Glancing at the Ligue 1, it would be easy to dismiss the standings as unsurprising with Paris Saint Germain leading the pack and teams like Lyon, Marseille and Monaco in the top six.
However the team currently sitting in third is the one you might not expect to be there; Claudio Ranieri’s Nantes.
After his departure from the Premier League, the Italian returned to French football in the summer, having managed Monaco previously. Following two defeats in the opening two games he has since led the Canaries to an eight game unbeaten streak, including six wins.
Ranieri pulled off the impossible in the Premier League. So, are Nantes the French Leicester?
Are Nantes the French Leicester?
Nantes had an impressive season last year. They finished seventh, having placed in the bottom half of the table for the other three campaigns spent in Ligue 1 since their return to France’s top flight. This overachievement came as a result of the appointment of manager Sergio Conceicao. He joined the club when they were languishing in the relegation zone in December last year
Following the outstanding recovery in 2017, rumours of a new deal were abound and Conceicao verbally pledged his commitment to the club. However, he went back on his word and returned to his native Portugal to manage Porto.
Having had such a standout season, many expected Nantes to be unable to repeat their form. This is especially given the hurried nature of Ranieri’s appointment before the season started.
Comparisons to Leicester
It would be easy to dismiss Ranieri’s title winning success at Leicester as complete luck. Looking back at the 2015/2016 campaign, Leicester did have their share of fortune. The teams around them failed to impress, but they also executed their tactics perfectly.
The nature of Nantes’s recent victories has been reminiscent of Leicester in their title winning season. The Foxes won 14 of their 23 wins in the title-winning campaign by a single goal, and all six of Ranieri’s wins this season have been by the same margin.
His side tied the record for a title winning team’s lowest goal difference with +32 (Manchester United had the same feat in 1996-97). Ranieri is now applying the same model of narrow wins in Ligue 1 and his team sit on the podium in France with a goal difference of just +2 after ten games.
So how has Ranieri improved even further on a team that overachieved last season? His signings have definitely had an effect.
The signing who has made the biggest impact so far this season has been Ciprian Tatarasanu, who signed from Fiorentina in the summer. The Romanian goalkeeper has been a key part of the second meanest defence in the league this season. He was even given man of the match in his debut at home to Marseille in spite of losing the match.
Ranieri also added several defensive outfield players to his squad as he looked to build his success on clean sheets.
The Italian manager has also implemented his strategy of counter attacking football. Nantes have averaged just 43.5% possession this season, using the pace of their attackers in the same way that Leicester did in the past. Emiliano Sala, the Argentine striker, in particular is known for poaching late goals in matches using his speed and determination.
So far the tactic of low scoring, smash and grab wins have paid off for the Italian. The team seems to lack goals, however. One criticism of the squad is that their goals in the current season have come from long range. They have been speculative efforts mostly, rather than being down to good forward play.
Top goalscorer from last season Emiliano Sala has had a slow start to this campaign and will need to improve; other teams will play Nantes’s game and reduce one goal deficits to draws. Ranieri needs to teach the team how to kill off games before long.
At Leicester, Jamie Vardy broke the record for the most consecutive games to score in for the Premier League. Sala does not have to break any records. Although, he will have to chip in with more than the 12 goals last year to keep Nantes up the table.
Nantes definitely do resemble Leicester in various ways, thanks mostly to Ranieri. Their defensive foundation and counter attacking play-styles mirror each other.
But despite their strong start, Nantes will not repeat the feat of Leicester and win the league this year. Paris Saint Germain in particular do not look as lackadaisical as the English clubs did two years ago.
Nevertheless, fans of the Canaries can be hopeful of a European spot this year under the Italian’s management and more excitement than the mid-table mediocrity they might have been expecting.