The following article is extracted from Football News’s 200,000 word guide to the world of French football, The Football News 100 which focuses on ranking individuals’ performances over the course of 2017 as a calendar year. To download the whole guide, click here.
The following piece was written in December 2017 and published on the 1st January 2018. Jean-Michaël Seri ranked 3rd in the 2016 edition and ranked 10th in our index out of French football’s 100 best players in this year’s Football News 100.
Jean Michaël Seri is a man who is in no hurry. Whether on the pitch or off it, the 26-year-old Ivorian is confident in his ability, knows the direction in which he wants to go and is aware that he has time on his side. His much publicised aborted summer move to Barcelona may have been a small blip but, as ever, Seri has for the most part taken this in his stride and will not let it affect the upward trajectory of his career.
Born in the Ivory Coast, the young “Micka”, as Seri is commonly called, joined the football academy established by former Marseille defender Cyrille Domoraud, who remembers Seri as being “gifted, intelligent and respectful… in his young days he was one step ahead of the others, thanks to his ball control.”
By his late teens, Seri had broken into the ASEC Mimosas first team, where his raw ability and willingness to learn attracted the attention of Liga Nos giants Porto, who signed the young midfielder on loan. Seri failed to break into the first team but his reserve team performances convinced Paços de Ferreira to sign him permanently. Over two seasons with the club, Seri helped transform them from relegation candidates to a comfortable eighth place, winning the club’s player of the year title in 2014/15. Nice came calling and signed Seri for a bargain €1m in the summer of 2015.
Seri quickly became a household name in France, forming a dynamic midfield triumvirate with Nampalys Mendy and Vincent Koziello as Claude Puel’s Nice, with Hatem Ben Arfa and Valère Germain scoring regularly, finished fourth in Ligue 1, Seri contributing three goals and six assists to the cause.
It was last season, however, that Seri went up a level. With Ben Arfa gone there was more onus on him to provide the creative spark and inspiration and he took on the new responsibility with relish.
Able to play as a defensive midfielder (a position that he can play with aplomb but which curbs his excellent attacking instincts), as a deep-lying quarterback, dictating play Pirlo-style, or as a dynamic number 10, the fluidity of Nice’s midfield under Puel and especially last year under Lucien Favre, saw Seri combine all three roles every match as he became one of the stars of the 2016/17 season. Seri, playing a little further forward than under Puel, showed off his range of skills consistently throughout the season, from his close control to his endless stamina, his long-and short-range passing to his set piece delivery, his impressive shooting to his positioning skills, his tackling to his interceptions.
A return of seven goals and 10 assists (second only to Morgan Sanson) is impressive but if anything is reductive as an illustration of Seri’s displays for Les Aiglons, as he led the team to third in the table, including a 4-0 win over Monaco, a 3-1 win over PSG and only four defeats all season. He led the league in passes attempted and completed and in touches of the ball. That Seri made the UNFP Team of the Year was a formality; that he was not among the four nominees for Player of the Year a travesty.
The two-legged Champions’ League play-off in July and August this summer against Ajax saw Seri at his imperious best. As well as the usual display of ceaseless running, of excellent anticipation and ball winning, of constant probing, spraying passes short and long as well as bringing the ball forward with his excellent dribbling ability, Seri effectively won the tie for Nice with two outrageous assists.
In the first leg, Seri received the ball on the inside right channel and ambled forward slowly, before a sudden acceleration took three Ajax defenders out of the game, allowing him to sprint to the touchline and cross for Balotelli to slot home and open the score. In the second leg, with Nice 2-1 down with 10 minutes remaining and heading out, Seri topped even this show of skill: released down the right by Pléa, but running away from goal and seemingly running out of space and time, an outrageous back-heel back into the danger area allowed Vincent Marcel to steal through a stunned Ajax defence to equalise and send Nice through on away goals.
Seri, when asked about his own abilities, is modest: “I try to help the team go forward. I have good technical qualities. In this sport, the hardest thing is to play it simple”. He does however concede that he has a favourite move, the no-look pass: “the aim is to give the opponent as little clue as possible. I pretend to look one way, and pass the other. It’s a part of my game. Xavi did that at Barcelona all the time and I tried to copy him.”
Seri is the not only person to draw that comparison. Indeed, Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo referred to Seri last season as “the African Xavi”, which piqued the interest of the Spanish original – who was impressed with what he saw:
“When I was told that there was a Nice player nicknamed the African Xavi, I obviously began to follow him closely. I didn’t know him and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: I am not used to seeing such a midfield talent. Short game, long game, tactical intelligence, long shot, personality, game management … Madre Mia! He would fit in perfectly at Barça…he can play anywhere in the midfield. Seri is fantastic. He has what we call in Barcelona the Barça DNA. Without a doubt.”
After such a stunning season, Seri was unsurprisingly in high demand, with clubs including Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool and PSG all rumoured to be after the diminutive Ivorian. However, perhaps in part thanks to Xavi’s endorsement, a clear frontrunner emerged in the form of Barcelona. As the end of the transfer window approached and with those Ajax performances surely removing any lingering doubts, it seemed that the deal was as good as done, with a €40m fee rumoured to have been agreed. However, the deadline came and went and no deal was completed.
Excuses were given on one side and the other – some saying it was about the money, Nice President Rivière saying that his Barça counterpart had apologised to him and said that the Barça coaching staff just decided they didn’t want him after all – and Seri’s agent suggesting that his client was the collateral damage of PSG ramping up the price and tempting Barça with Angel di Maria purely to wind up the Catalans.
Whatever the reasons, Seri was devastated, as he confirmed when giving his reasons for not playing for Nice in their first match following the end of the window: “I’m not going to lie, I feel awful. I did not play for Nice this weekend because football should be about joy and I did not feel this. My dream of playing for Barcelona has been broken and this is terrible for me.”
Amidst the non-transfer fall-out – as well as Nice’s adjustment to a reconstructed defence and the continued absence of two of last season’s breakout stars Wylan Cyprien and Alassane Pléa – Nice’s season has until recently been a disaster, with most of the last few months spent hovering just above the relegation places. Many put a lot of the blame for this on the failed Seri deal, with the midfielder seemingly distracted, depressed and way off the high standards that he set for himself last season. The fact that he had begun the season with the two startling Ajax displays and starring roles in early wins over Guingamp and Troyes, while the transfer window was still open, seemed to bear this theory out all the more.
Seri himself denies this and said, after an impressive performance in another 4-0 win over Monaco: “the failed transfer affected me but now I look back on it with perspective. I focused on what I know, playing football. There was no other solution than to get back playing. Anything else wouldn’t have served for anything. I admit it wasn’t easy. But now there’s nothing in my head about all that. I think about the future – there are a lot of good things to do.”
Be that as it may, there was a drop-off in Seri’s form and he looked a shadow of last season’s player in poor Nice defeats to Marseille and Strasbourg. However, with hindsight that can also be explained away at least in part by a niggling hamstring injury which has caused him to miss six league matches this season, including the three following the Strasbourg defeat, along with half of Nice’s Europa League group stage matches. Since his return in late November, beginning with two relatively short run-outs, Seri has gradually been re-finding his form and fitness. And it is no coincidence that, as both the window and his injury niggles become a more distant memory, Nice have suddenly begun to find form, winning their last four straight Ligue 1 matches and climbing to sixth place as the winter break approaches.
Only one league goal and two assists bear witness to Seri’s slower start, but he is now clicking up the gears and beginning to remind us what a talent he is. And as he does so, talk of transfers have resurfaced, some even suggesting that he could move this January.
Seri doesn’t seem in any hurry though, mindful that he will now move only when the time is right and if it is to the right club that values him and his capabilities: “I don’t want to play second fiddle. I know what I’m capable of on a football pitch and I think I’ve shown that I have quality… If they choose me, I want them to treat me well, to make me a priority, not a compliment. That’s why my head is focused on football.” The reality is that Nice will not sell him until next summer, at which time Seri and President Rivière have a gentleman’s agreement to part ways.
Seri has proven time and again that he has a knack for making the right move at the right time, on and off the pitch. He may have been momentarily wrong-footed by this summer’s transfer disappointment, but his strength of character has seen him surmount this and he will surely be continuing to do some wrong-footing of his own, at the very top of the world stage, in the years to come.
Now, he will do his best to lead a resurgent Nice side deep into the Europa League knockout stages and on the tail of Ligue 1’s top four domestically. A die-hard professional, a fighter and a maestro, it has been a pleasure to watch Jean-Michael Seri grace French football’s pitches with his presence. If this is the last time that he will be eligible to feature in a GFFN 100 edition in his career should he seek pastures anew, we wish him all the very best.