From backstage to front and centre, Will Still’s Reims are a shining light for others in Ligue 1
Assistant managers are often rarely mentioned in days of victories or turmoil but when the football gods strike and a head coach is sacked, these invisible conscripts are thrust to the top of a club’s chain of command. In most cases, after some weeks, they join their former boss down the job centre but in rare cases, the interim manager defies straitened circumstances, and the job becomes theirs.
The role can be a poisoned chalice, once the infamous new-manager-bounce dissipates the team’s old failings can manifest once more but in the case of Will Still and Reims, he has bestowed the club with a run of form that has destroyed the narrative of mediocrity that has shrouded the club in recent times.
Unbeaten in 16 Ligue 1 games, Reims are a force to behold this season, incredibly Still is yet to taste a league defeat since succeeding Oscar Garcia as head coach, their example is even being copied across France’s top division. Mathieu Le Scornet and Romain Pitau, with Strasbourg and Montpellier and of course Didier Digard who is still officially at the time of writing interim boss of Nice.
The young coaches bring a freshness and a stockade of new ideas but vitally what they bring in a time of chaos is some stability. They already have a relationship with the playing squad and the club’s hierarchy, in many ways they are gifted with a free shot.
Nothing To Lose & Everything To Gain
Financially, they save their employer a host of their budget, headhunting a top manager takes time and of course money. When a high-profile man walks through the door, he will naturally demand an overall of the playing squad and backroom staff.
Will Still is one of the youngest managers in European football at the tender age of 30 years old, to put it in perspective, last weekend when his side faced Nice, the spine of Le Gym’s defence is Brazilian legend Dante at the ripe age of 39 years old.
With youth on his side, what may be overlooked is the fact that Still can relate to the younger generation of footballers. His background of honing his managerial skills in the computer game Football Manager aligns with the modern-day player’s hunger for gaming. Tactically, his approach is nuanced, his Reims side fluidly switch from a 4-2-3-1 and 5-3-2, without the ball they delightfully craft mistakes in their opponents’ game.
In Ligue 1, they top the interception table this season, robbing their adversaries of possession and hitting with pace and precision. At the fulcrum of their attack Still has inserted Folarin Balogun, the player causing much surprise featuring at the very summit for top scorers in French football.
Big Ekitike Shoes To Fill
The forward, 21, had massive boots to fill when he arrived at Reims for a season-long loan from Arsenal at the start of the season. The Reims attack looked severely blunted by the departure of the highly coveted Hugo Ekitike after he was lured to PSG.
Balogun’s CV upon his arrival in France hardly indicated he would fill the void left by the mercurial Ekitike and help propel the club to the lofty positions they reached in 2019-20 when they finished 6th. He had a single Premier League appearance to his name and three goals in championship football from a loan spell with Middlesbrough.
The wily Reims and Will Still saw an undercurrent of talent that has led to Balogun becoming one of the main attacking protagonists in Ligue 1 this season. He has already blasted 15 goals in Ligue 1 combat from 23 games, equating to a goal every 77.2 minutes.
Ekitike, widely lauded and sought after, mustered 10 goals in a Reims shirt last season in league action. In fairness to Ekitike, his attacking output came from 1360 minutes of action whilst Balogun has already played 1890 minutes in Ligue 1 thanks to his durability and preternatural physical development.
Back To The Future
The main beneficiaries of Balogun’s development in France are naturally his parent club Arsenal, their squad depth at the pointy end of the pitch has almost derailed their title challenge this season. Once Gabriel Jesus succumbed to injury in November the Gooners’ synchronised attack does not seem to be playing with the same malevolent glee as they did with the Brazilian, with Jesus at their disposal the Gooners blasted 33 goals an average of 2.3 goals a game since his absence the goal average output has dropped to 2 goals a game.
The fine margins at the summit of the Premier League can make all the difference when Arteta is trying to compete with the behemoths of Manchester City. The prospect of Balogun dovetailing with the likes of Saka and Ødegaard in the future must appeal to even the most grounded of Arsenal supporters.
Balogun who may find himself very much in demand this summer is no stranger to being subject to a tug-of-war, England & the United States chased his international loyalties in the not-so-recent past. Will Still has been at the vanguard of the rise of Balogun and Reims, the striker and manager are firmly established in the rarefied air of the next big things. Stars of the present and potential superstars of the future Stade de Reims are in safe hands.
By: Liam Scahill / @LiamScahill
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / FEP / Icon Sport