While Rennes have lately been the Breton club associated with a raft of player turnover, Nantes seemed to determine to outdo them this summer, seeing the exit of no less than seven first team players, with centre back Papy Djilobodji also a likely departure.
For a club that always seemed to be riding its luck in attack, a bit of graft combined with the odd opportunistic goal, this had the potential to be disastrous. Manager Michel der Zakarian had done incredibly well to lead Nantes to repeated mid-table finishes since their return to the top flight, exceeding expectations for a club with a proud history but a somewhat troubled recent past.
But, in doing so, he had been able to make use of a relatively stable group of largely veteran players, all of them exceptionally hard workers. Such continuity and maturity were integral parts to the club’s success, however modest it was.
With so many departures, could the club sustain the stability it had achieved, especially with what were sure to be modest means to replace those who had gone? The answer, at least thus far, has been a resounding yes.
Last year, der Zakarian employed an aggressive pressing scheme which relied on the tireless efforts of the fullbacks, particularly the now-departed Issa Cissokho, to create opportunities for a physical, if somewhat limited group of forwards.
Although Alejandro Bedoya, Jordan Veretout and Georges-Kevin N’Koudou could be a bit more cultured than their teammates, the overall effect was one of a physically strong and determined team that would harry their opponents into mistakes, hoping that their defence would allow them to eke out the odd victory.
The style gave the club the sixth-best goals against tally in Ligue 1 last, something which allowed them to handily survive, despite the worst attack in the division.
This summer, however, seemed to mark a change in approach for the club. Striker was made a priority, and the arrivals of the Icelandic international Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Emiliano Sala were seen as a real statement of intent. Sigthorsson’s career had stalled somewhat with Ajax with the emergence of Anwar El Ghazi and Lasse Schone, but his scoring record for his country continued to be evidence of his talent.
Sala, meanwhile, was a player who had been on the books of Bordeaux for several years, but failed to make an impact, despite several successful loan spells with Caen, Niort and Orleans. Adrien Thomasson, late of Evian and the intriguing young Brazilian, Adryan, both creative players, were also brought in, the latter on loan, with the implied intent to improve the club going forward.
However, three matches into the season, and Nantes’ leading scorer is Jeremy Sorbon, whose own goal proved the difference in the club’s 1-0 victory over Guingamp on the opening matchday. Loanee left back Ermir Lenjani scored in the win over Reims, but so far, things have failed to gel in attack for Les Canaris, despite their investments and what has generally been a more attacking set of players from der Zakarian.
While failing to improve in an area which was their bete noire last season will certainly be a source of frustration for the club’s hierarchy and fans, what shouldn’t go unnoticed is the club continuing to frustrate their opponents, despite the tactical shift and change in personnel.
Granted, Guingamp in the absence of Christophe Mandanne and Claudio Beauvue were no great opponents, but a rejuvenated Reims and a dangerous Angers side have shown that they are capable going forward.
With academy product Koffi Djidji lining up alongside converted midfielder Lucas Deaux in central defence, the team has seen a marked change from the consistent pairing of Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and Djilobodji, with the full back positions now manned by another graduate, the promising Leo Dubois, and Lenjani.
Despite these changes, the tactical continuity that has been maintained is quite impressive. Lenjani and Dubois have showed that they are fine natural replacements for the departed Olivier Veigneau and Cissokho.
Where Cissokho’s style was one of being a tireless runner, shuttling the ball up and down the pitch, with Veigneau more apt to create opportunities by breaking play up and starting a counterattack, their replacements are a bit more cultured, Dubois being the catalyst for much of Nantes’ play by playing long balls forward with a fairly impressive degree of accuracy.
Lenjani, as his goal showed, is a bit more direct and confident in his dribbling ability but if the pair can continue to demonstrate the kind of stamina that they have thus far, they should be more than able replacements.
Further forward, the young Brazilian, Adryan has showed considerable craft with the ball at his feet, but seems to be struggling a bit to come to grips with the physicality and pace of Ligue 1. His creative potential is patent, but his combination play with the strikers is still somewhat lacking, as is Thomasson’s.
Both are still young and are likewise perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the level of defensive responsibility required by der Zakarian, but will hopefully become comfortable enough to provide the odd moment of brilliance that their positions require within the system.
As impressive as the new arrivals at fullback have been, as well as the central defensive pairing, the two real keys to Nantes’ solidity thus far have been the central midfield pair of Birama Toure and Valentin Rongier. One of Nantes’ most promising players in their initial return to Ligue 1 two seasons ago, the fine play of Kian Hansen and Deaux last season saw the Malian leave to Brest on loan in search of regular football, while Rongier was still a fringe player owing to his youth and inexperience.
This season, however, both have looked accomplished and assured, shielding the makeshift central defence with aplomb. Both are pacy, with excellent anticipation and are sharp tacklers to boot, with the smaller Rongier more able to get forward than the imposing Toure with the ball at his feet.
In addition to breaking up play centrally, both are equally able to move into wider positions so as to provide cover for the forward runs of the fullbacks, making them fairly complete players at the position, albeit with potential for continued growth.
Despite playing with the single-mindedness that has characterized der Zakarian’s best squads, Nantes are still a long way from being the attacking force to which they aspired to in their transfer dealings.
That said, the impressive way in which the team’s defensive midfield has come together to be the heartbeat of a re-worked team is a real testament not only to the manager’s nous but to his commitment to his style. In Sala, Sigthorsson and Yacine Bammou, there are goals, and as the season progresses, the creative players will hopefully develop to the point where they can be creative linchpins.
In the meantime, the team’s continued defensive work will be a bulwark against which the team’s hopes of staying up will rest. If the early results are anything to go by, fans at the Beaujoire will continue to enjoy top flight football, a fine testament to both Nantes’ academy and the managerial aptitude of der Zakarian.