Arsenal are not in the Champions League for the first time in nearly two decades, but Arsene Wenger still paid close attention to the tournament’s playoffs draw Friday.
He must have been delighted when Nice were drawn against Napoli, because that means that the French outfit’s chances of making the group stage appear, on paper at least, to have been reduced. In that case, the Gunners’ hopes of signing Jean Seri would be significantly higher.
Nice believe that qualifying for Champions League proper could persuade the 26-year-old Ivory Coast midfielder not to listen to offers, but his head could be turned if Nice end up in the Europa League, too.
In fact, Seri was the man responsible for keeping Nice in the competition this week. Following the 1-1 draw at home against Ajax in the first leg, the Ligue 1 side were trailing 2-1 in Amsterdam before Seri produced a truly magical contribution with 11 minutes to go.
His majestic, totally unpredictable, back-heel pass enabled Vincent Marcel to score the crucial equaliser and take Nice through on away goals. That was a masterpiece of the highest order, which shows the wealth of Seri’s talent. With the buyout clause in his contract standing at €40 million, he must be considered a bargain.
Nice would make an outstanding profit regardless, because they signed Seri for just €1m two years ago from Pacos de Ferreira in Portugal. He was criminally underrated prior to the move, even though his potential was clear for all to see in his youth.
Back in the Ivory Coast, Seri was nicknamed Galla, because he tried to emulate former Argentine, Monaco and PSG midfielder Marcelo Gallardo. That was a rather unusual choice, but he admired the technical skills of the schemer, who is short, just like Seri himself at 5-foot-4 (1.65m).
The comparison was made by Cyrille Domoraud, who used to play with Gallardo at Monaco during the 2001-02 season. It was during that time that he opened the academy in the Ivory Coast, and Seri joined it as a kid.
“Jean Michael is gifted, intelligent and respectful,” Domoraud said in retrospect. “In his young days, he was one step ahead of the others, thanks to his ball control.”
It is hardly surprising that the best teams in the country fought for his services, and Seri moved in 2010 to ASEC Mimosas in Abidjan, where he needed one season to prove himself and become one of the best players in the country.
“He is a great listener, and his state of mind is impeccable,” ASEC coach Sebastien Desabre raved, and that quality enabled Seri to make steady progress.
He is a very humble person, ever willing to learn from his coaches and teammates. “I listen to criticism and not to praise,” Seri said. “That is the only way to improve.”
By 2012, Seri was called up to the national team by Sabri Lamouchi, though the coach didn’t think he was ready to make his debut at that point. Porto scouts were impressed, too, and the Dragons signed him, but somehow there was no place for Seri in the first-team squad.
He was forced to play for the reserve team in the second division, and eventually left for Pacos de Ferreira. That is where Seri’s magnificent range of passing and ability to dictate the tempo of the game made him a fans’ favourite. The team overperformed and finished in eighth place in 2014-15, and Nice were quick to get Seri before bigger clubs took notice.
It is fair to say the diminutive midfielder arrived in France totally unknown, and Nice supporters didn’t have any expectations of him. However, they were almost immediately excited by the skills of the man whom coach Claude Puel called “a master of the hidden pass.”
Seri then became the midfield general in the 2015-16 season, when Nice finished fourth. They improved further last term after Lucien Favre replaced the Southampton-bound Puel. Seri took on more responsibility following Nampalys Mendy’s transfer to Leicester City — providing nine assists and scoring seven goals himself — but his contribution went way beyond the obvious statistics.
Versatile in the extreme, Seri felt equally at ease both in the 3-5-2 system that required him to play deeper and the 4-3-3 formation that allowed him to move further forward.
“Jean Michael adapts to everything,” Favre said. “He breaks the lines by dribbling and by passing. He is very intelligent tactically.”
In addition, Seri makes his voice heard, despite being modest and soft-spoken.
“After the meals, he speaks and others listen. He often makes others laugh. Above all, he knows how to capture attention,” Favre said, adding that Nice must keep him at all costs.
Seri is grateful to Nice for giving him the stage to shine, and he feels comfortable in southern France, taking particularly into account that he suffers from chilblains, feeling pain when the weather is cold. However, he is also extremely ambitious. His most sacred dream is to play for Barcelona and emulate Xavi, who had replaced Gallardo as his role model over time. “I don’t know if I would ever get there, but I want to give myself a chance to do it,” he said back in November 2015.
In the two years since, Seri has come much closer to fulfilling that dream, and making the next step would be natural this summer. Arsenal could be the right team for the maestro, and Tottenham are also reported to be in the frame for his signature, but Barcelona themselves would be wise to look at Seri. His style is indeed reminiscent of Xavi, and his skills would be admired at the Camp Nou.
The games against Napoli have not been lost yet, however. If Nice are to beat the Italian giants, Seri must win the midfield battle against Marek Hamsik, and he could be capable of it. This is going to be an intriguing duel, and Wenger is certain to follow it very closely.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC’s European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin