Will Still is one of the fastest rising head coaches on the market after parting ways with Stade de Reims but will Sunderland be his next destination and just why does the 31-year-old have so many admirers at the Stadium of Light?

Still’s ascension in recent years is as impressive as it is unconventional having become the youngest head coach across Europe’s top five leagues during his short managerial reign. Having completed a football coaching degree at Myerscough University Centre in Lancashire, Still returned to his native Belgium where he forced his way into a role at Sint Truiden VV, initially as an analyst, without pay. His input, however, became vital to the second division side as they won promotion in his first season being involved in senior football before following head coach Yannick Ferrer to Standard Liege with success, again, following Still as Liege secured European qualification and a Belgian Cup.

Still’s first taste of being the man in the dugout came at the age of just 24-years-old when tasked with taking over Lierse in a caretaker role in 2017-18 with the club second bottom. After three games as interim head coach, Still was handed the job on a permanent basis until the end of the season where he won seven of eight games to finish second in the division. In the process, Still became the youngest head coach in the history of Belgian football.

Still moved to Beerschot Wilrijk amid financial complications at Lierse, where he returned to an assistant role, as the club earned promotion to the Belgian Pro League for the first time in its history. Still was then handed the leading reins once more after Hernan Losada left for D.C United in January 2021 and was able to oversee the transition with a reasonable second half to the season before the club saw fit to replace him in the summer in fear of the then 28-year-old being unable to perform as well in his second season.

Still briefly joined Reims that summer as assistant manager to former Brighton & Hove Albion and Watford boss Oscar Garcia before leaving for a coaching role with Standard Liege back in Belgium as he endeavoured to complete his pro licence. The ambitious young coach turned down the opportunity to become Vincent Kompany’s assistant at Anderlecht before making a dramatic return to the Stade Auguste-Delaune as per Garica’s wishes. Still’s fleeting from club-to-club caused some unrest among the Reims hierarchy which left him with a series of bridges to build.

His rise on the global football scale came when he was, surprisingly, handed the head coach role in the champagne city following Garcia’s exit. The Spaniard was dealing with a difficult situation away from the field which led to poor form on it before he was reluctantly sacked in October 2022 with the club 15th in Ligue 1. Given the nature of his exit and return from the club, Still anticipated following Garica out the door before being appointed as head coach instead.

Still went on a 17-match unbeaten run to finish 11th in the table, a run which included being the first team to prevent Paris Saint-Germain from scoring a goal during his six-game auditioning process ahead of the Qatar World Cup in 2022. This season, Still and Reims continued their upward trajectory, at least through the first half of the season, having found themselves sixth in Ligue 1 following January’s win over Monaco. The 31-year-old, however, had been subject of interest from Sunderland in the weeks prior to that game after Tony Mowbray’s sacking in December.

We Are Sunderland: Will Still remains high on Sunderland's radar to fill the head coach vacancy at the Stadium of LightWill Still remains high on Sunderland's radar to fill the head coach vacancy at the Stadium of Light (Image: Matthieu Mirville / DPPI)

The Englishman has grown up and spent the majority of his life in Belgium but has long since held a desire to coach in England, with boyhood club West Ham United also reportedly interested at stages over the course of the last 12 months. “The Premier League is the ultimate dream for any manager but an ambitious Championship club? I’d love that,” Still revealed in an interview with The Athletic earlier this year.

Sunderland are understood to have held talks with Still ahead of the appointment of Michael Beale, with the 31-year-old’s compensation package to lure him away from the Stade Auguste-Delaune believed to be a key stumbling block.

But why were Sunderland so interested in Still and why does he remain a leading candidate in the club’s head coach search this time around?

Still’s intuition goes beyond that of being a Football Manager aficionado – something which has often been labelled at him throughout his rise in popularity and how his passion for a video game has helped him in the real world of football coaching and management. The goalless draw with PSG, for example, doesn’t happen by virtue of a computer game where you can hit the reset button and there is no jeopardy or human interaction.

“I don’t get annoyed at it,” Still recently told the High Performance podcast on the Football Manager narrative. “I laugh about it and I’ll chuckle at whoever wants to believe that story.

“I was just like any other kid and people seem to have made me a half-God playing Football Manager and making it to being a real football manager. It’s like saying I’m really good at Formula 1 on the PlayStation, I’m going to drive in Formula 1 now.

“I don’t mind it if people want to attach that to me, but I’m aware of how much work and how many years of watching football, talking about football, coaching, going to university and going to various different things to make it as a football manager I’ve done. It wasn’t just tapping my space bar on Football Manager to making it to the bench in Ligue 1. But it’s a story that sells. People enjoy that story and like to talk about that story.”

Still’s approach in the game with PSG, one of his first games in charge as Reims head coach, is one that will be of interest to Sunderland given how he set his team up to combat the league’s most dominant force, albeit without Lionel Messi and Neymar in the starting line-up.

Reims lined up in a 3-5-2 with the use of wing-backs, something we have seen from Sunderland in the closing weeks of the campaign under Mike Dodds with the likes of Callum Styles, Trai Hume and Timothee Pembele operating in those wing-back areas – positions of significance for Still and his teams.

The plan was to avoid sitting back and conceding a multitude of attacks to PSG which fits with Sunderland’s desire of being a front-foot based team. “The message was clear: We’re going to go and get them, we’re going to go and press them,” Still revealed in a Coaches Voice ‘Masterclass’ video. And Reims carried out those instructions to the letter as they forced the French champions into just three shots on target, setting a huge benchmark for Still as a coach.

That philosophy has continued for Reims this season as can be seen with their defensive activity map below, courtesy of StatsBomb.

 

We Are Sunderland: Stade de Reims Defensive Activity Map shows evidence of an active, high, aggressive pressStade de Reims Defensive Activity Map shows evidence of an active, high, aggressive press (Image: StatsBomb)

This map highlights a teams' defensive actions and attempts to profile where those actions take place in order compare different teams and their approaches. Zones where they make more actions than average are hotter, and zones where they have fewer actions are grey or blue. In this example, it shows evidence of an active high and aggressive press Still likes to demand from his team.

The out of possession radar, as shown below, further strengthens this argument for how Still likes to set his team up with pressure regains and pressures in the opposition half particularly high on average per 90 minutes.

 

We Are Sunderland: Stade de Reims out-of-possession radar shows evidence of the high press while the lack of counter attacking shots conceded suggests that this is a well-structured press that doesn't leave them vulnerable to teams hitting them on the breakStade de Reims out-of-possession radar shows evidence of the high press while the lack of counter attacking shots conceded suggests that this is a well-structured press that doesn't leave them vulnerable to teams hitting them on the break (Image: StatsBomb)

The lack of counter attacking shots conceded, in contrast, also suggests this is a well-structured press that doesn’t leave them vulnerable to being hit on the break – something which Sunderland, themselves, have improved on over the last year having gone from conceding an average of 1.02 counter attacking shots per game to 0.80.

In practice, this becomes clear when analysing some of Reims’ displays this season in what would be considered more difficult fixtures. Take the example below from March’s 1-1 draw with Olympique Lyonnais at the Groupama Stadium. Reims gave up 65 per cent of the possession to Lyon but, like PSG last season, limited them to just three attempts on target.

A lot of that is to do with the role of the wingers and how they can aid the central midfield areas to force teams away from the centre of the pitch. The image below shows Keito Nakamura, Reims’ starting left winger, drifting into a central midfield area when Lyon have possession on the opposite wing.

We Are Sunderland: Reims' defending at Lyon shows how the winger sometimes drops into midfield to add an additional body into the central areas as shown by Keito Nakamura's positioning Reims' defending at Lyon shows how the winger sometimes drops into midfield to add an additional body into the central areas as shown by Keito Nakamura's positioning (Image: Wyscout)

Another example of this can be seen below when Duje Ćaleta-Car has possession in defence for Lyon. Nakamura has again moved infield as Reims attempt to go man-for-man where they can after forcing them back from a tight space on the left wing.

This example also shows the structure of the back five where the wing-backs drop back in seamlessly. There is an element of risk to this, however, as can be seen with Maxence Caqueret’s position in midfield. As Reims attempt to press from the front, Caqueret has a lot of space if the pass can be made to him – which also highlights the importance of the press from the front to close that option down. It also leaves plenty of space on the opposite side of the field.

We Are Sunderland: Another example of the importance of the winger for Reims against Lyon as Nakamura again finds himself in central midfield and then becomes the lead focus of the pressAnother example of the importance of the winger for Reims against Lyon as Nakamura again finds himself in central midfield and then becomes the lead focus of the press (Image: Wyscout)

A final example from this game is a different variation of Still’s pressing system as they fall into a 5-2-3 with the two midfield players advanced high to create as many ‘plus ones’ as possible to outnumber the opposition. In this instance, Reims outnumber the Lyon midfield by five to two which forces them to play back across defence and out wide, protecting the inside in the process.

The idea is to disturb what opposition teams can do while being alert to the flexibility in formations. We saw similar from Swansea City at the Stadium of Light this season when overloading Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah in the central midfield areas.

We Are Sunderland: Will Still likes his teams to outnumber the opposition in key areas of the field as shown here against Lyon with a five-on-two scenario in midfieldWill Still likes his teams to outnumber the opposition in key areas of the field as shown here against Lyon with a five-on-two scenario in midfield (Image: Wyscout)

Last season, Reims gave up 45 goals. Only six teams conceded fewer in Ligue 1. But it’s in attack where there will be an added significance for Still if he were to become Sunderland’s new head coach.

Sunderland’s attacking potency has depreciated at an alarming rate since Mowbray’s sacking in December with expected goals (xG) metrics and various other attacking outputs nosediving under both Beale and Dodds – Sunderland scoring just seven goals in their final 13 games of the season in Dodds’ interim period.

That may not be something that will drastically change under Still given Reims scored just 45 goals last season and managed 38 under him this campaign. So far this season, Reims have registered an xG under 1.0 nine times, six fewer than Sunderland’s 15.

Some of that may be acquainted to Still’s style of play in an effort to play out from the back. Reims’ in-possession radar highlights an emphasis on set pieces while they rank highly for high press shots – which again ties in with their high-pressing intent, but it is the pass length of the goalkeeper which appears to show a concerted effort to play out from the back.

 

We Are Sunderland: Stade de Reims' in possession radar shows some emphasis on set pieces while they rank highly for high press shots which ties in with the high press intent. The GK pass length shows an effort to play out from the back.Stade de Reims' in possession radar shows some emphasis on set pieces while they rank highly for high press shots which ties in with the high press intent. The GK pass length shows an effort to play out from the back. (Image: StatsBomb)

As we have seen under both Beale and Dodds, that can sometimes lead to a lot of probing without any real conviction, particularly when Sunderland were unable to move the ball quick enough to move teams out of position.

Reims have shown their effectiveness at that under Still this season with one of their standout results of the campaign against Monaco in January at The Stade Louis II in the club’s first league match back from the winter break, particularly with the opening goal of the game from Teddy Teuma.

The origins of Teuma’s goal come from defence and Thomas Foket. In the image below, you can see how high Monaco have pressed Reims’ defensive line with as many as five attacking players towards the edge of the penalty area and three supporting players in the final third.

We Are Sunderland: The origins of Teddy Teamu's goal come from defence and Thomas Foket as he beats the high Monaco press with a smart pass into Azor Matusiwa The origins of Teddy Teamu's goal come from defence and Thomas Foket as he beats the high Monaco press with a smart pass into Azor Matusiwa (Image: Wyscout)

Mamadou Diakhon’s role is important here as the winger drops back in to almost create a back five, which also draws in Thilo Kehrer, Monaco’s left-sided centre-back. That creates space for Azor Matusiwa in the centre of midfield, much like we saw the kind of space Reims afforded Lyon’s Caqueret earlier.

Foket is able to play a clever ball through the press into Matusiwa who then has grass to run into. The former Dutch youth international is heavily supported by runners to his left as Reims threaten on the break.

Matusiwa plays an early pass into the path of Teuma in the advanced midfield position with Reims, potentially, in a four-on-two scenario.

We Are Sunderland: Matuiswa now has Reims in encouraging position with an overload on the left-hand side of the field before his pass into Teuma in the advanced midfield positionMatuiswa now has Reims in encouraging position with an overload on the left-hand side of the field before his pass into Teuma in the advanced midfield position (Image: Wyscout)

Mohamed Daramy’s advances on the left allow Teuma to spread the play further with Monaco now disjointed in their defence with their two centre-backs in position and their two full-backs out of position.

We Are Sunderland: Mohamed Daramy’s advances on the left allow Teuma to spread the play further with Monaco now disjointed in their defence Mohamed Daramy’s advances on the left allow Teuma to spread the play further with Monaco now disjointed in their defence (Image: Wyscout)

Monaco are able to retreat into a flat back four while Daramy takes possession but that, in turn, creates a big space on the edge of the area for Teuma who has followed his pass out wide.

We Are Sunderland: Daramy waits until the opportune moment to reverse the ball back to Teuma who now has plenty of space on the edge of the penalty areaDaramy waits until the opportune moment to reverse the ball back to Teuma who now has plenty of space on the edge of the penalty area (Image: Wyscout)

Daramy waits until the opportune moment to reverse the ball back to Teuma who hits a wonderful first time strike into the top corner to hand Reims the lead.

We Are Sunderland: Teamu scores with a wonderful first time strike to give Reims the leadTeamu scores with a wonderful first time strike to give Reims the lead (Image: Wyscout)

While Still gained plaudits for his shutout of PSG back in October 2022, he deserves equally as much credit for Reims’ 2-2 draw with the Parisians in the Parc des Princes in March. After taking the lead, Reims found themselves 2-1 down in the French capital before coming away with a 2-2 draw – one of just seven times PSG have conceded two or more in the league this season.

Both goals had their merit.

Foket, as you can see in the image below, is involved again for Marshall Munetsi's opener as he plays out smartly from the back. It’s the positioning of Foket, however, which is of interest as he has stepped inside as an inverted full-back, much like we have seen from Sunderland this season when trying to utilise Hume in a similar way.

Foket’s position almost allows Reims to operate in a 3-3-3-1 system to impact PSG’s approach as they bypass the front three with ease. Foket then plays a pass down the channel for Junya Ito to attack.

We Are Sunderland: Thomas Foket’s position almost allows Reims to operate in a 3-3-3-1 system to impact PSG’s approach with the defender involved again for Oumar Diakité’s opener Thomas Foket’s position almost allows Reims to operate in a 3-3-3-1 system to impact PSG’s approach with the defender involved again for Oumar Diakité’s opener (Image: Wyscout)

Reims have now isolated PSG in a four-on-three scenario, with a fifth runner in behind, as Ito tries an early cross for Oumar Diakite into the penalty area ahead of Danilo Pereira.We Are Sunderland: Foket plays a pass down the channel for Junya Ito to attack as Reims have now isolated PSG in a four-on-three scenario, with a fifth runner in behind, as Ito tries an early cross for Diakite Foket plays a pass down the channel for Junya Ito to attack as Reims have now isolated PSG in a four-on-three scenario, with a fifth runner in behind, as Ito tries an early cross for Diakite (Image: Wyscout)

The cross is overhit as Achraf Hakimi is able to regain possession ahead of Diakite. What’s noticeable, however, is the number of red and white shirts Reims have in support after only five minutes of the game against the league leaders with both Daramy and Munetsi on the edge of the area.

We Are Sunderland: The cross is overhit as Achraf Hakimi is able to regain possession ahead of Diakite. What’s noticeable, however, is the number of red and white shirts Reims have in support The cross is overhit as Achraf Hakimi is able to regain possession ahead of Diakite. What’s noticeable, however, is the number of red and white shirts Reims have in support (Image: Wyscout)

Hakimi is dispossessed far too easily by Diakite who doesn’t give up on the opportunity and Reims, suddenly, have a huge opportunity from their turnover success as Munetsi finds himself unmarked from six yards to convert. It demonstrates how Still stuck to his beliefs of taking the game to PSG, like they did in 2022, and showing no fear.

We Are Sunderland: Hakimi is dispossessed by Diakite and Reims, suddenly, have a huge opportunity from their turnover success as Marshall Munetsi finds himself unmarked from six yards to convertHakimi is dispossessed by Diakite and Reims, suddenly, have a huge opportunity from their turnover success as Marshall Munetsi finds himself unmarked from six yards to convert (Image: Wyscout)

If Reims’ first goal was about risk-taking and persistence, the second was about quality and again shows their ability to be fluid in possession when it comes to their positioning. As Daramy has possession on the left wing, you can see how stretched Reims have made the pitch – something we saw quite a lot of from Sunderland last season with Jack Clarke, Patrick Roberts and Amad Diallo.

The wing-backs have contributed to the attack to make it almost a 2-5-3 in the final third thanks to centre-back Yunis Abdelhamid stepping forward, akin to what we see from Luke O’Nien on a regular basis.

We Are Sunderland: The wing-backs have contributed to the attack to make it almost a 2-5-3 in the final third thanks to centre-back Yunis Abdelhamid stepping forwardThe wing-backs have contributed to the attack to make it almost a 2-5-3 in the final third thanks to centre-back Yunis Abdelhamid stepping forward (Image: Wyscout)

Realising the space is tight, however, Daramy goes back to the opposite centre-back, Emmanuel Agbadou, who now has more space than he may have done due to Abdelhamid’s forward run.

Given the congestion of the central areas created by PSG, the pass for Agbadou seems like it should move out to the right to Ito, who is in space on the wing. But striker, Diakite, catches Lucas Beraldo on his toes and makes an excellent angled run across the defender into the open space between the two centre-backs.

It still requires a precision pass from Agbadou but the 26-year-old delivers an immaculate defence splitting ball right through the heart of PSG – a space created by how wide Reims have made the pitch.

We Are Sunderland: Emmanuel Agbadou now has more space than he may have done due to Abdelhamid’s forward run and he is able to produce an immaculate defence splitting pass for Diakite despite the easier option of a pass to the rightEmmanuel Agbadou now has more space than he may have done due to Abdelhamid’s forward run and he is able to produce an immaculate defence splitting pass for Diakite despite the easier option of a pass to the right (Image: Wyscout)

Diakite runs onto the pass and finishes well as Reims claim another significant point from the champions.

We Are Sunderland: Diakite catches Lucas Beraldo on his toes with his angled run and finishes well to earn Reims a pointDiakite catches Lucas Beraldo on his toes with his angled run and finishes well to earn Reims a point (Image: Wyscout)

Still would have just six more games in charge of Reims following that draw in Paris before his exit was confirmed earlier this month after a heavy defeat to bottom-of-the-table Clermont Foot having held discussions with club chairman Jean-Pierre Caillot and managing director Mathieu Lacour.

The nature of Still’s immediate exit, coupled with the timeframe of Sunderland’s longstanding interest, add fuel to the fire on Wearside that he could be in contention to take charge at the Stadium of Light.

Having forced his way into football by any means necessary early in his career, Still has gone on to prove his worth on the European circuit and identify himself as one of the most exciting up and coming young coaches in the game. Still was thrown in at the deep end and has adequately demonstrated he can swim, particularly with Reims where he has dramatically improved the team on both sides of the ball since taking over last season.

 

We Are Sunderland: Stade de Reims xG trendline shows they improved quite dramatically on both sides of the ball after Will Still took over at the beginning of last seasonStade de Reims xG trendline shows they improved quite dramatically on both sides of the ball after Will Still took over at the beginning of last season (Image: StatsBomb)

The difference between the Still who felt an element of imposter syndrome when being thrust into the head coach role with Lierse to now, is that he believes he is where he is on merit. No longer does he need confirmation of his ability or that his practices are in need of validation.

His philosophy on the field hasn’t strayed much, even in his final games in charge you can see the way he wants his team to play by virtue of their average positions on the field. Where Sunderland have struggled to identify as having a recognised focal point, Still’s teams have a clear attacking attitude.

We Are Sunderland: The average position of Stade de Reims players during Will Still's final four games in charge shows how much he likes his teams to play on the front footThe average position of Stade de Reims players during Will Still's final four games in charge shows how much he likes his teams to play on the front foot (Image: Wyscout)

Whoever is appointed as the new head coach at the Stadium of Light, supporters want something to cling onto. They want invention and enthusiasm. Still, both as a person and as a coach, would seemingly bring that while also ticking a lot of the club’s boxes when it comes to their policy in a quest for youthful success, having had the youngest squad in the Championship for each of the last two seasons.

The club craves a ‘high performance culture,’ something which has been used as a stick to beat them with over the course of the last six months as the season went stale. Still’s perception of ‘high performance’ is one of a winning mentality, something Sunderland need to rediscover.

“You can’t have high performance if you don’t win. The job we’re in, if you don’t win, you’re out of a job. So with that comes an environment you try and create,” he said.

“Within that environment I try to allow each person to be themselves and try and enjoy what they’re doing but it’s always in the back of the mind: we’re here to win and we’re here to win a lot on a regular basis.”