all that matters today. Everything that happened before is in the past. There was a lot of speculation. Today we’re 16, 17 matches in so the main thing is that I’m here and that I’m moving forward.
How do you evaluate Nice’s start to the season?
At the start, it was difficult. Internally it wasn’t easy, there was a lot of movement and lots of arrivals as well.We had to wait for things to gel and for everyone to get to know each other. There was a new way of working with the new coach and he needed time as well to make us work as he wanted. Today, we’re getting somewhere. We’re starting to obtain positive results and that brings a certain level of confidence to the team, a certain desire to continue these positive results, to continue on this very positive spiral. The stability helps everyone and I hope that continues.
Your goal against Partizan Belgrade seemed to spark this run. Do you feel a positive momentum?
We need to keep this positive momentum and not go backward. The match against Partizan did us a lot of good because we saw that the team had a strong character and didn’t stop fighting, whether that be against Partizan, or against Nantes and there are lots of matches like that where we managed to come back to win the match and that shows the character of the team. Today, we want to keep going, but winning matches earlier would be good as well!
Favre said that the players needed time. Do you agree?
We’re involved in a totally new project. New things are being brought in, a new style of play so the coach really needs time. It was very hard for him, very hard for the players, and for the club but today we are past that. Something is beginning to be put in place now, the important thing is that we’re starting to gel and that we’re getting results.
You said that it was difficult for the coach. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Everything was difficult, everything was new. For us, for him, for the club, he had to adapt to all of that, and we had to adapt to that and we needed to find a way to function together as a group. That took time, but today the results are there and on the pitch, you can see that the connections are starting to take. It’s not the fruit of chance, it’s only the fruit of work and everyone is committed so I hope that we can continue against Lyon and after the World Cup break.
How did the rumours about Favre’s job affect the group?
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We aren’t mugs. We follow the journalists, we see what is said on the left and on the right. We didn’t take any conclusions from it. That’s up to the coach and the club to manage with the ownership. I don’t think his job was put in danger at any point. I think they have real confidence in the coach and his capabilities because he’s already done it before. He just needed time for everything to be moved in the right direction. That’s happening. We’re arriving at something interesting.
Did those rumours unify the dressing room, and make the group more committed to fighting for Favre?
Of course. The coach is a really good person that likes the players, that speaks a lot with the players, and wants to take the positive every time so the most important thing in these difficult moments is to stay tight-knit, stay together and take a stand despite the negative stories. We knew how to do that, we stayed united and now we’re feeling the benefits.
Does European qualification help with confidence within the group as well?
We want to represent ourselves well in this competition as well. We managed to finish 1st in this group and after the break, we’ll have another competition to play and that’s good for the fans as well to have the challenge to take on.
Do you think you have become a complete midfielder?
I think I can be more complete. Regarding my statistics, I think I can still bring a lot more. It’s up to me to do the work to be better.
How have the managers you’ve worked under (Bielsa, Allegri, Pellegrino, Favre) influenced your game?
All have played a part in my evolution. Whether that be my first coach Christian Gourcuff up to Lucien Favre today. Lots of managers have helped me to progress tactically. Juventus gave me a lot of freedom, like at Southampton and at Galatasaray. That has allowed me to learn a lot of things about all the styles of play. (Going from Bielsa to Allegri is the complete opposite) It’s true. It’s not the same. But it is still football and that remains a daily learning process today, at the age of 29, I’ve come to understand who I am and the coach starts to understand what kind of player I am as well.
Do you think you’ve matured late on in your career?
I don’t know about being late. Today, with the young players here at the club, has allowed me to realise also that I have a role to speak about my experience. So that has given me much more important responsibilities than at other clubs.
What are the team’s objectives for the remainder of the season after the difficult start?
Our objective is to be consistent in our results and to catch up to the other teams in terms of points because we fell behind the competition at the start. Today it’s about finding that connection between ourselves, to continue to enjoy working together and getting results.