Third place, Ligue 1
By Daniel Rubens
Don’t look now, but a familiar face is up to something in France. FC Nantes have gotten off to a stellar start in Ligue 1 play, sitting in third place — just two points back of second — through 10 games. How they've done it is the real story, though, and it's the reason why Les Canaris (the Canaries) will feel as though they’re capable of keeping their run going. After all, they don’t need to look far to see what could be possible if everything breaks their way.
We previously visited Nantes in March of 2016 during a lengthy unbeaten run that brought the eight-time French champions
Der Zakarian left after the end of the season and was replaced by Rene Girard, but he struggled to win games early last season and departed in December with the side second from bottom in the league. His replacement, former Portuguese international Sergio Conceicao, steadied the ship and actually led a solid second-half charge, but Nantes weren’t quite able to break the barrier into Europe, finishing in seventh, one spot off a Europa League place.
Despite his strong second half, Conceicao cut ties with the club after the season, returning to his native Portugal to take over the reins at his former team, Porto. That proved to be a blessing in disguise, however; in his place, Nantes made perhaps the hiring of the summer.
Claudio Ranieri wasn’t out of a job long after he was sacked by Leicester City in February. The Italian, who of course made waves by leading Leicester to their incredible 2015-16 Premier League title, was appointed manager in late June and immediately went to work.
The offseason wasn’t a great one, as Les Canaris watched their most consistent player from a year ago (midfielder Guillaume Gillet) and their most exciting young talent (winger Amine Harit) walk through the exit door. Ranieri used the incoming fees well, signing players to help at every level of the pitch, including
But since those defeats, Ranieri has figured out the correct buttons to push. Les Canaris won their first game on August 19, with striker Emiliano Sala scoring the only goal of the game in the 81st minute to left 10-man Nantes past Troyes 1-0. They were held to a scoreless draw against Lyon in their next match, but since the start of September, Nantes have won five league games and drawn one, allowing just three goals over those six fixtures. All five of the wins during that stretch have come by a single goal.
It seems like an unsustainable run, and, in truth, it probably is; Nantes aren’t going to win every game by one goal. However, the underlying statistics paint a familiar picture, one that harkens back to another side that started hot and somehow kept going strong despite everyone saying regression was inevitable.
There are plenty of differences between the 2015-16 Leicester side that completed the EPL fairytale and this year’s Nantes, but there are also undeniable similarities between Ranieri’s two teams. Two years ago, the Foxes sat deep, defended extremely well, absorbed pressure, and broke away at lightning speed whenever they got the chance. Ranieri has adopted that model again this season at Nantes, and it’s once again working.
Through 10 games, Nantes have scored only nine goals, but they’ve conceded just seven (only three in the past eight games). They have kept just 43.2 percent possession of the ball this season, 19th in Ligue 1, and they’ve completed a league-low 72.7 percent of their passes. They’ve also only recorded 11 shots per game, the 16th-best mark in the league.
All of those numbers indicate that a decline is coming, but those are suspiciously similar numbers to Leicester’s from two seasons ago. The Foxes didn’t pass the ball particularly well, but they played vertical
Additionally, like he did at Leicester, Ranieri has done a terrific job of getting the best out of a few talented, mercurial players who have unexpectedly broken out this season. Most notable is a trio of young midfielders — 23-year-olds Abdoulaye Toure and Adrien Thomasson and 22-year-old Valentin Rongier — that has held down the fort in the center of the park this season. Toure in particular has been a surprise; after starting just three games last season, he’s started every match this year and has shined. All three players have taken on new responsibilities this season under Ranieri, with each pushing farther forward than he’s used to, and all are blossoming for the Italian boss.
One notable difference this season is that Ranieri has reverted to his past ways as the “Tinkerman.” At Leicester, he rarely had to change his squad, instead sending out a first-choice XI more often than not. He hasn’t had that luxury this season, as only Toure has started every game and 13 players have started five or more. However, the increased competition for places has gotten the best out of the side.
At this point, Nantes are still a massive underdog in the Ligue 1 Champions League race. Monaco, Lyon, Marseille, and a few others overpower Les Canaris financially, and even with a hard-working squad, there’s a definite talent disparity between Nantes and those clubs. They also haven’t really gotten a true test yet, but that’s coming soon enough, with Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco both on the November fixture list. Ranieri’s used to being the underdog, though, and it’s something he and his sides have relished in the past. He’s shown in the past that he’s capable of greatness even when the odds are stacked against him. Nantes almost definitely won’t “pull a Leicester,” but if they can keep their strong start going over the next month, the football world’s attentions will once again focus on the little Italian genius who won over hearts and minds across the globe not long ago.