In football, you sometimes hear the cliche “a game of two halves” when one team dominate the first 45 minutes of a match and then for some reason (managerial changes, for example) the opposition the other 45. It happens quite regularly.
Nantes and Claudio Ranieri have done something a bit different and certainly far rarer in Ligue 1 this year: they have made it “a season of two halves”.
Rarely have a team been so good in the first part of a domestic campaign and so anonymous in the second. When the Italian manager arrived in Nantes last summer, after being sacked in February 2017 by Leicester, it was seen as a great coup by the French club.
He had created Leicester’s miracle Premier League title win only 10 months before. He was also still highly rated in France after doing a good job at Monaco (Ligue 2 champions in 2013 and second in Ligue 1 in 2014). Nantes got themselves a top coach, a gentleman with great manners who would be able to build on the good work predecessor Sergio Conceicao did before leaving for Porto.
Everyone knew what to expect of the Italian and it went exactly according to plan. Ranieri seduced the country. His news conferences were fun, he was happy and smiling all the time. He worked his players hard with a simple method: parking the bus and playing on the counter.
Or as he put himself: “First, you need to lock the door of the house. If you don’t, the robbers get in and they take everything. Once you have locked the door, then you can organise and decorate the house the way you want.”
The wins, usually narrow, came quickly despite two defeats to start the season, against Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille (3-0) and Marseille (1-0). Nantes soon climbed up the table. Between the end of August and the end of December, they won 10 times by just one goal, including eight 1-0 victories. In their first 19 games of the season in Ligue 1, they only conceded 18 goals — the second best defence behind Paris Saint-Germain — and only the leaders with four and Lille with three scored more than twice against them.
They didn’t score much themselves, on the other hand, but they didn’t need to. They were efficient, solid and united — exactly like Leicester were under Ranieri.
At Christmas, Les Canaris were fifth, their best position at this time of a season since 2000. Since they got promoted back to the top flight in 2013, their average position at the end of December had been 11th. It was not always pretty and they were the first team since Metz in 1984 to be fifth at the winter break with a negative goal difference (-1). But they could not care less.
The future looked bright. Ranieri and the players were happy. The club’s owner Waldemar Kita as well. He even compared his Italian manager to a Mercedes while the previous Nantes managers were akin to a Citroen 2CV.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn’t last much longer. It stopped brutally and quickly after Christmas. The 66-year-old was not happy the club didn’t recruit the players he wanted in January. Then, he started thinking about the Italy job a lot. He said it would be an honour for him to manage his country. Yet he still had 18 months left on his contract at Nantes at the time and publicly applying for the job didn’t go down well with the club.
On the pitch, results crumbled. Nantes have only won two of their 16 matches in the league in 2018. Only two teams have done worse. Their solidity has disappeared: they have conceded 21 goals in those 16 games.
From fifth in the table, Nantes are now 10th and will need a miracle to snatch a Europa League place for next season. The final straw, though, was Ranieri’s absence at the club’s 75th anniversary 10 days ago. He snubbed the reception organised by the club to fly back to London on a private jet because there was a “leak” in the flat he owns in the capital. He still found the time to attend Manchester United vs. Tottenham and Arsenal vs. West Ham though …
Regarding the anniversary, he gave this explanation: “I was going there but my driver took the wrong way and we got stuck in traffic so I just told him to give up and go to the airport. I told the owner though. I asked for the permission.”
Kita was not amused, however.
“For me, it is not professional to behave like this. Attending the reception was an obligation. I can’t force him to come but I told him he had to,” said the owner in L’Equipe last week.
It is hard to see a way back between them. After Nantes lost at Lyon on Saturday, Ranieri didn’t hide his feelings.
“If the owner is not happy, there is only one thing he can do,” said the Italian, the inference being clear.
It feels like he has given up.
Ranieri never decorated the Nantes house, which is a shame. He has pretty much left it before the end of the season.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.