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Is there light at the end of Rennes’ extensive tunnel? (Talking Points: Week 3)

While harbouring no particular enmity towards Rennes, it is rare of late that there is an opportunity to praise the club, as their continued transfer turnover and general instability during Philippe Montanier’s tenure have made them an easy target. The revolving door has continued to spin this summer, as Vincent Pajot, Christian Bruls, Philipp Hosiner, Anders Konradsen have all departed, with Yacouba Sylla, Ludovic Baal, Medhi Zeffane and Pedro Mendes arriving.

Add to this a host of younger players who had been on loan, (Wesley Said, Dimitri Cavare, Cedric Hountondji, Adrien Hunou) and there is no less of a surplus among the playing squad at the Roazhon Park.

While the size of the squad may continue to be an issue, there does, however, finally seem to be some degree of cohesion about Montanier’s tactics. Listed in some quarters as a 5-4-1, but really functioning as a fluid 3-4-3, Saturday’s performance against Lyon should be praised as much as the hosts’ should be derided.

With some minimal changes in personnel as squad rotation necessitates, the system allows the club not only to get the best out of their established players, but to unleash hidden potential from those more recent arrivals. Zeffane would be the best example of this, given his goal and assist against Lyon, but Ludovic Baal and the youngster Steven Moreira are flourishing as well.

Playing as wingbacks, the two have not only unseated the established fullback pairing of Romain Danze and Cheikh M’Bengue, but also showed their ability to adapt their styles to fit the system. Moreira, capped as an Under-19 international by France and a part of Rennes’ squad since age 18 has been one of the surprises of the season.

Lacking the defensive capability to operate as part of a four-man defence, playing slightly further forward has freed the youngster to be one of the prime conduits in Rennes’ devastating counterattacks.

Moreira has evolved immensely in this role, as he has shown himself to be a versatile passer rather than the somewhat frustrating prospect whose pace was both an asset and something on which he could be over-reliant at right back.

Often gambling in terms of his defensive duties, but now with two defensively-minded midfielders and three center backs to help cover his blushes, Moreira now appears an impressive player who can not only use his pace to start counterattacks by beating opponents to the ball but then play long balls to set free a dynamic, pacy front three.

Baal, by contrast, is an experienced player who arrived on a free and has been a long-suffering member of several Lens and Le Mans squads, suffering relegation and promotion several times between the two.

An adept tackler and physically strong, Baal is a more traditional left back, and his arrival was greeted with some surprise, as M’Bengue was a similarly experienced player who had always seemed capable through his time in Brittany and during a prior stint at Toulouse.

Now, freed of much of the defensive duties that often shackled his attacking talents at Lens, we are seeing a player whose inch-perfect cross for Giovanni Sio against Bastia is the perfect example of his capabilities. The perfect complement to Moreira on the opposite flank, Baal is showing himself, even at this later stage in his career, to be a fine player whose assist totals were perhaps diminished by an ineffective strike force at previous stops.

With Paul-Georges Ntep still to return and Sio already a  capable scorer, Rennes’ front three will rely on a positional fluidity and pace that will get the best out of all involved, as Ntep and Pedro Henrique were too often stifled by the stationary presence of Ola Toivonen last year.

With Toivonen and promising attacking midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure both likely departures, the team’s attack will hope to use the width provided by Moreira and Baal in combination with the speed of their front three to echo the success of Monaco. Ntep would likely be the nominal striker, but much as Anthony Martial has shown at Monaco, his role would be more free, cutting in from the flanks with the ball at his feet, or receiving balls over the top.

Further back, Mexer had been one of the signings of the season last year at center back, playing with an eagerness that allowed him to partner well with the more refined but less mobile Sylvain Armand.

With Mexer’s tackling somewhat suspect and Armand another year older, if still adept, a defensive improvement was likewise necessary. The ever-industrious Yacouba Sylla and Gelson Fernandes are now installed as a midfield shield, and Rennes appear to be a more tightly-run operation thus far, with one of Fallou Diagne and Pedro Mendes aiding Mexer and Armand in defence to cover their respective deficiencies.

Given the youth and potential for improvement from the attacking players at his disposal, and what seems to be a newfound defensive coherence, Montanier’s bold tactical move seems more than ready to pay dividends in a league relatively bereft of attacking talent.

With the likes of Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne preoccupied with their European adventures and last year’s challengers (Lille and Montpellier) struggling to score thus far, after two years of chopping and changing, Rennes’ performance on Saturday has every chance of being more of the norm than an aberration, no matter the level of their opponent.

Should the club be able to hold onto Ntep, (something that appears likely should Toivonen and Doucoure indeed depart) European qualification is once again a realistic target, something that few would’ve expected after the uneven start to Montanier’s tenure.

Eric Devin

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