Ligue 1 2022/23: Nantes’ dismal defensive demise putting them in danger of the drop – scout report
On the one hand, Nantes fans will be delighted to see their team embarking on a second straight Coupe de France final. Their 1-0 semi-final victory over Lyon a couple of weeks ago sealed their place in the Stade de France at the end of the month where they’ll take on a Toulouse that’s been revitalised since their 2019/20 relegation under new ownership.
On the other hand, at the time of writing, Nantes are in the midst of a terrible run of form in the league, enduring their eighth straight game without a win last Sunday when Auxerre beat them 2-1 to jump over them on the Ligue 1 table.
Les Canaris now sit in 15th place just two points above Strasbourg occupying 17th — the final relegation place in an especially lethal league campaign this term that’s set to see four teams drop out of France’s top flight.
Nantes manager Antoine Kombouaré, who was in charge of the aforementioned Toulouse for a portion of their disastrous 2019/20 campaign, hasn’t minced his words to the media regarding his club’s recent run of form, with notable quotes including: “all the talks we’ve had with them about being careful and keeping our destiny in our own hands haven’t worked”, “I feel like I’m talking to a wall” and one more that includes a very blunt, unflattering description of the team’s abilities where he uses a four letter word which starts ‘s’ and ends in ‘t’. You can fill in the blanks…
This tactical analysis and team-focused scout report will look at Nantes’ recent poor run of form and provide analysis of where it’s all going wrong for Les Canaris, as well as attempt to address whether or not there’s been a significant difference in approach, strategy and/or tactics between this season and last season when they secured a top half finish for the first time since 2017/18.
2022/23 vs 2021/22
Comparing this season to last season in the league, we can make significant assessments in a couple of areas. Firstly, looking at shots, Nantes’ xG per shot is identical to last season right now, indicating that they’ve been creating a similar quality of shot this term as they did last term.
Les Canaris ended last season having taken 10.08 shots per 90, while they’ve taken 10.87 shots per 90 so far in 2022/23. So, they’ve also been generating a similar quantity of shots this season as they did last season.
We’d expect them, then, to end this campaign with a similar number of shots and a similar xG as they ended last season, suggesting a fairly similar level of chance creation.
However, while Nantes outperformed their xG by over seven goals last term, as we can see in figure 1, they’re currently underperforming by just over eight goals in 2022/23. Again, some natural variance is to be expected — you would be surprised to see them consistently outperforming their xG and these things do generally even out in the long run. But it’s clear that Nantes took their chances far better last season than they have so far this term.
Defensively, Nantes have also performed quite similarly during the two seasons, with their average defensive line height pushing up slightly this season compared to last season but their general area of engagement remaining about the same.
However, as figure 2 demonstrates, Nantes have been engaging in slightly more defensive actions higher upfield this season than they did last season when they defended a little more passively.
In 2021/22, however, Nantes performed better in terms of denying the opposition goalscoring opportunities. Last season, their xGA sat at 55.36 at the end, with an xGA per shot of 0.128. Meanwhile, they conceded 10.66 shots per 90.
This season, though, Les Canaris have conceded 51.35 xG, with 0.137 xGA per shot and an average of 11.36 shots against per 90.
While their defensive approach has been fairly similar, the apparent extra impetus they’ve put on pressing higher compared to last season has perhaps not had the desired effect and may not suit the players within this squad.
How have things changed within 2022/23?
We can see a major area of concern in Kombouaré’s side’s performance during this rough period of the last eight league games compared to the entire season as a whole.
Offensively, things have been fairly consistent. Nantes’ xG for 2022/23 in Ligue 1 is 1.29, while it’s 1.22 for the last eight games. Alright, we can see a minor dropoff of 0.07 but that’s nothing major in the grand scheme of things.
Meanwhile, Nantes have scored an average of 1.06 goals per 90 in the league this season but they’ve scored 1.125 per 90 in the last eight games; Les Canaris have actually improved in the actual goalscoring department of late.
While in general this season, Nantes have struggled in front of goal, the major reason why they’ve found life particularly difficult of late is at the other end of the pitch — in front of their own goal.
Les Canaris’ xGA for 2022/23 is 1.66 but that’s shot up to 2.14 for the last eight games — a rise of 0.48. Meanwhile, their average of actual goals conceded has risen by 0.83 from 1.42 to 2.25.
So, Kombouaré’s side has been conceding way more chances of late while also conceding way more goals.
This period has also seen a rise in PPDA with an average of 12.84 for the season overall but 14.66 for the last eight games. This essentially tells us Nantes’ opponents have been able to make about two more passes per possession before Les Canaris have committed a defensive action against them compared to the season as a whole.
Lastly, Nantes’ average shot distance against has been lower during this period compared to the season as a whole by over a metre — 17.6 for the season but 16.4 for the last eight games. This tells us Nantes’ opponents have been shooting, on average, from closer to Les Canaris’ goal of late.
All this makes pretty grim reading from a Nantes perspective. Their defence has fallen off significantly of late and if they’re to ensure they avoid relegation this term, their defence will be the key area to improve for the end-of-season run-in.
Nantes’ defensive weaknesses
Let’s get into the nitty gritty of Nantes’ defensive weaknesses, then. During this rough patch, the major thing that’s stood out as an area of weakness at the back for Les Canaris has been their ability to deal with crosses — including those coming from set-pieces.
Nantes conceded twice from a corner kick against Monaco and once versus Nice during their current run of poor form, while they conceded just after failing to adequately clear the danger from a corner in their most recent league game versus Auxerre and in a recent 4-2 loss to PSG.
This is evidently a high frequency of conceding either from or just after a corner kick; so what’s going on?
Nantes have been plagued by an inability to adequately clear balls into the box, a failure to win aerial duels and a general failure to attack the ball as it enters the danger zone.
In figure 3, we see an example of the first corner kick goal Les Canaris conceded in their recent clash with Monaco. In this case, while Nantes had adequately prepared to defend their six-yard box, the ball ends up swinging to the edge of the area where 25-year-old centre-back Axel Disasi, who’s recently been strongly linked with EPL clubs West Ham United and Manchester United, is able to take it down and fire it beyond Alban Lafont in goal.
Disasi was poorly marked and the nearest defender to him badly misjudged the flight of the ball coming in from the corner to the point where he wasn’t in a position to contest an aerial duel, allowing the Monaco man far too much time to take the ball down and pick his spot.
Later in that same game, we saw another example of Les Canaris’ poor marking from the corner kick. Les Monégasques’ 21-year-old midfielder Eliot Matazo makes his way into the centre of the box to occupy a decent position to get onto the end of this cross, losing his marker in the process as he drops him off with the teammate who Matazo has intelligently angled his run around.
Lafont comes out to try and deal with the free man and the ball makes its way towards him but the goalkeeper fails to get there before the Monaco man. Again, poor marking and a failure to win the ball in the air cost Nantes here in a game that they ended up drawing 2-2. They’ll have been kicking themselves to have conceded twice from corners in this winnable game.
There was a similar story versus PSG for the goal that gave Les Parisiens a 60th-minute 3-2 lead in a game Christophe Galtier’s side eventually won 4-2. While Lionel Messi’s cross originally missed all targets in the box, as seen in figure 6, it was picked up by Kylian Mbappé on the opposite wing, with the Frenchman putting a more effective ball into the box on this occasion.
Mbappé’s ball met Danilo Pereira’s head after Pereira intelligently pulled away from his marker inside the box. Again, it was far too easy for the opposition attacker to lose his marker in such a dangerous area as a cross was clearly on the way.
Once more, this cost Nantes at a crucial stage of a match, as Pereira put his header away in the far bottom corner of the net to help his team take the lead heading into the final stages of the match. Beating PSG is not an easy task in Ligue 1 by any means, but Nantes were on the verge of entering the late stages of this match with the scores levelled, which could’ve had a major impact on the eventual result.
Nantes’ struggle with crosses doesn’t end with their poor marking and aerial duel success of late, it includes their inability to effectively clear balls out of danger. This has been a recurring issue of late; let’s take the example from Les Canaris’ recent 3-0 loss to Reims shown in figure 9.
The ball was initially curled into the box from the left wing and intercepted by Nantes’ right centre-back Andrei Girotto. However, the ball was just sent back out for the Reims wide man to have another go. This time, again, the low cross is intercepted but the left centre-back this time, Jean-Charles Castelletto, fails to deal with it well, blasting it off his teammate’s head which results in the ball falling to Alexis Flips.
Flips put the ball away from here with a clear shot at goal presented to him by Nantes’ poor defending from two consecutive crosses.
This is just one example of this issue of late for Les Canaris. They’ve failed to deal with crosses and clear the ball away from danger in recent games, with weak clearances failing to clear opposition players, essentially just handing the opposition another chance at breaking them down, or poorly directed clearances creating chaos in the box for the opposition to pounce on.
Nantes must take more care and adopt more care and safety with their clearances in order to avoid repeating these failures in the future.
Do Nantes really “like to play with pressure” as Kombouaré has suggested? Players, especially defenders, are making lots of silly mistakes in high-pressure, split-second decision-making moments at present which is arguably the main cause of their current poor run of form and the slightly more aggressive defensive game they’ve tried to use this season has not borne fruit so it’s certainly debatable but let’s see if the relegation battle and their manager’s public pressure marks a turning point in their performances! Though we’re not convinced it’s going to do the trick.
While there’s been a clear dropoff in Nantes’ attacking performances this season compared to last, the real reason for their current run of dismal form is their recent dropoff at the back. Several key areas of their defensive game must improve if they’re to get out of this relegation battle still a Ligue 1 team heading into 2023/24.