François Pinault is a businessman. He is not an idealist, he is not a dreamer, he is a pragmatic, profit and sustainability driven businessman. As such, when he invests in something, he expects a return.
The owner of Stade Rennais has a knack for sensing the times. Ahead of the oil crisis in 1973, Pinault sold an 80% stake in his timber business to a British company for 30 million francs, before buying it back again 18 months later for just 5 million. When the winds change, Pinault feels it. There is little doubting that the times have changed in French football, underlined by a summer spending rising of 435% this year compared with the last. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that in light of other clubs investing in their assets, epitomised by the new projects at Lille and Marseille, Pinault’s Rennes were not left behind.
Stade Rennais have invested heavily this summer, and by most accounts, they have invested well. New blood was needed after years of stagnation, and with clubs around them rejuvenating themselves through investment, it was essential that Rennes restructured. New blood was sought, and new blood was acquired.
Their outlays appear sound, made with long term financial and performance gains in mind. They have invested predominantly in youth, and in some of France’s brightest prospects. Faitout Maouassa, Jordan Tell and star signing Ismaïla Sarr are all just 19 years of age. In addition to this, they have kept held of the coveted Joris Gnagnon, as well as managing to bring in a replacement stopper for the Bordeaux-bound Benoît Costil, in the form of Sparta Prague’s Thomas Koubek. 13 players have departed Roazhon Park for pastures both new and temporary, whilst Ousmane Dembélé’s transfer to Barcelona is said to have earned the club around €25m, a new club record.
In total, Rennes have spent around €35m, the first time they have spent so much in one season for 17 years. But as things stand, after four matchdays, the club are yet to see a return on their investments. Rennes sit 19th in Ligue 1, with just two points to their name, following defeats to Lyon and Toulouse, and points dropped against Dijon and Troyes. After such an active summer, the murmurings of discontent are beginning to encircle coach Christian Gourcuff.
Of course, such a large turnover of playing staff could perhaps be attributed to the club’s poor start to the season. Lille, who completely transformed their squad this following the arrival of new owner Gérard Lopez and coach Marcelo Bielsa, have likewise had a shaky start to the new campaign. An opening day with over Nantes has been followed by nerve-wracking displays against Strasbourg, Caen and Angers, from which they have only taken one point.
It can also be pointed out that Rennes’ transfer window was not, by any means, a total success either. They have not addressed the gaping hole up front, left void following the departure of Giovani Sio to Montpellier. Diafra Sakho, a positive solution to this quandary, came very close, so close that in fact his move was sealed and delivered, but not signed, due to the resistance of West Ham United, despite undergoing a medical in Rennes. Rennes have also not brought in a centre-half to bolster what is a wobbly back-line, having reportedly lost out to Leverkusen in their attempts to recruit Olympiakos defender Panagiotis Retsos. Injuries too haven’t helped, with the continued absence of Yoann Gourcuff proving to be a considerable blow for his father, although the arrival of Wahbi Khazri may address his need for a creative attacking midfielder.
Gourcuff, then, can lay claim to some sympathy. But not much. In reality, much of what is to blame for the club’s underwhelming start to the new season rests with him. For one, Rennes conducted the core of their business early. Maouassa, Ismaila Sarr, Jordan Tell, Hamar Traoré, Benjamin Bourigeaud and Brandon all arrived before August, leaving the former Algeria coach with plenty of time to work with his squad for much of pre-season, a luxury not many are afforded.
Performances, though, have not only left much to be desired on the field, but also in the dugout. The attacking verve and vitality that was expected with the arrival of such young and exuberant talent has been noticeably absent. Whilst we have seen glimpses from the likes of Maouassa and Sarr, with Firmin Mubele also having to step up a level in the absence of an out-and-out forward, Rennes have appeared stifled, nervy, and at times, inexplicably for a side of such attacking talent, bereft of ideas going forward.
The source of their disappointing displays can be attributed to Christian Gourcuff. His rigidity is proving to be a major hindrance, epitomised by his insistence of sticking to a 4-4-2, without any recourse, when the talent at his disposal looks better suited to a 4-3-3.
Odd selection choices have also left many scratching their heads. Leaving Ramy Bensebaini out to dry at left-back, a position to which he is so plainly not suited, has not reaped any reward whatsoever, other than to become an easy target for opposition wingers, and to concede silly penalties like the first of two that Rennes conceded against Toulouse.
Opting to field a more orthodox left back in Ludovic Baal as a left winger against Lyon, sitting in front of Bensebaini, resembled hammering a nail with a screwdriver. Ismaïla Sarr has been thrust up front, despite the fact that his best displays for Metz all came from the left flank last season, whilst Brandon, a promising forward picked up from Mallorca, has disappeared into thin air.
Formation and selection issues are debatable but irrelevant when the team play well, but for Rennes, this isn’t the case. Points dropped from winning positions against Toulouse, and more dramatically against Dijon at Roazhon Park, where the home side led 2-0 at the interval, speak of a side that is not confident in the way it is playing.
Concerningly for the Rennes hierarchy, the club’s lacklustre start is likely to have had an impact on their transfer activity this summer too, for the striker vacuum could easily have been solved without the shenanigans of Sakho.
Nicolas De Préville had been linked with the club for much of the summer, with at one stage a fee thought to have been agreed with Lille, yet it appears Rennes’ tepid start was enough to turn his nose up at the thought of heading west. His subsequent move to Bordeaux revealed an appetite in Lille to sell, and an appetite for De Préville to move to a club chasing a European spot, something Rennes aspire to be. His failure to sign, therefore, can be attributed to Gourcuff’s poor start to the new season.
After such an expensive outlay this summer, it is unsurprising that Gourcuff’s name is now thought to be on the endangered list. According to Le 10 Sport, the former Algeria coach must pick up 6 points from his next three games, or else he will face the boot, with former Southampton manager Claude Puel, or potentially reserve coach Julian Stéphan, reportedly being lined up to replace him.
Worryingly for Gourcuff, those next three games include trips to Marseille and Saint Étienne; the latter are a side rejuvenated under Oscar Garcia, whilst the former will be determined to bounce back from their humiliation in Monaco. The third game, sandwiched between those difficult away trips, will see the visit of Lucien Favre’s Nice.
The reality, then, for Christian Gourcuff, is that Rennes’ summer spending leaves him a man under pressure. Unlike his counterpart in Lille, Gourcuff is not the centrifugal force powering the club’s transfer activity. Whilst Bielsa may stutter, El Loco’s project remains the core of Lille’s future ambitions, and this affords him time.
For Rennes, the scenario is rather different; it is a case of here is the talent, now make it work. The omens do not look good for the Rennes head coach. For an astute businessman like François Pinault, the minimum expectation after a strong (and expensive) transfer window will be that there are strong performances to match.
After such a listless start, Gourcuff will not need the foresight of his boss to know that the knives are sharpening, and the vultures are circling.