Ranieri to Nantes – Canaries flying high

Nantes scarves

To the surprise of many Claudio Ranieri has been appointed manager of FC Nantes.  An unorthodox choice for the 65-year-old jovial Italian or a masterstroke by the powers-that-be at FC Nantes beginning a new exciting direction for the club?

After the unexpected volte-face by Sergio Conceicao, FCN were left without a manager. Having been reticent to employ non-French manager the previous summer, but having seen the difference a fresh set of ideas brought to the Beaujoire in the second half of last season, various names circulated around the post. After a meeting in a plush Parisian hotel, Claudio Ranieri was convinced to sign on for two year as FC Nantes boss.

Ranieri was last seen on the touchline, in Seville, overseeing his championship-winning Leicester City side when losing 2-1 in the Champions League knockout stages. A respectable result given the match in question, and one that helped Leicester progress to the quarters under his successor.

To appoint one of only eight men to have won the English Premier League is in itself an enormous coup for Nantes. The fact that this appointment comes thirteen months down the line from the Foxes’ triumph is all the more impressive.

Raineri’s CV reads like a who’s who of European football taking in everyone from Napoli to Inter Milan via Roma, Juventus, Parma and Fiorentina in his native land.  Not afraid to ply his trade abroad, he spent eight years in Spain and England, notably beginning the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea during his four-year stint in London. And Ranieri has experience of French football having worked for two successful years at AS Monaco; he masterminded their promotion back to the elite before taking them to second in Ligue 1 in 2013-14.

The undoubted highlight of a managerial career that began as early as 1986 came in the 2015/16 season. Back in England Ranieri was an seen as underwhelming appointment for Leicester City taking over from Nigel Pearson who had kept Leicester in the Premier League against all odds the previous season.  Ranieri went and achieved something scarcely believable in actually winning the title.

The whole season captured the hearts and minds of the football world with the season entering into footballing folklore. Everything from Andrea Botticelli singing on the pitch to Gary Lineker’s boxer shorts to dilly ding dilly dong not forgetting pizzas for clean sheets and Jamie Vardy’s race relations course during the pre-season.

Things disintegrated quickly the following season. A successful Champions’ League group stage campaign masked some fairly atrocious league form and with the Foxes looking certain to end their season in a relegation scrap, Ranieri was sacked in February amid rumours of player mutiny and lost dressing rooms.

Meanwhile, FC Nantes finished in seventh position last season, this made all the more remarkable when we consider they were nineteenth and looking set for Ligue 2 in December 2016. Rene Girard’s hapless reign ended after a apocalyptically awful 6-0 defeat at home to Lyon at the end of November. The former Lille and Montpellier gaffer’s time at Nantes can only go down as a mistake from start to finish. Fan unrest at his appointment was followed by serious unrest in the stadium and a meagre 13 points accrued saw that a change was made.

Former Portuguese international Sergio Conceicao arrived, and his mix of touchline mania and incessant work ethic saw his charges turn things around to achieve FC Nantes’ best finish since 2004. Naturally, the club were delighted with such a turnaround and they awarded Conceicao a contract extension until 2020 with a serious salary bump. The contract was signed in late April. However, shortly after the season ended and with FC Porto seeking a new coach, rumours abounded that Conceicao was looking to leave France to return to Portugal for personal reasons. Several weeks of posturing and claims on social media followed, before FC Nantes and president Waldemar Kita were able to negotiate terms for the departure involving player transfers and potential friendly matches.

The departure of Conceicao left Nantes and its President in a bit of tricky situation, as the club was thus looking for its fourth manager in little more than a year. There were season tickets to be sold and the club had surely hoped to capitalise on the huge positive momentum creating in the second half of the season.  The fans had come to idolise their Portuguese manager his Nantes side began to capture the fan base in a way that had not been seen for many a year.

The last ten years have been not particularly kind to the men in yellow. Two relegations resulted in five seasons in total in Ligue 2. Michel Der Zakarian managed to return FCN to the top tier for the second time and under his leadership FCN survived in Ligue 1 with a relative degree of comfort for three consecutive seasons. However his teams were somewhat limited and personified functionality; not to mention the lack attacking nous. Rene Girard was seen as an upgrade given his title win with Montpellier in 2012 before finishing on the podium with Lille two seasons down the line.

Ambition in football is a complex issue.  Aiming high in Ligue 1 is difficult given the top-heavy nature of the league, but as Nice have shown recently, intelligent recruitment and shrewd managerial appointments can have tremendous effects and allow clubs to leap-frog other clubs.

Having watched over FC Nantes dark in the doldrums era, Kita may now be able to look up rather than down. A quick glance at last season’s friendly matches showed his intentions to put FCN firmly on the map. Rather than the usual kickabouts with teams from the surrounding areas, FC Nantes welcomed Aston Villa and Athletic Bilbao to northwest France a sign of new ambition and intention to put FC Nantes back up there.

The simple fact of being linked with Ranieri – during pre-announcement there was an enormous amount of online buzz – meant FC Nantes were mentioned everywhere, something that cannot have happened much in the last decade. Then, just appointing Ranieri is in itself a huge marketing ploy without even thinking about how the Italian can improve FC Nantes on the pitch.

There are certain similarities between where Leicester were in summer 2015 to where FCN are currently. A team coming off the back of a surge in form during the second half of the season. We could cast Yacine Bammou as Jamie Vardy given their relatively late arrivals at the top level. Or young Amine Harit as Riyad Mahrez performing magic tricks on the left flank.

What FC Nantes can hope to achieve now is interesting to consider, as that seventh-place finish was still eight points off Bordeaux in sixth for the final European place, and was the lowest total for that position for 7 seasons. During the period Conceicao was in charge FCN finish 6th in that hypothetical table.

The situation for Ranieri is much more comparable to that of Leicester’s than to Ranieri’s last stint in France. Monaco were an enormous fish in a minuscule pool in Ligue 2, and were promoted as champions before a monster recruitment saw the likes of Falcao, James Rodriguez, Joao Moutinho  and many more arrive in the Principality to challenge PSG for the title. A second place finish with an automatic Champions League qualification was not enough as Ranieri was replaced in summer 2014.

Ranieri will do well to look at how FC Nantes performed last season under their two different coaches. The difference is stark. Under Girard the team looked very much the sum of its parts; new signings from various different leagues mixed with players striving to make their mark in the league with a couple of experienced cadres in Remi Riou, Oswaldo Vizcarondo and Guillaume Gillet. Of those three players only Gillet remained a regular starter in the new era with Vizcarrondo and Riou dropping the bench. Under Conceicao the team morphed into proper unit with many players performing above and beyond. Emilano Sala enjoyed his best ever Ligue 1 season as he netted twelve goals; doubling his tally from the previous season.

Among the many changes made under the Portuguese was to markedly increase the levels of professionalism across the board. Players were spending more time together at the club as the manager worked on team spirit. On the field things began to improve steadily and the team even began playing some more expansive attractive football, something the fans had been clamouring for.

Ranieri will be tasked with leaded FC Nantes upwards and forwards to as high a position as possible with any European action seen as target as well. Ranieri will have to decide what to do with his new squad. With Leicester, Ranieri did not change a huge amount and he gave his players the opportunity to carry on the momentum created from their great escape. Ranieri’s man management coupled with the perfect storm of circumstances helped Leicester seal the most improbable of titles.

Can Ranieri lead FC Nantes back to the glory days? FC Nantes need to build on the progress made the previous season. Shedding the madcap reputation would help, while beginning to challenge for a European spot. If Kita and the board are willing to match their stated ambition with investment, and the contracts awarded to Conceicao and Ranieri are anything to go by, they are indeed willing to invest. We may well be set for a new era at FC Nantes.

Check out Netbet.co.uk for all the odds for next season’s title.


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