Why Rene Girard is not the right guy for FC Nantes
Where did the magic go?
After 7 games in this season, Nantes are camped in 18th in the Ligue 1 table. The “Canaris” were prepared to have a difficult kick-off this season, but did not anticipate being in such dreadful position early on. You have to admit, the Atlantic coastal club has had some up and downs in the last ten years: relegation to the second division, a ban from transfers for a year and a half, a satisfactory promotion to the elite and a stable place in the mid-range of the Ligue 1. But now something has gone wrong.
During the summer, Michel Der Zakarian, the forger of last year’s results, was replaced by former Montpellier coach René Girard. Speaking of enthusiasm, the public did not roll out the red carpet: more than 1,000 signatures were collected in a petition protesting the eventual appointment of the new manager. The hashtag #ToutSaufGirard, meaning #AnybodyButGirard went a long run on social media platforms, as supporters proclaimed “Girard is the death of football”, describing a man who is “an antipathic character who goes against the values of the club”. Their fears now – more or less – seem to be confirmed: Nantes have won one game in seven, scored three goals, but what is worse, the game plan seems to erode significantly.
This was not always the case.
As strange as it sounds, Nantes have won more championships than the current monarch Paris Saint-Germain (8 vs 6). Their brightest era fell in the ’60s-’70s, then two separate periods during the nineties entered into history. The common trait in these periods was a distinguished way of playing attacking, dynamic football. They even found a name to describe it: the “jeu á la nantaise”, a concept so strong that even a local musical band wears its name. But what is the “jeu á la nantaise”?
The short answer is we don’t know exactly. While speaking about tiki-taka, totaalvoetbal and catenaccio we tend to have a specific image in mind with a roughly precise description, the “jeu á la nantaise” is rather an umbrella-term that combines the successful era with a distinctive way of playing football. To understand its true meaning, the club’s three most successful coach are worth considering.
José Arribas stands as the starting point of the term mostly because he was the first to integrate his ideas on the pitch, and – more importantly – has been the tutor of two of his players and late successors: Jean-Claude Suaudeau and Raynald Denoueix.
This Spanish coach of Basque origins fled the civil war to Nantes. Appointed in 1960, he remained the club’s number one man until 1976, winning several titles on the way. He found true inspiration from the Brazilian national team and Bill Shankly’s Liverpool.
Arribas was the first manager in France to throw away the libero and man marking-concept, turning toward zonal marking and a 4-2-4 tactical formation with an offside trap. An incredible amount of playing volume, speed and complementarity between players defined Arribas’ style, who said “movement is our motto. No stopping, it’s completely forbidden to receive the ball standing.”
Jean-Claude Suaudeau came out from under the cloak of José Arribas and gained tremendous success in the first half of the nineties. In the 1994/95 season his team remained unbeaten for 32 games, a record sustained until last year when it was ditched by Paris Saint-Germain.
“Coco” Suaudeau’s team lacked true playmakers. There was no equivalent of Modric, Xavi or Pirlo, but in exchange, his team consisted of dashing and dynamic players. The composition of the group defined the game with a spine of Karembeu, Ferri, Pedros, Loko, Ouédec, N’Doram and Makélélé, and later on, the current Bordeaux coach, Jocelyn Gourvenec.
Tactically it consisted of a 4-1-4-1 line-up, but as Suaudeau was fond of saying, “it is not the lineup that matter, but the animation”. According to the coach, the technical handicap was compensated with physique and speed. The team had the capacity to build up to a shooting position with only 4 or 5 one-touch passes. As an example, just look at this beauty, one of the most memorable goals in Ligue 1 history.
Like a pinball-machine: simple, fast, sometimes terribly spontaneous, but easily executed. This dynamite game, based on constant motion, shows some similarities with Klopp’s Dortmund or Ranieri’s Leicester, rather than the brasilian joga bonito. That year, blooming Nantes sneaked into the Champions League as the dark horse of the tournament and lay down arms in the semi-final against the mighty Juventus.
Raynald Denoueix spent his whole career at FC Nantes and became a prominent coach at the club’s youth academy. After winning two national cups, he conquered Ligue 1 at the end of his three-year term. Players like Landreau, Da Rocha, Carriere, Monterrubio, Armand, Vahirua and Moldovan emerged as blacksmiths of this success.
Under Raynald Denoueix, the team applied a rather different playing method, more turned to possession, with still lots of movement and anticipation. In the absence of strong, dynamic players, he was forced to enhance technical skills and opted for a more settled game plan. The difference between his team and the triumphant one of the preceding years was easily identifiable.
This divergence from Coco’s band was not unanimously approved of. When asked about the Nantes of Denoueix, Suaudeau said “his priority is to get the ball and keep it for a longer period of time. This is a disease of the game today, in my opinion. That’s why the game is getting boring and it’s pissing me off.”
Different styles in different times: the jeu á la nantaise is more of a brand. It defines an attacking way of play, with short, quick passes, constant movement and technical precision, and at the core of that, risk-taking and pure simplicity. On a more philosophical level, it embodies an attitude to look through individuality and push out the boundaries of collectivity. It gathers different styles under one roof, but includes the glorious Nantes-years: 8 titles, 3 domestic cups and more than 100 European appearances.
After that, it’s quite obvious why supporters don’t find a fit between the legacy and René Girard’s project.
Despite the league title won in 2012, René Girard’s teams tend to have an austere, risk-averse mindset. His basic principle lays on the protection of his own goal. Everything starts with the defense. His teams are built from the back, setting up a concrete bunker in the first step.
With Girard, the show is not happening on the pitch, but on the bench: he’s no stranger to profanity in regard in referees, or his own players. What isn’t reflected in the game is aggressiveness, enthusiasm and devotion. No wonder he’s listed as the master of clean sheets or one-goal victories. Leading as a guerilla leader is his true form of expression, not designing works of art.
Girard is simply the wrong person in the wrong place. Which doesn’t mean he’s a lousy coach, more that his methods differ considerably from his predecessors. His palette focuses more on whips over compasses and rulers. Most recently, as his team struggled to gain their first victory of the season, he tried to motivate his team saying “if we have to play like bastards, then we will play like bastards”. The result did not confirm anything, as Nantes drew 1-1 at the home of Nancy. Since then, the “bastards” drew against Saint-Étienne, then lost against a quite soft Marseille.
Magic has not come back to the Canaris. There is a great chance that the marriage between Girard and Nantes ends in a bad divorce. Due to the unpleasant start – preceded by the discontent of supporters – it is possible their journey will separate sooner than time might justify.
Christophe Szabó is a Swiss-born, French-speaking Hungarian blogger and part time Arsenal-lover. In his blog Omlett du fromage, he writes essays and translates interviews about french football and popculture, basically in Hungarian.