Ligue 1’s race for Europe is set to go down to the wire, and Régis Le Bris’ Lorient team are right back in the mix, having fought through some midseason adversity after their sensational start to the campaign. Vito Mannone, who joined this summer from Monaco, has been crucial to their recent run, having come into the starting eleven midway through the season after Yvon Mvogo’s injury. The 35-year-old has only let in two goals in the last month and a half, notably turning in a man-of-the-match performance in the draw against Lyon two weeks ago.
The Italian goalkeeper sat down with Get French Football News this week to discuss Les Merlus‘ potential push for a European spot and his own purple patch of form. The veteran also looks back on his time at Arsenal, establishing himself at Sunderland, and a bittersweet two-year spell at Monaco.
You’ve kept four clean sheets in the last month and a half, having come into the starting eleven midway through the season – would you say you’re going from strength to strength with each passing game?
Every opponent is different, but obviously for me and the defenders it’s great to be getting clean sheets. We had some other good performances in other games, but we would concede a goal at the end. As a goalkeeper, it’s always good not to concede.
Your performance against Lyon was particularly impressive.
Yes, we had a good game, a good point to get against a difficult team. They have a lot of good players, and it was nice to be able to do my part to help the team. That result gave us a lot of confidence going into last weekend, where we got the three points at home [2-0 win over Troyes].
Lorient have been one of this season’s success stories in Ligue 1, could you talk us through what’s gone on from the inside to make this year so successful?
It’s a project that started at the beginning of the season – I arrived a bit later, in September, but anyone who came into the club would know that we wanted to fight a bit higher this year. We’ve already been making history and setting club records in terms of points, and we’ve already secured survival for next season. But in our heads, we’re working hard every week to keep fighting and climbing the table. It’s not easy of course, because this year there are a lot of good teams with varying budgets. The coach told us before we played Lyon that they had a budget of €250m, and we started with a budget of €50m! At the end of the day, we’ve managed to come out with some big results against the top clubs. We’re aiming for something special this season.
Maybe even a spot in Europe? You’re four points away from Rennes in 5th right now.
It’s always good to have a dream in mind! It’s nice to aim for something, it’s what I’ve been doing my entire career. On my first day when I arrived, I said that we could dream of finishing in the top five, six or seven. Europe would be a dream, but there are a lot of good teams around us. The next few games will tell us where we really are, because we’ll be playing a lot of good clubs around us, so it will be difficult.
You have an especially tough run in April – Lille, PSG, Marseille and Monaco – how do you feel about this run of big games?
As a player you want the best challenge, and that means playing against the big teams – if you can do something special in those matches, then even better.
You’ll be coming up against Ligue 1’s other Italian goalkeeper in Gianluigi Donnarumma during that run – what do you make of the criticism he sometimes gets for his mistakes?
It’s difficult. I’ve been in the big clubs and the smaller teams, and as goalkeepers we are always under scrutiny. That’s our role – we know that every little mistake we make will count, it could cost a goal or some points. But it’s normal, that’s our job, we have to deal with it and play through that to achieve the best. He’s the national team goalkeeper and plays for Paris Saint-Germain, so of course everyone will demand the very best from him in every game.
How would you describe Régis Le Bris’ influence on the team?
He gave us an identity from day one, both on and off the pitch – in the way we wanted to play, in the way we want to carry ourselves. And when you have an identity, you can work for something every single day and give your all when you’re facing your opponents. Despite the fact it’s not been an easy season – at the end of the day, we lost our best assister and our best goalscorer in January [Dango Ouattara, Terem Moffi]. It’s never easy for new players to come in and deliver and understand this identity straight away – the way we need them to both attack and defend – but now we have a strong team.
And it’s not been easy for the team as a whole since we had a lot of big injuries. We had things that went against us, but we’re still there, we’re not far from fifth.
What factored into your decision to join Lorient?
The project, and the way it was explained to me. I had a few options in England, France and in Italy. I came to the end of my contract at Monaco and had the chance to come to a Ligue 1 club that wanted to do well, and that’s why I came.
Do you feel as though you’ll have a point to prove when you go down to Monaco next month, to face your former team?
No. I’ve already proven them wrong. It’ll be just like any other game – obviously it will be nice because I’ll be facing some old friends and seeing my old fans again. In the end, I feel like I’ve already proven that I’m a capable Ligue 1 goalkeeper.
Talk us through those two years at Monaco – how was the fight for a Champions League spot, alongside all of these other experienced players?
We had a strong team. There was a lot of experience and also young players. We wanted to achieve more, in the end we finished 3rd twice in a row. The final day [when Monaco missed out on a spot in the Champions League group stage] was painful, we also lost in the French Cup final. And last year in the league, we almost qualified, but one minute of football changes everything – Lens equalised in the last minute and we finished third once again. It shows how all your hard work can be undone so quickly.
How was the move in general? Going from Monaco to Brittany is quite the change.
Interesting! It’s definitely different. You know, I’ve lived in a lot of places around the world for the last 19 years so it’s not been an issue settling in. Brittany has some nice things too, and it’s always good to discover new places wherever you go.
The most daunting move must have been going to Arsenal at a young age. What was that like?
It was a dream come true at the time. It was special, because it was a difficult time in my life, when I had lost my father, and the month after that I was training with the Invincibles. At the end of the day, I was a kid, and I found myself training with guys like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pirès!
In terms of my life outside of football, I had gone from Italy to London, to a new culture, I had to learn English quickly and a take on a lot of new things. It was a very special moment in my life.
Could you talk about Arsène Wenger’s impact at that time and beyond?
First of all, he gave me a professional career. He believed in me when I was a 16-year-old goalkeeper. He was very intelligent and open – not just in giving me a contract, but also beyond. At the time, I needed my mother, because it was just me and her when my father died. They gave me an apartment to stay with my mother straight away, usually when you’re a young player, you go to another family, you can’t have your own place straight away.
He also gave me my debuts in the Premier League and in the Champions League – I was always proud to play for Arsenal, to be at such an amazing club. Of course, I would have liked more! He [Wenger] said it himself, I was close to getting more chances, maybe to become number one – but that’s the way football goes, there can only be one starting goalkeeper. At the time, we were three young goalkeepers fighting for the one spot, and it was never easy. But I grew up, I gained some experience and played some big games for Arsenal.
Do you still keep in touch?
I met him last year when I was at Monaco, and we exchanged text messages when I came to Lorient. It’s always been good to meet him throughout the years.
You were playing at a club with so many French players and under a French manager – in a way, it was destiny that you’d end up in Ligue 1!
Yes, it’s strange! But with all the little phrases and things that I picked up over the years, it was like being at a French club. I have a lot of good friends from then who are French, and that’s serving me well now, I can speak the language a bit.
What do you make of Arsenal’s season this year, you must be quite happy to see how they’re doing?
Yes, very happy. It’s always a long fight to achieve something like winning the Premier League. When I was there, we had a few years where we’d get to March and we’d have a difficult period. This season, there aren’t that many games to go now so they’ve proven that they’re going for the title. But let’s not speak too soon! Unfortunately everything can change very quickly in the Premier League. But hopefully they’ll keep fighting and see it out, to bring the Premier League title back to Arsenal.
You then became more of a Premier League regular at Sunderland, what was it like becoming a full-time number one?
In my last season at Arsenal I played 14 games, and that was the time when I was really close to getting the starting spot, I was competing with [Wojciech] Szczęsny who was struggling with injuries – and when I played, I did really well. Arsène then decided to go back to Szczęsny, he told me I’d done a great job, and that was that. I thought that was my moment, after fighting for many years – a bit like [Emiliano] Martínez – Emi waited and waited for 10 years to get his chance. Once I knew I couldn’t be number one at Arsenal, I wanted to prove that I could do so in the Premier League so I decided to join Sunderland.
It was an amazing story at Sunderland – in my first year, I was player of the season straight away. We reached the club’s first cup final in 28 years [League Cup]. We beat Manchester United at Old Trafford – and saving the penalty there was special, because it was in the same goal that Dida had won a penalty shoot-out for Milan, the club I supported, in the 2003 Champions League final against Juventus.
A lot of things happened over the next 4-5 years, a lot of relegation battles – staying in the Premier League, for us, was like winning the league! There were a lot of ups and downs, but at the same time we performed a lot of miracles, some great escapes that I’ll never forget. There were some special matches along the way, beating big clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City – it was really nice.
You’ve played all across Europe and also had a stint in the United States, with Minnesota United – how do you look back on this career that’s taken you to so many different places, and allowed you to experience different cultures that you maybe wouldn’t have if you’d stayed in Italy?
It was meant to be. I left at a very early age, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I went out to the best league in the world, I left my home and I didn’t know that I was going to be away for 19 years. Seeing all these countries and cultures, it’s been an amazing journey, I will never regret any of it. We had a special time in the USA, then I went to Denmark, and then two years in Monaco, where my child was born – so it’s a special place for me and my wife, who’s been with me the whole time.
Everywhere I’ve been has been a second home to me – it’s great to have an open mind and get to know all of these nationalities and cultures. It’s been amazing.
GFFN | Raphaël Jucobin