There has been a lack of new blood in Ligue 1 dugouts this season. Frédéric Antonetti, Pascal Dupraz, Jocelyn Gourvennec, Michel der Zakarian and Óscar García have all been given managerial jobs despite underachieving in their previous roles. There is the odd exception – Julien Stéphan and Franck Haise offer a breath of fresh air – but in recent years French clubs have tended to make cautious decisions and hire experienced managers. When Nantes employed Antoine Kombouaré last February, it looked like they were part of that trend.
Save for a year in Saudi Arabia, Kombouaré has bounced from club to club in France without making much of an impact. Sure, he was hard done by when PSG sacked him midway through the 2010-11 season while they were top of the table, but his next job in France, at Lens, seemed to show the limit of his abilities, and his successive sackings at Guingamp, Toulouse and Dijon did little to improve his reputation.
Kombouaré hardly seemed like an imaginative appointment by Nantes but, after Raymond Domenech’s farcical spell, he was at least expected to be a steadying hand at a club famous for its instability in the dugout. Having made his professional debut with Nantes back in the early 1980s, he even had some affinity with the club.
While he fulfilled his remit last season by keeping them up, he only did so through the playoffs, which hardly augured well for this season. The club’s lack of investment in the transfer window was also a worry. Nantes have been very parsimonious under the ownership of Waldemir Kita and last summer was no exception. The departures of influential midfielders Abdoulaye Touré and Imran Louza were counterbalanced by a smattering of loan signings, including Wylan Cyprien, whose star had dimmed considerably since his time at Nice, where he had been spoken of as a future France international. Cyprien has hardly sparkled this season, but Kombouaré has gotten a tune out of his squad and done something no Nantes manager has achieved in decades: won a trophy.
Nantes beat Nice 1-0 in the Coupe de France final on Saturday to win their first trophy since 2001. So perhaps it’s time to reassess Kombouaré’s abilities as a manager and even wonder where else he might be successful. It made for an interesting narrative that Kombouaré’s opposite number in the final, Christophe Galtier, has been given what amounts to a blank check by the standards of French football.
After enjoying success at St-Étienne and winning an unlikely title with Lille last season, Galtier was appointed by Nice to turn them into Champions League contenders. His relationship with Nice sporting director Julien Fournier has reportedly grown frosty and, while he is likely to stay at the club next season, several of his contemporaries at France’s more ambitious clubs may be replaced. Peter Bosz’s struggles at Lyon have been legion, even if injuries have played their part; Jorge Sampaoli’s volcanic personality has hardly made Marseille’s season smooth sailing; and Strasbourg could be in the market for a new manager if Julien Stéphan leaves.
Is Kombouaré ready for a bigger job? Some of his previous teams have underachieved, but he steadily improved Valenciennes before taking the reins at PSG, and his Lens teams played attractive, well organized football but were undone by a lack of a striker.
He has helped develop players such as Cyprien, Benjamin Bourigeaud, Jean-Philippe Gbamin, Marcus Thuram and Blas. At Nantes, Randal Kolo Muani has been the standout player this season, with left-back Quentin Merlin also turning heads, and veterans such as Moses Simon and Andrei Girotto also taking steps in their career trajectories. Despite losing defender Nicolas Pallois to injury for a lengthy spell – as well as Simon, Jean-Charles Castelletto and Dennis Appiah to Afcon – he has still made Nantes hard to beat and a threat on the counterattack, using the dynamism of Girotto and the pace of Kolo Muani to strike quickly. He has also fostered plenty of camaraderie and fighting spirit, which have been crucial.
That’s not to imply Kombouaré is not at the races tactically. While some of his more recent jobs have lacked coherence, he has enjoyed success when given time to instill his methods. In playing the role of a firefighter at Dijon or Toulouse, that was patently not the case.
His tactical ability was on show on Saturday. Nantes‘ 3-5-2 overwhelmed a more talented and expensive Nice side. By playing Marcus Coco in a fluid role that toggled between a third attacker and an inverted wing-back, Nantes shackled Amine Gouiri and Andy Delort. Nice launched a late onslaught, but Nantes held firm to preserve their slender lead.
Kombouaré and Nantes chairman Kita, who was conspicuously absent from the celebrations in the city center, have a frosty relationship. Speaking after the match, the manager said of the club’s fans: “These are people who have suffered enormously under the presidency of Kita. It has not been easy for them or me. I don’t always get along with my president. But I’ve put that to one side and what interests me is flying the Nantes colors high. ”
After winning the club’s first major trophy in 20 years then lobbing a none-too-subtle dig at the president, Kombouaré may be aiming for another crack at a job higher up the table. He will not be going back to PSG, but he would be an asset for a club with the right balance of patience, resources and a strong youth system.
Troyes showed plenty of resolve in battling back to snatch a point at PSG, a result that could yet prove decisive to the eastern side’s survival hopes. In the reverse fixture on the opening day of the season, Troyes put in a spirited display but lost. It looked to be more of the same at the Parc des Princes on Sunday when PSG took a 2-0 lead. But Troyes took advantage of some slack play by the hosts to scrape a draw, leaving them six points clear of the relegation playoff spot. Safety is not assured yet, but Troyes have exceeded the sum of their parts and their determination is a testament to the work done by Bruno Irles in the second half of the season.
Marseille responded to a gutting defeat in the Europa Conference League semi-finals – in which they lost the talismanic Dimitri Payet to injury – by winning 3-0 in Lorient. The Moustoir is never an easy place to go and, with Monaco still flying and Rennes looking sharp, there was even a sneaking suspicion Marseille could miss out on a top-three finish. They still have to play Bruno Génénsio’s side and Strasbourg – and Bamba Dieng, Cédric Bakambu, Gerson and Duje Caleta-Car have joined Payet on the treatment table – but Marseille have come through this must-win encounter.
Finally, another word on Monaco, who won their eighth straight match on Friday. Yes, Lille were depleted and out of sorts, but Philippe Clement has his team playing at the highest level they have shown since winning the title five years ago, which is no mean feat given their displays at various times last season. Keeping hold of star midfielder Aurélien Tchouameni in the summer will not be easy, but Monaco’s sporting project is looking more impressive by the day.