“Stupefied” was how Nantes president Waldemar Kita described himself upon learning that his club’s manager, Sergio Conceição, wanted to leave this summer. Kita’s surprise was warranted; Conceição had been at the club for just six months – time enough for him to quietly instigate a revolution – and he had signed a new three-year contract just days before.
Conceição had taken over last December after René Girard’s limp stewardship of the club had come to an end after a 6-0 defeat at home to Lyon. They were second from bottom, facing a relegation scuffle and barely treading water until Conceição took over. He ramped up the intensity in the squad, moulded them into an aggressive, attacking outfit and dragged them to an outstanding seventh-place finish with the air of a parent who was furious to discover his children had been misbehaving at school.
Conceição’s remarkable work at Nantes earned him a job offer from Porto and left Kita in want of a new manager. The president knew a certain type of man was needed to invigorate his club, eke the best out of the players and bring the cantankerous fans back onside. He needed to create expectation and excitement for the whole club. A marquee replacement was required. Rather than choosing to appoint another cost-effective, journeyman coach – such as Girard or Michel Der Zakarian – Kita turned to former Juventus, Chelsea, Valencia and, of course, Leicester City boss Claudio Ranieri to maintain the Conceição resurgence.
Once Nantes had bypassed an archaic rule that forbids Ligue 1 clubs from employing managers over the age of 65, the president was able to reflect on pulling off a sizeable coup. Nantes are by no means a small club – their total of eight league titles makes them France’s third most successful side after Saint-Étienne and Marseille – but appointing a recent Premier League winner is unprecedented.
Ranieri arrives with his reputation intact. His success may be somewhat tainted in England after Leicester’s dramatic slump last year and the supposed squad unrest that contributed to his sacking, but that will be largely overlooked by Nantes fans and the French media as a whole. Ranieri will arrive in western France with something on an aura.
The situation at Nantes draws a number of parallels with his appointment at Leicester two years ago. Thanks to Conceição, this Nantes side are an exciting, finely tuned and effective outfit who ended the season in terrific form. The same was true for Leicester, who won seven of their last games under Nigel Pearson before he was sacked at the end of the 2014-15 season. Ranieri was able to pick up where Pearson had left off (with a little help from N’Golo Kanté), without making many major adjustments in terms of style, shape and personnel. He would be wise to do the same at Nantes.
The jinking attacking midfielder Amine Harit (19) and the guileful Valentin Rongier (22) both enjoyed superb breakout campaigns under Conceição, while the powerful forward duo of Emiliano Sala and Préjuce Nakoulma have proven virtually unplayable at times this spring. Without the spectre of Europa League football to impinge on their domestic form, Nantes are ready to push on in Ligue 1.
The 4-4-2 that Conceição employed and the more intense, combative, pressing style he introduced after Christmas somewhat mirrors the shape Leicester used to such good effect in the early months of their title-winning campaign. And Ranieri knows French football, having spent two seasons at Monaco from 2014 to 2014, when he guided them from from Ligue 2 to second place in Ligue 1.
Ranieri’s team is in good shape but there are a number issues he will want to address this summer. Keeping this group of players together will be a priority. Gillet, the 33-year-old Belgian international who leads the side, said his future would depended on whether Conceição stayed, but Ranieri’s arrival could change that. He is a cool, experienced head in midfield and the team look defensively frail without him. Ranieri will also want to hold on to the talented group of young players who came to prominence last year, especially full-back Léo Dubois, defensive midfielder Rongier and the precious Harit (who has been linked with Schalke and Arsenal this window).
The squad needs of an overhaul in the wide areas if he sticks with a 4-4-2 or switches to a variation of 4-3-3, keeping Harit infield rather than on the left flank where Conceição often deployed him. Jules Iloki, Alex Kacaniklic, Felipe Pardo and Yacine Bammou have all failed in varying degrees to fill the right flank effectively with only Adrien Thomasson achieving moderate success. With Harit likely to take up a central role eventually – where he has played for France’s Under 20 side – at least one proven winger will be needed.
Diego Carlos has grown in stature at centre-back over the course of the year following his arrival from Estoril but he needs a solid partner in defence. Time seems to be up for the imposing but ageing Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, whose recent outings have crossed the border from stoic to lumbering. With Ivorian defender Koffi Djidji also unbefitting of the job, Ranieri will have to find a suitable partner for Carlos. He will also have to solve the goalkeeping situation after longtime No1 Rémy Riou fell out of favour under Conceição due to some poor displays. Maxime Dupé stepped up from the youth team to replace Riou but his form has proved erratic.
Ranieri’s success may ultimately depend on the mood he can engender around the club, on the stands and among the players. Conceição’s fearsome discipline, organisation and ferocious insistence that his players never let up on their opponents turned Girard’s flaky, tepid group into steadfast warriors almost overnight. Through sheer force of personality and some astute tactical tweaks he reinvigorated the squad and had them passionately buying into his rhetoric. He was a true leader. Ranieri’s aura will give him a head start but providing the players with the same fire, hunger and discipline in the long term will be his real challenge.
Despite the understandable hype and excitement, Nantes fans should be cautious. Ranieri has an impressive CV, a lot of experience and pulled off an unfathomable achievement in winning the Premier League with Leicester City (by an absurd 10-point margin in the end), but his record remains a little chequered. The home loss to the Faroe Islands that ended his spell as Greece boss before his arrival in Leicester is still a standout failure and, before success with Monaco, his brief time at Inter ended with disappointment.
Nevertheless, Ranieri’s appointment is an electrifying one for Nantes and Ligue 1, arguably the most eye-catching signing in the club’s history. He was once asked about his love of tinkering with the team and responded: “I can’t change now. I’m like Frank Sinatra. I always do it my way.” Hopefully for Nantes, Ranieri’s way will again be the right way.