Eric Devin makes his Get French Football News debut reflecting on the successes and failures of Ligue 1 managers in 2014.
While winning the UNFP Ligue 1 Manager of the Year award is not necessarily a predictor of future success, as Lille’s struggles under Rene Girard this year demonstrate, the winter break offers a chance to assess the potential candidates for this year’s award. With half of the season in the book, the popular front-runner must surely be Marcelo “El Loco” Bielsa, who has his Olympique Marseille side flying in first place, after a gritty win over Lille at the weekend. Despite losing to fellow European hopefuls Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco and Lyon in recent weeks, Bielsa has made the most of what he has at his disposal, managing injuries and egos with aplomb. With the financial clout that PSG wield, to be ahead of them at this point is a strong achievement, especially as Bielsa has essentially the same squad as last year’s sixth place finishers, having swapped former Rennes winger Romain Alessandrini for the disgruntled Mathieu Valbuena.
However, while OM’s table-topping performance is a surprise indeed, the resources at the club relative to last year’s under-performance have served to make the club’s current placement perhaps not so impressive compared to the developments at Lyon and Nantes.
Last year’s Champions’ League Play-off Round exit to Real Sociedad notwithstanding, Remi Garde’s spell in charge of Olympique Lyonnais was relatively successful, as important players (Toulalan, Pjanic, Lloris, Kallstrom, Bastos, Lovren, Lisandro) were sold before each of the former Arsenal man’s three season in charge. Lyon’s recent transfer missteps (Yoann Gourcuff, Ederson, Aly Cissokho) had handcuffed the club financially, with older players on the cheap and youth team promotions being the only new additions to the squad. However, Garde did well in recognizing the importance of taking European competition seriously, reaching the knockout stages every year, shepherding a team dogged by injuries and the inconsistencies of youth to relative success. While his hand was somewhat forced by circumstances, the development of youngsters such as Alexandre Lacazette and Samuel Umtiti under Garde’s watch, coupled with veterans such as Steed Malbranque proving they still had something left was impressive. With Garde’s resignation, finding a replacement who combined the right combination of temperament under pressure and ability to develop youth would be difficult indeed.
Upon his exit, OL’s forced austerity meant that rather than a big-name international manager such as Bielsa, a considerably cheaper alternative would have to be found. Hubert Fournier had done well with limited means in returning Stade de Reims to Ligue 1 with a second-place finish in Ligue 2 in 2011-12, followed by 14th and 11th place finishes, firmly re-establishing the northern side in the top flight. With a demonstrated ability to trust youth, (Grzegorz Krychowiak, Aissa Mandi) not spend exorbitantly, (Reims’ net spend during Fournier’s time in charge was in the €8M neighbourhood) and play fairly attractive football in the process, the manager fit the bill, with only a €360,000 buy-out to boot.
With Lyon’s team largely unaffected by any potential World Cup hangover, only Henri Bedimo having participated, the season started brightly enough with victory over Czech side Mlada Boleslav in the Europa League and a comprehensive victory over Rennes in the league. However, those matches were followed by a two-legged defeat to Romanian minnows FC Astra and a run of three defeats in the league. At that point, the injury list included Clement Grenier, Milan Bisevac, Bedimo and Gourcuff, and with OL’s next two matches Monaco at home and Paris Saint-Germain away, things looked dismal for the Rhone side at the end of August.
What has followed in the subsequent four months, though, has been nothing short of remarkable. With only one loss in their last fifteen matches in the league, capped by a thumping 5-0 win at Bordeaux last weekend, Fournier’s faith in OL’s academy products has been immensely rewarded as the club have moved up to second place in the table. Jordan Ferri had already been frequently called upon by Garde last year, but Nebil Fekir and Clinton N’Jie were relative unknowns and their abilities have been on full display this year. N’Jie has featured in every league match save one, his pace easily dragging defenders out of place, and chipping in with five assists, revealing a cooperative mindset that has brought the best out of Alexandre Lacazette, who has already recorded a career best for league goals. While Fekir has missed a handful of matches through injury, he has chipped in with seven goals and four assists, playing at the tip of a midfield diamond, and Lyon have barely missed French international Clement Grenier, who had been arguably their best player over the past two years.
As impressive as Lyon’s return to relevance has been, one could fairly (rightly, even) argue that, with the resources at OL’s disposal, as well as their vaunted youth academy, success was inevitable, although perhaps not to the level displayed thus far. However, even as youth has played a role in Lyon’s resurgence, the club have been able to spend cannily on veteran players, notably right back Christophe Jallet (whose form has been superb) and left back Henri Bedimo. Compare this, then, to the situation that Michel Der Zakarian has overseen in Nantes.
A traditionally strong club, with eight league titles to their name, Nantes have struggled since their last title fourteen years ago, suffering multiple relegations and a lack of stability in the dressing room, with ten managers in the six years preceding the beginning of the Armenian’s current spell in charge, including, briefly, Der Zakarian himself in 2008. This financial and managerial instability was compounded by a transfer ban lasting until summer 2015 in the wake of improper conduct on the club’s part in the signing of Guinean striker Ismael Bangoura in January 2012. Nantes were fairly resolute last year in defense, conceding a sixth-best 43 goals, but struggled to be as clinical as they might like in the final third, scoring only 38. With ten-goal striker Filip Djordjevic having left on a free to Lazio in the summer, and loanee winger Banel Nicolita returning to Saint-Étienne, improving on last year’s 13th place finish looked an impossibility, to say nothing of staving off relegation.
However, Der Zakarian’s tactical nous this year has been nothing short of astounding. Switching fluidly between a 4-4-2/4-1-4-1 with the wings pushed forward to create space behind the strikers and a 4-2-3-1, the fluidity and variety of looks in attack that Nantes have displayed is truly remarkable for the mix of freedom granted the attacking players, whose hard work has became its own reward. Neither Serge Gakpe nor Alejandro Bedoya had previously been considered the grafting type, but both the Togolese and the American have become fan favorites, working hard on the wings, along with Stuttgart loanee Johan Audel. The 4-4-2 and the 4-2-3-1 being Der Zakarian’s formations of choice, a closer look at each is warranted. In the 4-4-2, the wings play high up the pitch, essentially forming a front four, with Yacine Bammou and Itay Schechter forming a physical front two and the wide players working hard on the wings. In addition to tracking back, the “wingers” are also charged with linking with the fullbacks to shuttle the ball forward in wide areas, with leather-lunged Issa Cissokho often getting forward of Gakpe on the right in a manner similar to Barcelona’s Dani Alves. The two “holding” players are two of Jordan Veretout, Kian Hansen and Lucas Deaux.
Hansen, a converted central defender acquired from Danish club Esbjerg in January, has been more than solid, often relegating the equally able Deaux to a bench role when Der Zakarian employs this formation. Whether Hansen or Deaux are anchoring the midfield, however, the defensive play in front of a consistent back four has been resolute, especially for the freedom it has given Jordan Veretout. The academy product has six goals (albeit with three from the spot), enjoying the freedom of being able to consistently drive into the space behind the strikers, effectively creating a 4-1-4-1 as Nantes pack the box, and is beginning to look a goal scoring midfielder a la Frank Lampard in his pomp.
While Veretout has proven to be a handful running into space, he is equally adept setting up the attack as a number ten in a 4-2-3-1, pushing into space ahead of Hansen and Deaux. Veretout’s goal-scoring prowess has been impressive thus far, but his eye for a pass is equally formidable, linking with Bammou up top or Gakpe, Bedoya or (more recently) youngster Georges-Kevin N’Koudou cutting in from the wing. N’Koudou is another academy player whose development under Der Zakarian is worth mentioning, as his sublime winner in only his second league start augurs well for his future, his coltish energy and pace beginning to be matched by flashes of real talent.
In seventh place with only seventeen goals conceded but a similarly paltry nineteen scored, Nantes will need more from their attack, especially with Bedoya and Gakpe (two goals between them, after thirteen combined last season) yet to really hit their stride. After a run of ten unbeaten in the league through October and November, with a comprehensive victory over Stade Lavallois in the Coupe de la Ligue as well, Nantes stuttered slightly earlier in the month, losing to Marseille, Toulouse and Paris Saint-Germain in succession before recovering with creditable wins over Lorient and Bordeaux in the last two match days. While their season has been impressive thus far, Nantes started similarly well last year, before enduring a nine-game winless run through February, which saw them slide quickly down the table. That being said, what Der Zakarian has achieved to this point with his squad is truly sensational given the lack of resources, and even if Nantes do suffer a dip in form later in the season, it will be a shame if the Armenian isn’t given due consideration when the managerial awards are handed out come May.