In a Nantes team that has lacked stability in recent years, Spanish dynamo Pedro Chirivella is proving to be just the reliable, positive influence in midfield that the doctor ordered as Antoine Kombouaré's side look to avoid the play-off drama of last season.
The 24-year-old ball-winner is now in the limelight, having learnt his trade in the shadows at Liverpool under one the world's very best coaches!
"One of the things that Klopp used to tell me every time is the orientation of your body is much more important than the pass that you make!" Chirivella told the Ligue 1 Show on BeIN Sports. "It's something I keep in mind, I always try to be well orientated, to see what's around me, and if I can do that, it's much easier to find a pass. As a central midfielder, you are always in the middle of everything, you have to be really alert on everything and I think orientation is key!"
Chirivella's positional intelligence means he is often the man who launches Nantes' attacks… Goals and assists may not be his forte, but the deep-lying Spaniard has completed more passes than any of his team-mates… and is clearly an essential cog in the yellow and green machine.
"For a midfielder, it's also very important to have the last pass before the assist," Chirivella explained. "A lot of the time it's the pass that makes really the difference because it breaks the defence for the guy to make the easiest pass to score. If I can get assists it would be better but it's not something I'm too worried about."
Since Antoine Komboure took charge of the eight-time Ligue 1 Uber Eats champions, Chirivella has been given the keys to the Nantes midfield - and his technique and combative nature make him ideally suited to Ligue 1 Uber Eats.
"The coach asked me to be the one who dictates the play and makes the team play well," beamed the midfield maestro. "It's my style of play and I think I am important for the coach because I can be an important part of the game of FC Nantes and hopeful I can carry on that way."
So what has changed since last season?
"We are defending much better, much higher than last season and that means that there is more space," admitted Chirivella. "Sometimes you get it wrong and you have to make fouls and, you have to fight."
Indeed, Chirivella has added a combative aspect to his game in order to adapt to his new circumstances.
"It's true that when you come from Liverpool, you are always used to having the ball - we had some games 60 or 70% possession - now you come here and it's rare that we win the possession battle so it's going to be more physical and I think I'm already used to it and hopefully we can show that in the next games."
One of the players Chirivella looks up to is his fellow Spaniard Cesc Fabregas. The two faced off last September in a game that left the Nantes man in awe of his opponent.
"We've played them last season, the third game of the season in Monaco and after we saw the physical stats of the game," the Spaniard recalled. "He was the one who had run the less of the four midfielders in the game, two of our team, two of theirs, but he really ran the game. We were not even close to getting the ball from him, he was playing passes there, there… I remember talking to the coach and saying 'this is high level'. I speak after, I say one day I want to be playing the same way as you play!"
That game came three weeks after the Valencia-born player made his Ligue 1 Uber Eats debut in Bordeaux, in the stadium where he had made his Liverpool bow 5 years earlier. Chirivella came agonisingly close to making an instant impact too!
"I don't shoot too much, but in that game I shot from 30 yards or whatever and I almost scored, and it's fun because my first professional game was against Nicolas Pallois, when he was at Bordeaux," laughed Chirivella. "When I signed here I saw him and I remembered him from that game! I think it's quite easy to remember Nico!"
That marked the beginning of a season in which Nantes struggled badly for results - so much so that they needed to survive a tense relegation play-off to stay in the division.
"For me it was probably the hardest week of my life. We played Montpellier at home, and with a draw we knew we could be good," said Chirivella. "We played a good game, we had some chances to score and you know at the end we lost the game and it was heart-breaking for everyone because we… it's true that we felt already on holidays so after three days you have to recover you have to play Toulouse knowing you are the team from Ligue 1!"
A tense struggle ensued, with Les Canaris losing 1-0 at home but clinching top-flight survival thanks to their two away goals in the 2-1 first-leg win in Toulouse, and Chirivella remembers how intense the pressure was.
"The home game for us, against Toulouse was the hardest game I've played in my life," he confessed. "The pressure you had, not only for the team but for all the club, the workers… In such a difficult year as last season, with covid situation, we had to save the club! The pressure was massive. We had to perform, and we did!"
Ligue 1 Uber Eats fans should have a chance to see Chirivella in action in Nantes' Round 6 clash away to Derby de l'Ouest rivals Angers on Sunday afternoon.