Will Still was a relatively unknown figure until midway through last season. That was until someone found out that the Ligue 1 club he managed, Reims, were forking out £22,000 in fines for every game Still was managing them as he was – famously – coaching them without a UEFA Pro Licence. When it emerged that Still was an avid Football Manager player and could speak multiple languages, the response from social media publishers all across the internet was to, repeatedly, use his profile and story as engagement fodder.
But this perhaps belies the fact that the red-haired, Anglo-Belgian coach is a serious, serious manager.
It’s been quite the 12 months for Still. The Stade de Reims manager has made a huge impression in northern France, transforming his side from relegation candidates to European contenders in little over a year.
Reims currently sit fourth in Ligue 1 and are just five points off Nice in top spot. With 20 points from their opening 11 league games, they’ve made their best start to a top-flight campaign since 1974. It’s also just the second time they have been inside the top four this far into a Ligue 1 season in the last 48 years (also fourth after 11 games in 2019-20).
Reims are sparkling with Still at the helm.
Still was initially appointed as Óscar García’s assistant at the Stade Auguste Delaune in the summer of 2022, but quickly found himself in the managerial hot seat. Reims made an abysmal start to last season, winning just one of their opening nine league games in a run that saw them languish inside the relegation zone. It was their worst start to a top-flight season in over 40 years.
Still was then asked to step in for García in the Reims dugout for the side’s following game – a home clash with unbeaten table-toppers Paris Saint-Germain. It was the ultimate sink or swim moment, but Still more than kept his head above water. His side valiantly held the reigning champions to a goalless draw, ending the Parisians’ 22-game goalscoring run across all competitions. The 31-year-old was duly appointed as caretaker manager five days later.
Reims then embarked on an almighty 19-game unbeaten streak, propelling themselves completely clear of the relegation zone in the process. It was the longest such run of any side in Ligue 1 last season, as well as the club’s longest in their Ligue 1 history. Still sealed victories over both Monaco and Rennes, while also earning another impressive draw against PSG at the Parc des Princes.
Still had completely transformed Reims’ season as they soared into the top half of the table.
The club’s unbeaten streak ultimately came to an end away at Marseille last March in what was a first league defeat for Still. That sparked somewhat of an end-of-season slump, as Reims won just two of their remaining 10 league games in 2022-23. Despite that, they finished 16 points clear of the relegation zone, a feat which few would have predicted when Still first took over.
Yet the underlying numbers suggest they should have even finished higher. Our expected points model had them in seventh spot with 58 points, rather than their actual 11th-placed finish and 51 points. It was the joint-greatest positional underperformance in our Ligue 1 expected points table (-4, alongside Lyon and Strasbourg).
The 31-year-old was rewarded with a new contract in the summer, and 2023-24 has seen them build on last year’s promising campaign.
Reims press extremely high up the pitch in a bid to suffocate opponents. Since Still took charge, they have the fourth lowest PPDA – opposition passes allowed per defensive action – in Ligue 1 (9.8). This pressing mainly takes shape as an aggressive counter-press when the ball is in the opposition’s half. Reims made 268 high turnovers under the 31-year-old last season, with only Marseille (289) and Monaco (274) making more in that time.
This season, they are at it again. Only PSG (7.7) and Monaco (8.8) have a lower PPDA than Reims’ 9.4 while only PSG, Lens and Brest have completed more pressed sequences – the number of sequences starting in the defensive third where the opposition has three or fewer passes, and the sequence ends in their own half – than Reims’ 160. That counter-press has been on full display, with Reims’ opponents completing just three passes on average per sequence, the third-lowest rate of any team in the league.
Structurally, Still sets his side up in a compact mid-block and utilises man-marking to protect central passing lanes. From there, his side tries to force opponents out wide, where there are significantly fewer options to progress the ball. When the ball does come into the middle of the park, Reims react proactively and aggressively, and have made more tackles (219) and recoveries (775) than any side in Ligue 1 this term.
Despite Reims’ porous start to last season – they conceded 19 league goals in their opening nine games, with only two teams conceding more – Still’s appointment shored up the defence. They kept more clean sheets than any other side under Still last year (14), having failed to register a single shutout under García, while only Lens (22) conceded fewer goals than Reims across the French top flight since he took charge (26).
That defensive solidity has largely continued this season, with Still altering his system to a back three. Just three sides have conceded fewer goals than Reims in Ligue 1 (12), with the Red and Whites allowing their opponents just 1.04 xG per game, the sixth-best record in the league.
In possession, Reims’ attacking play is largely centred on transitions. Still’s side look to regain possession and progress the ball through the thirds quickly via vertical passes. Only PSG (149) played more through balls than Reims in Ligue 1 last season (72), with Still’s charges always looking to spring forward quickly to exploit pockets of space in behind opposition backlines. Reims had the fifth-highest direct speed – the speed at which teams move the ball up the pitch – under Still last season (2.06 m/s), while only PSG had more direct attacks (60) than their 59 across that period.
That direct speed has fallen somewhat this season, but as the below playing styles graphic shows, Reims still don’t look to string too many passes together before launching attacks. They average 3.2 passes per sequence, which ranks them in the bottom five among Ligue 1 teams, and are also not afraid to go long when required. Only Brest (414) have made more successful long passes than Reims this season (297), with Still’s side looking to hit their ever-willing runners in behind.
The departure of last season’s top scorer, Folarin Balogun, who went back to Arsenal before joining Monaco in the summer, had some onlookers concerned that this season would see Reims regress in front of goal. After all, they had just eight different goalscorers in the league in 2022-23 – the fewest of any side – while only Kylian Mbappé (29) and Alexandre Lacazette (27) scored more Ligue 1 goals than Balogun (21). Balogun also had the second-highest xG tally across the big five European leagues (26.4), behind only Erling Haaland (28.6), and it wasn’t immediately clear how Reims would replace his attacking output.
However, any pre-season qualms have been completely dispersed at the Stade Auguste Delaune. There has been little impact from the absence of Balogun. Only PSG (26) and Monaco (25) have scored more goals than Still’s side (17), while they are the only outfit to have netted in every league game this season. Remarkably, those 17 goals mean Reims have made their most prolific start to a top-flight campaign in 47 years, helped by becoming much more efficient in front of goal; they boast the second-highest shot conversion rate in the division (15%).
Reims are currently in fourth and the Opta supercomputer gives them an 8.5% chance of maintaining that position come the end of the season. Their most likely finish is seventh (16.6%) and even that would represent a brilliant campaign.
This weekend will be a full-circle moment for Still as his side host second-placed PSG in northern France, with this exact fixture his very first at Reims just over 12 months ago. The 31-year-old is unbeaten in his two previous meetings with the Parisians, though he will be well aware of the enormous task that lies ahead on Saturday afternoon.
But so too will PSG, which speaks to the terrific job that the young coach has carried out at the Stade Auguste Delaune. Still has overseen Reims’ best start in nearly 50 years and has instilled plenty of fizz and excitement in the Champagne region in his short spell so far.