Two Brittany institutions came together when Christian Gourcuff was appointed FC Nantes manager in August, and so far everything is working out brilliantly for coach and club…
At 64, Gourcuff is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but by taking charge of Nantes - the club that inspired his footballing philosophy - the former Stade Rennais FC and FC Lorient coach is facing perhaps the biggest and most exciting challenge yet.
A mainstay of Ligue 1 Conforama's dugouts over the past three decades, Gourcuff returned at the start of the current season, bringing his considerable experience to eight-time French Champions Nantes.
A Breton clean sweep?
A passionate tactician who has represented or coached every professional team in his natal region of Brittany - bar Stade Brestois 29 - Gourcuff appears to have found a role tailor-made for him at Stade de la Beaujoire.
Gourcuff (r.) is delighted with the players he has inherited at Nantes.
"Even though I was happily retired in Brittany, my home, I'm now very happy to have returned to my work, to be back in football," Gourcuff explained to the Ligue 1 Show on beIN SPORTS. "A Breton travels around but always returns to his homeland. It's true I've spent a large part of my career in Brittany so I'm delighted to be at Nantes now."
Widely credited for launching the careers of Laurent Koscielny, André-Pierre Gignac and Christophe Jallet among others, Gourcuff reserves tremendous respect for Nantes, who have themselves produced a conveyor belt of French footballing talent over the years.
Jeu à la nantaise
"FC Nantes represents a footballing ideology," he said. "This club left an indelible impression on people of my generation thanks to the work of [former managers] Jose Arribas, though I don't remember that period too well - Jean Claude Suaudeau's time mainly! He was an example for anyone who loves football. And a little later on, Raynauld Denoueix, someone I've been fortunate enough to exchange ideas with. He's a real icon of French football.
"I could mention every generation of this club, that's what's amazing, the philosophy was passed down from generation to generation and that's the mark of club with know-how, with an identity, and that's thanks to the coaches who put it in place."
Barcelona's style was influenced by Nantes' of the 1960s and '70s.
Throughout his career, Gourcuff's tactics have been a throwback to the famous jeu à la nantaise, a fluid passing style that inspired Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona. At the heart of his philosophy: the 4-4-2 formation.
"People call it 4-4-2 but there are many ways of playing in a 4-4-2 formation," Gourcuff continued. "Sometimes it's more of a 2-3-5. It's about the situation you find yourself in. The organisation is in place to make the most of the players' qualities, but you have to be able to knit the players and their qualities together for things to work well.
"You don't necessarily play with two out and out strikers who like to run into space. You have to find players whose qualities are complimentary and who can play together, it's a much richer system than just how people imagine a 4-4-2. The standard 4-4-2 that's often portrayed makes no sense to me!"
Like when he took over the Algerian national team in 2014, Gourcuff arrived at Nantes in the wake of an abrupt Vahid Halilhodzic departure; on this occasion just three days before the first game of the season. In order to put his ideas in place as quickly as possible, the former Maths teacher has drawn up a simple equation.
Halilhodzic parted ways with Nantes in August, taking charge of Morocco.
"In professional football, you're not afforded any time, and I've had even less because I didn#t have a pre-season here," he said. "So I put my ideas in place, made our objectives clear, and then put them to work out on the pitch. To get results, motivation is essential. Motivation is drawn from pleasure. So players should take pleasure from training - that's what allows them to transcend themselves.
'Learning requires motivation'
"The pleasure that they get from their jobs helps them to become harder workers, to become perfectionists. I was a teacher some years ago, and I think that if I went back into that field, I would work a little differently because I've realised that a student's investment is linked to the pleasure he's getting from learning. To learn, you have to have been given the motivation to learn, that's essential!"
Gourcuff has hit the ground running at Nantes: his men have picked up seven points in their last three games, with back-to-back victories over Amiens SC and Montpellier Hérault SC following last month's draw with Olympique de Marseille.
Watch: Highlights of Nantes' 1-0 win over Montpellier
"This first month has been about urgency," he said. "First of all because I came in late on with a new set-up, with new ideas and the uncertainty surrounding Valentin Rongier's departure [Rongier left for Marseille at the start of September]. Now we know who we can count on through until January, and frankly I've come across players I didn't know here, Imran Louza, Kader Bamba, a lot of young talent. I won't be asking too much of them too soon. They just need game time. There will be ups and downs for them. They need time to perform. That's one of the most motivating parts of this job, helping young players progress!"
Silverware to follow?
It's early days still, but things seem to be falling into place nicely, and with the return to La Beaujoire of a familiar footballing philosophy, fans will dare to dream that their sixth coach in three years may be the one to bring an 18-year trophy drought to an end.
"We'll play every competition to win!" Gourcuff concluded. "Of course, we know we can't win every game but what I'm most focused on is mainly getting the team to play a certain type of football; that's been made clear! And it's also important to get results in the first few matches, not only to take pressure off the group, but also to justify the choices that have been made."