The cyclical and impatient nature of English football has reared its ugly head many times, but perhaps none more prominently in recent years than with the dismissal of Claudio Ranieri from Leicester City in February. Let go by the Foxes just nine months removed from the unlikeliest of titles, the Italian had, to be fair, struggled to some degree without the likes of N’Golo Kanté; the team were hovering just above the relegation zone upon his dismissal. But he had also that season cruised through the Champions’ League group stage with just one goal conceded in Leicester’s first five matches. Despite failing to replicate the success of his first season in England, he has lost none of his defensive nous, if the early season form of his new side, Nantes is anything upon which the Italian can be judged.
Les Canaris, as the Breton team is known, are a club which number themselves as one of France’s most successful historically (eight titles, although none since 2000-2001), but have fallen on harder times of late. A spate of relegations had dotted the years since that title, and when the team were in the top flight, their style was often dire, particularly under Michel der Zakarian, a fiery presence presently in charge at Montpellier. With der Zakarian at the helm, survival remained a constant despite a shoestring budget and a transfer ban related to the purchase of Ismaël Bangoura, but the relationship between the Armenian and club president Waldemar Kita was a combative one, and he was replaced by René Girard last summer.
Following on from an even more dour half-season under the stewardship of Girard, the former Portuguese international Sergio Conceição took up a position in the technical area and delivered a hugely impressive set of results that, extrapolated over an entire season would have seen his side in the European places. Conceição was an unqualified success at the Stade Beaujoire, but the opportunity to take the reins at Porto proved too tempting, and his departure this summer brought the arrival of Ranieri. The move from the Champions’ League to a club of below-average means in Ligue 1 seems to have been a humbling experience for the former Chelsea and Juventus manager, but his inventive outlook has proved a boon to a side which invested relatively little over the summer.
The sale of Amine Harit, who had clashed repeatedly with Conceição and was sold before Ranieri’s arrival, has been reinvested in the form of goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu, defender Nicolas Pallois, midfielder Andrei Girotto and striker Kalifa Coulibaly. Tatarusanu has been an unqualified success, despite some nervy moments in yesterday’s draw against Bordeaux, and while Pallois has struggled with injury, he looks to be every bit the capable, if temperamental presence at the back that he had been for Les Girondins.
Girotto may have lost his place to a combination of academy product Valentin Rongier and Granada loanee Rene Krhin, but he also appears to be adequate back-up. Coulibaly has been poorer, as he is yet to score in four appearances and was worryingly a healthy scratch for yesterday’s match, with youngster Randal Kolo Muani included on the bench in his place.
Despite the disappointment of Coulibaly’s early form, Nantes have emerged as the league’s surprise package, eschewing the direct, attacking football favoured by Conceição for Ranieri’s more prosaic style. The Italian continues to chop and change, per his “Tinkerman” moniker, but the present set of combinations seems undergirded by a strong sense of logic, based in his belief in certain players’ unheralded, or under-utilised gifts. Indeed, seemingly all of the shifts Ranieri has made, both tactically and personnel-wise this season, have followed a certain central ethos of creating versatility and a variety of options, a necessary quality for a side not only lacking in depth but also in any meaningful financial might.
Ranieri started the season with an orthodox 4-4-2; this was the same system that Conceição had deployed to such great effect over the course of the previous year, but it was torn to shreds by Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille on the opening weekend. Nantes returned with a 5-3-2 at home to Marseille the following weekend, and despite losing 1-0, looked a much more solid outfit.
This has continued to be the case, with Ranieri generally going for a 4-2-3-1, but using players in wildly different roles. Sometimes, as in Lucas Lima, normally a left back, being played as a right-sided wing-back against Bordeaux yesterday, these experiments stutter, but more often than not, they have come off brilliantly, with Abdoulaye Touré, Adrien Thomasson and Valentin Rongier among the most prominent beneficiaries of the Italian’s “tinkering.”
Thomasson, still just 23 despite having made his debut with Evian in 2012, has been a somewhat frustrating figure since arriving from eastern France in 2015. Undoubtedly a skilled player, and never one to shy from his defensive duties, he has evinced a newfound work ethic under Ranieri, and become the attacking centre piece of the side, having started each of the last seven matches.
Touré, too, is another younger player who continues to blossom, having already played more minutes this season than last. A big, lanky presence, he had generally been used either as a defensive midfielder, or even as a centre back, but in the build-up to Préjuce Nakoulma’s opener, he strode forward to receive a throw-in before deftly avoiding a pair of Bordeaux defenders and slipping the ball to Thomasson, whose cross picked out Léo Dubois at the far post.
Rongier is another academy product, but had, at times, failed to live up to his promise. He had a hugely impressive start to the 2015-16 campaign, but a knee injury ended his season prematurely, and he struggled to find a similar rhythm under Conceição. Under Ranieri, he has, like Touré, been pushed further up the pitch, playing close to Nakoulma as he and the Burkina Faso international play a pressing game while also staying involved creatively.
This approach has allowed the powerful striker to operate on his own, rather than with a partner, giving Ranieri additional options tactically. Emiliano Sala, last season’s leading scorer, has been out with injury, and his return may alter this dynamic, but yesterday, the pair, along with Thomasson, consistently harassed the hosts’ back line, with Théo Pellenard and Younousse Sankharé in particular wilting under pressure.
Knowing that that Ranieri patently desires flexibility and versatility from his players has thus had a double benefit; competition for places is stronger with more options being available for a given position, while players have become increasingly complete as a result of this experimentation. Despite drawing yesterday, this opportunism and positivity fostered by Ranieri has seen Nantes chalk up the division’s best record save leaders Paris Saint-Germain over the last seven matches, with five wins and two draws.
This is all well and good, but before considering yesterday’s match, one would also have to offer the caveat that during this brilliant run of form, Nantes hadn’t exactly played the toughest set of opponents. A scoreless draw against Lyon before the first international break was certainly a creditable result, but wins over the likes of Strasbourg, Metz, Caen and Montpellier (despite the latter two also being strong defensively) are hardly impressive. A trip to their bitter rivals, beaten only by Paris Saint-Germain, marked a much tougher task, but the visitors seemed more than up to it yesterday afternoon, as the hosts needed a moment of brilliance from the in-form Malcom to even draw level with their energetic opponents.
A trip to Paris looms in a month’s time, but Nantes’ fixtures continue to be favourable in the interim, as none of Guingamp, Dijon or Toulouse have impressed to any degree this season. Given how easily the leaders dispatched then-unbeaten Bordeaux, it would be folly to suggest that Ranieri and his charges stand much of a chance at the Parc des Princes, but Montpellier have already shown the potential of a defensively sound, tactically flexible side as a weapon against the leaders. In the meantime, though, we should enjoy another surprising side constructed by Ranieri, whose intelligence, and yes, his tinkering, appear to be wringing the best out of another unheralded group of players more than a year on from his success in England.
1 | Whether Bruno Génésio is truly the manager to take Lyon forward remains in doubt but the 3-2 win over Monaco on Friday night seems to have bought him a little more time to prove as such. After a promising start to the year with a new look side following the sales of Alexandre Lacazette, Maxime Gonalons and Corentin Tolisso, this young OL team has begun to show its naivety in recent weeks surrendering leads to Dijon and Angers to draw 3-3 on both occasions. Where the experience of what was previously their spine would guide Lyon through these sorts of Ligue 1 encounters, controlling proceedings and killing off games, this season’s injection of over-exuberance often leaves space to be exploited and offers a route back into games for opponents. Despite their flair, Mariano Diaz and Bertrand Traoré remain frustratingly inconsistent, Memphis Depay is currently unable to influence fames and 20-year-old midfield pair Tanguy Ndombélé and Lucas Tousart lack the nous at this stage in their careers to dominate centrally without assistance, often not provided by the attack minded Nabil Fékir.
Génésio undoubtedly has quality at his disposal but has yet to be mould it into an astute outfit capable of managing matches and, with OL starting the weekend in mid-table, a heavy defeat from the visiting champions would have put Génésio’s position under severe strain. However, Fékir’s 96th minute winner was enough for a crucial victory over an admittedly under strength Monaco. Nevertheless, Lyon still lack direction, a genuine identity and any consistency. For now, Génésio stays but the feeling of inevitably has stayed with him. Lyon boast a talented squad but whether their coach is able to eradicate their erratic form will define their season and likely determine if he remains at Parc OL for much longer.
2 | When Thomas Meunier arrived in Paris last summer, little was expected. Despite being Belgium’s starting right back at EURO 2016, the €7m signing from Club Brugge was slated to be little more than Serge Aurier’s understudy. However, with Aurier’s poor attitude and even worse form, Meunier took the chances inevitably offered him by Unai Emery’s rotation throughout PSG’s hectic season. By the spring he was PSG’s first choice full back, proving dangerous in forward areas both with his crossing ability, interplay and capacity for the occasional goal, his volleyed winner at Basel being a highlight. Prior fears over his deficiencies when defending were seemingly exaggerated. However, when Dani Alves’ arrived this summer, a man of international pedigree, Meunier was pushed back into the shadows at right-back.
The Brazilian international’s age & Emery’s tendency to use him in midfield has however provided the Belgian with moments to shine, opportunities he has grabbed with both hands. A brace, which included an injury time winner, on Saturday lunchtime at Dijon helped PSG solidify their position at the top of Ligue 1 after Monaco’s defeat at Lyon on Friday evening and once again proved that Thomas Meunier can again be an important part of the Parisians season. Although bigger names understandably continue to claim much of the attention, both Meunier and Alves started the game in Dijon on the right, a more pragmatic approach Emery often uses in bigger games, meaning Meunier could be a more regular starter than was expected upon Alves’ arrival. The Belgian is another example of PSG’s depth and will be a valuable option for Emery in the busy winter period to come.
3 | Despite a €10m fee agreed and the chance to dramatically increase his salary, Angers forward Karl Toko Ekambi turned down a move to Brighton this summer. The Cameroon international is being tracked by a number of clubs and was subject to a high level of interest during the off season. It’s easy to see why. The rangy winger has enough pace and skill to worry any full back and an eye for goal that has made him Stephane Moulin’s integral forward. After signing from Sochaux in the summer of 2016 and consistently impressing with his direct and intense attacking play, it seemed inevitable that he would follow the trend of breakout players from mid-table sides and hop across the channel at the earliest opportunity.
However, the failures of the likes of Didier Ndong and Henri Saivet, who both arrived in the Premier League still very much works in progress, may have staid Ekambi’s hand. This has been much to the benefit of his development; kicking on this season and reacting well to increased attacking responsibilities often in a central role, as well as his club; a goal and an assist in the 2-0 win at in-form Caen on Saturday night made it four goals in six games this season. Ekambi says he is happy to commit to Stéphane Moulin’s side for now and keep improving, hopefully he will be the first of many to make a more sensible decision and wait for the right move when he is certain that he is ready to hold their own at a higher standard.