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Sergio Conceicao (Image: But Football Club)

The Ligue 1 Review – Week 30

Managers at Nantes do not last long under Waldemar Kita. Appointed in December, with the side struggling near the foot of the division, former Portuguese international Sérgio Conceição became Les Canaris’ 12th head coach since club President Kita arrived in 2007. Kia’s seemingly volatile and overbearing demeanour has often been a contributing factor in this rapid turnover, his attitude notably forcing Michel der Zakarian’s exit at the end of last season.

Despite surviving for four years, a veritable lifetime for a Nantes manager under Kita, returning the club to Ligue 1 and comfortably keeping them there for three seasons and in spite of significant financial restraints, der Zakarian’s already frosty relationship with his president became tumultuous; his contract left to run out at the end of last season. The Armenian stating: “I no longer want to work with Mr. Kita. So, I’ll stop.” As der Zakarian attempted to bid farewell to the Nantes supporters after his final home game, Kita reportedly ordered his words to be drowned out by blaring music from the Stade de la Beaujoire sound system, a petty way to end a successful chapter in the club’s recent history.

With der Zakarian swiftly shuffled along, Kita wasted no time in presenting Montpellier’s 2012 Ligue 1 winning manager René Girard as his replacement. Just eight league games into his reign, Girard was already on thin ice, reportedly informing his players he would be sacked if they lost to SC Bastia that weekend after a string of laboured showings.

The 1-0 win only staid Kita’s hand for another seven weeks as a 6-0 home thumping from Lyon saw the veteran Girard exit as hastily as he had arrived. Neither Girard nor der Zakarian’s style provided the fans and their president with what they long craved: goals.

Ligue 1 is a division often economical with its distribution of goals but Nantes’ attack has been blunt even by French standards in recent times. Despite finishing eight points clear of the relegation places in 2014/15 in a secure 14th place, Nantes were outscored by all three demoted clubs, ending with just 29 league goals from their 38 games, while only the hapless Troyes scored fewer than Les Canaris during the following campaign. Nantes again finished in 14th, just four goals better off, in spite of having looked capable of challenging for a Europa League place at one stage after a 13-game unbeaten league run either side of Christmas.

Stoic displays under der Zakarian disintegrated into insipid performances with Girard as all attempts from both men to add some impetus and drive into Les Canaris’ play proved fruitless. The supposedly marquee signing of Kolbeinn Sigthorsson resulted in just three league goals last term before a move to Galatasaray, diamond midfields, 4-4-2s and 4-3-3s came and went while persistently wayward forwards Yacine Bammou, Emiliano Sala and more recently Mariusz Stepinski failed to find any consistency.

Just nine goals, three wins, 13 points and 19th place were all Nantes had to show after the first 16 league games of this term, the club genuinely fearing a slip back into the provincial Ligue 2. All of which makes Conceição’s revolution even more remarkable.

Nantes desperately needed an abrupt change in direction and philosophy to awake them from their lumbering, lacklustre run of the last 18 months. As a result, Kita himself was forced to change tact.

Having originally stated that, “the coach must know the players and the championship”, this was quietly abandoned by the president, perhaps partly out of necessity due to his poor reputation in France, regularly interfering with footballing affairs and showing up unannounced in the dressing room. Instead intentions were switched “to find someone who has nothing to do with French football and nothing to see in relation to the atmosphere that reigns at this moment in Nantes. I thought the best solution was to get someone from outside, who does not deal with all these problems.”

Conceição fitted the new criteria perfectly, making an immediate impression. “As soon as he arrived in Paris on the first day, I saw that he was not afraid of anyone. He will bring us a different culture and vision. He has already started giving ideas to change things. It’s fun because we fell into monotony. We all need a certain organization and discipline.” This was a keen appraisal of their situation. Discipline has been the watchword of the fledgling Conceição reign, players were subjected to double training sessions and a far stricter, thorough and precise style of management. “We have worked a lot on the organization, we feel that he has watched a lot of videos, he has a mentality that we know little in France,” full-back Léo Dubois explained.

That mentality has perhaps been the starkest change from Girard’s era. The already fiery Conceição, once spitting at an opponent and throwing his shirt at the referee following his sending off while with Standard Liége, begun his tenure with the air of a parent who had been disgusted to discover that his children had badly behaved at school. A zero tolerance attitude ensued.

Breakout midfield talent, 19-year-old Amine Harit, was banished to the reserves after breaking the manager’s rules on a night out and has not started since despite apologising. The previously ever-present keeper Rémy Riou was dropped to the bench after a poor display at Bastia and also has yet to return to the starting XI, while forward Stepinski was withdrawn before half-time in a recent home game after an anonymous 40-minute display. The sedate leadership of Girard has evaporated and the players are now constantly on alert.

The increase in intensity has translated into a series of hungry, committed and more aggressive performances from Conceição’s men, winning six of their first seven games in all competitions and only losing three of his 14 league games to date, two of which came against PSG and Monaco. But perhaps most eye-catching of his achievements so far has been is ability to cajole his previously dormant strike force into some lethal displays, with 13 goals in their last seven league games compared to three in the same period before Conceição’s appointment.

Despite a spike in form on loan at Caen in 2015, powerful Argentine striker Emiliano Sala has done little more than flatter to deceive for both Bordeaux and Nantes but his performances since Conceição’s arrival have been a startling revelation. Their leading scorer with nine league goals (a respectable tally in Ligue 1) and eight in total since the Portuguese’s arrival, Sala has bullied and hassled centre backs, proving to be a constant a threat from set pieces and showing that his finishing can be both spectacular and clinical when afforded the chance and his manager’s faith.

Although Conceição has lofty expectations of his players, he has also proved to be an adept man manager. After some poor displays and an on-pitch disagreement with a colleague resulting abuse from the Beaujoire crowd, Yacine Bammou was thrown in from the start for the visit of Dijon back in February, Conceição taking issue with the treatment of his striker: “I do not agree because we’re all in the same boat. He made a mistake perhaps and I understand the fans who are angry at that time. But now it’s past. He gives everything, he’s a nice guy and a good player too. I want Yacine to score a goal and everyone to applaud him.”

Bammou scored the opener inside three minutes in a 3-1 win after well over a year without a goal at home. However, Conceição’s first few weeks in Eastern France were allegedly not as straightforward as results would suggest, with the pre-existing Nantes coaching staff reportedly being marginalised upon the introduction of the Portuguese’s own team, something that the new boss vehemently denied.

Nevertheless, the 42-year old’s effect has been impressive across the squad; winger Jules Iloki, full-backs Lucas Lima and Dubois and midfielders Valentin Rongier and Adrien Thomasson have all returned to some of their best form, showing signs of emulating their coach’s fire, passion and intensity. Meanwhile the astute acquisitions of Colombian winger Felipe Pardo from Olympiakos and particularly dynamic Kayserispor forward Préjuce Nakoulma have added some much needed bite to the squad.

Nantes’ 1-1 draw with title-chasing Nice this weekend typified their swift evolution. A snap finish from the now pivotal Sala gave them an early lead before jean Seri fired home an equaliser. Conceição was left livid as Nakoulma was denied a clear penalty in the second half. Although this was a fair result, when put next to the 3-2 win over Marseille and recent comebacks at Bastia and Montpellier, Nantes are proving themselves to be a major force in Ligue 1 under the new coach, now comfortably in mid-table with a European place not yet beyond their reach.

As their manager’s stock continues to rise, recently turning down the chance to take over at Leicester, Kita is aware of Conceição’s lofty status on shortlists around Europe: “If he has good results, he will not remain in Nantes if I do not give him more resources. The means a stadium, a training centre and players. As of next season, it will be necessary to give more resources.”

For his part Conceição is committed into next year joking: “If President Kita does not change his mind, I will still be here next season.” Given the dramatic turnaround in Eastern France this winter, even the unpredictable Waldemar Kita will not be looking to let his manager go anytime soon. However, should Les Canaris continue in such rumbustious form with Conceição at the helm, he may not have much choice. Kita said he wanted “a manager capable of igniting the Beaujoire”. He has definitely found one.

 

1| Much of the dissatisfaction surrounding Lorient’s calamitous season has centred around a lack of re-investment. The club had done well to command impressive fees for Raphael Guerreiro and Didier N’Dong this summer, but aside from Steven Moreira, there was little sign of those transfer fees being reinvested into making up for their departures. Mathieu Peybernes and Alhassan Wakaso arrived in the winter window, but neither player appears to have done much to change the club’s fortunes, as Les Merlus continue to languish in last place. A thrilling win away to Nancy on Saturday, with Arnold Mvuemba netting in the fifth minute of injury time to complete a comeback from 3-2 down, has however given Bernard Casoni’s team a shred of hope.

The win moves the Breton side to within three points of safety. Lost in the shuffle of the win, however, may be the performance of Wesley Lautoa. The veteran centre back has endured a difficult season, struggling through injury in the fall before being dropped for Peybernes in recent weeks. However, on Saturday, he delivered an inspired performance, heading in an equaliser three minutes from time and generally displaying good aerial command. Lorient’s goal difference means there is still much work to be done to achieve survival, but if Lautoa, who was captain at the start of last season before an injury cut short his hopes of fulfilling an unbroken campaign, can maintain this sort of form, there may yet be hope for Ligue 1’s bottom club.

2 | SC Bastia, despite managing to finish the match with eleven men on the pitch, lost yet again on Friday, a cruel own goal from Gilles Cioni enough for hosts Metz to run out 1-0 winners. After four consecutive matches with a red card for the Corsican side, they had become a bit of a punchline. However, on the evidence from their trip to the Stade Saint-Symphorien on Friday, it is more than just ill-discipline that threatens relegation. Bordeaux loanee Enzo Crivelli remains the team’s leading scorer, on seven goals, but he has featured in just three matches since the turn of the year, and his absence seems to have bred a disturbing lack of trust among his teammates.

In Prince Oniangué, Allan Saint-Maximin and Gaël Danic (suspended in this match), Bastia should have enough attacking talent to cope without the big centre forward, but the way the team’s players relate to each other on the pitch reveals a frustrating propensity towards individualism. Talented though they may be, Bastia’s attackers need to trust each other, sharing the ball and relying less on their individual talent, which is simply not at a sufficient level to dominate matches in Ligue 1. Between them, Saint-Maximin and Lenny Nangis, in for Danic, lost the ball nearly twenty times, attempting only 37 combined passes, totals which made even a normally poor Metz defence look good. Just three points from safety, Bastia still have every chance of survival, but unless Rui Almeida can inspire his players to have more faith in each other’s’ abilities, relegation looks a more probable outcome.

3 | Angers had won five straight matches in all competitions before getting thumped by Marseille last weekend, but were back to winning ways against Guingamp on Saturday, topping the Breton side 3-0. Part of Le Sco’s improved form was down to a weak set of opponents, as Stéphane Moulin’s side still has to play each of the top four before the end of the season, but one aspect of the team’s success that is slightly over-looked is Jonathan Bamba, on loan from Saint-Étienne after an underwhelming spell in Belgium. The youngster has only two goals but his pace and dribbling ability have allowed Angers to stretch opponents’ back lines with greater ease. Bamba has also displaced Nicolas Pepé, the team’s highly-rated Ivorian, who was linked with a winter move to the Premier League, but has started just twice in the league since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations. Given the impressive start to the career of Jorginho at his parent club, there are unlikely to be more opportunities upon Bamba’s return to the Rhône valley. Regardless, his performances with Angers have not only gone a long way towards burnishing his once-diminished reputation, but also created no lack of interest surrounding his future.

4 | Djibril Sidibé is more than likely to keep his starting spot as France’s right back when Les Bleus face Luxembourg and Spain in the coming week, but there is some element of the Monaco man being given his spot by default. Bacary Sagna appears set to pull out with an injury, Christophe Jallet has struggled with his own issues and Sébastien Corchia has been in poor form for the last six weeks. Spare a thought, too, for Mathieu Debuchy, who displayed good form during a loan spell at Bordeaux last season, but has barely featured for Arsenal. In need of competition for Sidibé, who missed Monaco’s win over Caen through suspension, Didier Deschamps could do worse than his club teammate, Almamy Touré. Born in Mali, but still undecided over his international choice, the 20 year-old has been superb at every opportunity this season for the Ligue 1 leaders, combining a robust physical presence with a sounder defensive approach than Sidibé, whose attacking gifts frequently mask his defensive frailties. A call-up for the U21 side may seem a more logical next step for Touré, but with France having failed to qualify for the summer’s European Championships in that youth category, there is little point to bringing Touré into a meaningless friendly when he appears to be ready to make an impact at the senior level.

Team of the Week: Yohann Pelé, Olympique de Marseille; Ivan Balliu, FC Metz, Jemerson, AS Monaco, Wesley Lautoa, FC Lorient, Benjamin Mendy, AS Monaco; Jordan Veretout, AS Saint-Étienne, Thomas Mangani, Angers SCO, Adrien Rabiot, Paris Saint-Germain, Javier Pastore, Paris Saint-Germain; Kylian Mbappé, AS Monaco, Diego Rolan, Girondins de Bordeaux.

Goal of the Week: Jean Michael Seri, OGC Nice.

A.W. and E.D.

 

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