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Why Nantes can flourish after a difficult start to the season

Eric Devin examines Nantes’ recent results and contends that their victory over Caen this weekend was no fluke and a sign of things to come.

On the surface, Caen’s loss to Nantes is an unsurprising result; two defensively solid teams trade counterattacks, and one team finishes their chances more adeptly. For Caen, there will certainly be regrets, as an impressive start to the season was marred, their attempts to respond to going down first one goal and then a second limited by a shallow bench short of attacking options.

With Jonathan Delaplace and Herve Bazile set to return imminently, though, the team can look forward to getting back on track next weekend against Bastia, chalking up the result to bad luck and good goalkeeping.

What, then, of Nantes? After Matchday 3, I had written a piece praising the team, in particular the young midfield duo of Valentin Rongier and Birama Touré, for their overall solidity. The intimation in the piece was that what success the club could have this season would be down to that trademark Michel Der Zakarian solidity and scraping the odd result, as it had been last season.

Unbeaten at that point, the team promptly lost their next four matches, conceding ten goals in the process. Granted, playing Paris Saint-Germain, Saint-Etienne and Rennes will produce similar results for much of Ligue 1, but for a team such as Nantes, conceding so many goals would be the concern, not necessarily the results.

However, a closer look at each match reveals that perhaps there was not so much to worry about. Both goals against Rennes came with the opposition having a man advantage, the second with only nine men, even. Against Saint-Etienne, Jonathan Bamba’s finish was tremendous, but now we can see why Ermir Lenjani is no longer the starting left back.

Several of Paris Saint-Germain’s goals were a bit fortuitous, and, to be truthful, there is little shame in capitulating against the class of the champions. Since then, however, things seem to be back on track defensively. Not including the canceled match against the irrepressible Nice, Nantes have now gone three straight matches without conceding, mirroring the run which saw them lying fourth two months ago.

While the likes of Lille, Troyes and Caen aren’t exactly a murderer’s row of opponents, the confidence that the team will have gained in keeping those clean sheets is of paramount importance.

The inevitable argument, of course is that Nantes are just as apt to revert to the form that they displayed in September, that this recent spell of defensive fortitude is unsustainable. While there may be some truth to that, and the club will doubtless suffer through another poor spell in defence before the season ends, what they have displayed going forward should be the real cause for hope.

I am by no means ready to tip Nantes as being European contenders or anything of that level, but for a club that was lying 16th after the loss to Saint-Etienne, with almost a third of the season played, relegation is becoming less and less of a worry. The surprise, though, is that this down to their attack, which looks reinvented.

Last year, Nantes were, to be frank, awful going forward. They had the worst attack in the division, scoring just 29 goals and relying on the opportunism and graft of a profligate strike force. No player scored more than four goals from open play. With the departures of Jordan Veretout, Serge Gakpé and Georges-Kevin N’Koudou, as well as wide players/full-backs Issa Cissokho and Vincent Bessat, much of the team’s attacking thrust was gone, and things looked to be even more difficult this campaign.

However, this has surprisingly been far from the case. The arrivals of Adrien Thomasson, Youssouf Sabaly and Wilfried Moimbe all went somewhat under the radar, as the club had spent big by their standards on traditional centre forwards Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (currently injured) and Emiliano Sala.

With the departure of Gakpé, whose graft had been so important to what joy Nantes did have going forward last campaign, the focus on the position was necessary, but neither have had much of an impact to date. Rather, it is the aforementioned trio, now installed as starters after the full-backs’ return from injury, who have given Les Canaris  a newfound attacking verve.

With Nantes playing a double-six 4-4-2, the wide midfielders pushed to the touchlines and tasked with linking up with the full-backs, the trio’s talent is a much more ideal fit than that of young Leo Dubois and Ermir Lenjani. Sabaly, in particular, was a joy to watch against Caen.

While not the most adept at delivering crosses, the Paris Saint-Germain loanee is fantastic with the ball at his feet, averaging a league-leading 4.3 dribbles per match. The way in which he and Thomasson have quickly established a rapport is impressive indeed. As Sabaly gets forward with the ball at his feet, the former Evian player is able to cut inside, linking play with the strikers.

Yacine Bammou and Sala being willing workers in terms of finding space, the dividends are immediately apparent, the club having scored seven goals in the last three matches, including the rained-out match at Nice. Bammou in particular has impressed, scoring in each of the club’s three completed matches after supplanting Sigthorsson as the primary striker.

A slow developer, already 24 in his second season with the first team, Bammou was last season tasked with leading Nantes’ press from the front, leaving scoring opportunities for Gakpé and Veretout. Now, he is being given more freedom to shoot and his goal against Caen, a fine finish at the near post after a one-two with Sala shows that he has more to offer than merely harrying opposing back lines.

On the left flank, Wilfried Moimbe has likewise been a surprise, as his interplay with Johan Audel demonstrated on Friday. With both players willing runners, the full-back is able to both deliver crosses, such as his assist for Thomasson’s goal against Caen, or to cut inside. Again, with the way that Nantes set up tactically, both Birama Touré and Valentin Rongier being essentially defensive midfielders, the space created in midfield is often vast, even if the latter does occasionally get forward.

A former Bordeaux youth player, Moimbe has spent the last few years in Ligue 2 with Tours and Brest and, at 28, his arrival was generally seen as adding squad depth. Albanian international Ermir Lenjani, on loan from Rennes, was quickly installed as the starter at left back, bearing this out.

However, after several poor performances from Lenjani, Moimbe has been given the nod of late, his arrival and Nantes’ improved defensive performances not a coincidence. Despite his small size, Moimbe is an energetic tackler and a decent crosser of the ball, which mitigates Sabaly’s inefficiencies in the latter by providing balance going forward.

With an assured performance against Caen under their belt and matches to come against the less-than-stellar defences of Marseille and Nice in the next weeks, Nantes are well-positioned to continue to this run. While it is disappointing to not see anything approaching a decent return as yet from Sigthorsson, considering his fee, the right ingredients are in place for the club to build on this victory.

Despite losing Rongier in the match for the rest of the season due to a knee injury, American Alejandro Bedoya will be available again soon, and Remi Gomis and Lucas Deaux are serviceable options as well. Over the last two seasons, Nantes were abject going forward, but they stayed in Ligue 1. Now, with a revamped squad, they have every chance to become one of the division’s more eye-catching sides.

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