Rennes have been somewhat of a sleeping giant of late, but this season has marked a surprising set of changes in that regard. A little over 18 months ago, the club had been accused of being greedy when the sale of Ousmane Dembélé to Dortmund saw little in the way of reciprocal spending that summer. The rancor felt around that decision only increased with the sales of Kamil Grosicki, Paul-Georges Ntep and Pedro Henrique the following January; none of that trio was setting the world alight, but they did represent at least a degree of experience that was otherwise lacking.
In a span of six months, then, the Breton club, never the most prolific in attack, had eviscerated its front line, holding only the untested likes of Adrien Hunou, Wesley Saïd and Adama Diakhaby in reserve. The two most recent windows have seen a rather dramatic change in policy, though, with a net spend of nearly €40m. Diakhaby represented the only significant departure, but the club invested heavily in a cadre of young attackers, including Ismaïla Sarr, Faitout Maouassa and Benjamin Bourigeaud. Wahbi Khazri was also brought in on loan from Sunderland, and Diafra Sakho joined from West Ham in January.
The results on the pitch, however, failed to meet the expectations that necessarily followed this sort of outlay, and veteran manager Christian Gourcuff was soon sent packing, replaced by Sabri Lamouchi. Lamouchi had a decent run with the Ivory Coast, but had a marked lack of experience in club management, having only been in charge of Qatari side El-Jaish. Upon his initial appointment in November, Lamouchi hardly looked up to the task; the club continued to bob along in mid-table, while the likes of Nantes and Montpellier, clubs who had been considerably more parsimonious in the summer, positioned themselves as the pick of the bunch in the chase for European places.
After conceding a gut-wrenching late winner to regional rivals Guingamp in early February, Rennes were still tenth, far below what most had expected. There were improvements from some players; Thomas Koubek had largely been unyielding in goal, while youth prospect Jérémy Gélin was establishing himself in defence after being converted from a defensive midfielder, but Rennes were still decidedly underwhelming, and failure to score against a Guingamp side who had hardly been solid was another ignominy.
In the time since that defeat, though, Rennes have fashioned a remarkable unbeaten run, stretching to eight matches after yesterday’s draw at Nice. In a battle with massive implications for the top six, things could easily have gone pear-shaped after Alassane Pléa scored with a deflected shot inside the opening 20 minutes. Given Nice’s own ability to control matches, and how Les Aiglons were bossing things in the early going, Rennes could have easily shrunk from the match, especially with Khazri playing at his petulant worst.
However, with the Tunisian not only earning a booking for dissent but failing to connect with Sakho, the match instead turned on the play of Benjamin Bourigeaud. Experienced, but still relatively young at 24, the former Lens midfielder displayed good awareness to nip ahead of Marlon to put away the equaliser, and nearly put his side ahead just before the interval, having spotted Walter Benitez off his line. The Argentine managed to tip Bourigeaud’s shot over the bar, but his performance embodies what Rennes have become under Lamouchi.
Gourcuff was resolute in his adherence to a 4-4-1-1, even when it was apparent that it didn’t necessarily fit his personnel. In playing four players who focused on goal-scoring through crossing and individual quality, Rennes under the veteran manager necessarily became overly reliant on individual brilliance, giving them a very thin margin of error. However, under Lamouchi, the team now play to their strengths, namely that of a midfield which possess an ideal blend of physicality and ability on the ball.
Keen observers of Ligue 1 have known for some time that Benjamin André is, despite his penchant for bookings, comfortably the team’s best player, but his workmanlike attitude and lack of overall flair mean he has largely remained an unknown quantity abroad. In relying on André, Rennes have played a 4-2-3-1 with a good deal of mutability, allowing him to partner one of Sanjin Prcic or James Lea-Siliki, both of whom can function in a box-to-box role. Lea-Siliki is a converted striker and is a threat with the ball at his feet, while Prcic offers more creative nous, his return from a knee injury having coincided with Rennes’ uptick in form.
The role of Bourigeaud then becomes to play not as a right-sided attacker, but more as a relayeur, dropping deep to help the defence when Prcic or Lea-Siliki get forward, but also being himself a creative conduit, leading the team in assists and ranking second in goals. In this way, then, Khazri and Sarr are not only afforded relative freedom from defensive responsibilities but are also given more space in which to work, no small matter given their ability on the ball. In defence, Joris Gnagnon has responded well to being briefly dropped, and his partnership with Gélin look to be evolving into one of Ligue 1’s best, despite their young age; with only three goals conceded in their last six matches, Rennes’ attacking cohesion has been well-complemented by an increasingly stoic defence.
Rennes could still truthfully do with a reliable striker, and a left-back, as Ludovic Baal has struggled with fitness, but if this side as currently constructed can crack the top six, earning a place in Europe, the suggestion that another spending spree could be in the offing is an enticing one. Ligue 1 has been seen as having a rather pronounced division between the haves (the current top four) and have-nots (the rest of the league), but given the financial power of the Breton side, and their evolution under Lamouchi, Rennes could yet bridge that gap in a way that others have failed to do.
1 | Two years ago this weekend, Amiens sat an underwhelming 5th in France’s semi-pro, third division, now Christophe Pelissier’s charges are eight points clear of Ligue 1’s bottom three in their first ever top flight season and are quietly preparing for a second. Despite having the smallest budget and struggling initially, Pellisier has rallied – adding quality in Gaël Kakuta and top scorer Moussa Konaté (10), while building and expertly drilling Ligue 1’s third best defence. Four starters in the superb 3-0 win over Caen were with the club in National while another five have been regulars this season. Although other managerial achievements may have been more eye-catching this year, none deserve more credit than Pellissier.
2 | A difficult week for Marseille has left their season on the edge of collapse. As the new year dawned, with prospects of a second place and a Europa League challenge looking bright, the previously widespread scoffing at the “Champions Project” faded. However, a 1-0 loss in Leipzig and an insipid goalless draw with the ever-stoic Montpellier, which allowed Lyon into third, highlighted the increasingly prohibitive lack of a leading striker. Neither Valère Germain nor Kostas Mitroglou have proven reliable, regularly either disappearing or squandering simple chances. As a result, despite the improvement Rudi Garcia has engendered alongside Florian Thauvin’s glittering form, this season could yet become a backward step.
3 | Memphis Depay’s is rarely questioned, especially by Depay himself. Consistency, however, as Depay admitted to Canal + last month, has long been an issue but this might finally be starting to change. Thirteen league goals have included crucial late winners off the bench against PSG and Marseille, while his four assists and latest strike in OL’s 5-0 thrashing of Metz in an omnipotent display meant that Depay has either scored or set-up Lyon’s last eight goals across three league wins that have edged the club into the Champions’ League places. Although he has some way to go, the impact Memphis has had this season is undeniable.
Results: St Étienne 1-1 PSG, Monaco 2-1 Nantes, Amiens 3-0 Caen, Angers 1-1 Strasbourg, Bordeaux 2-1 Lille, Guingamp 4-0 Troyes, Toulouse 0-1 Dijon, Nice 1-1 Rennes, Metz 0-5 Lyon, Marseille 0-0 Montpellier