Rennes-ing out of time?

Rennes are without a league win in seven games and Philippe Montanier is running out of time to justify the large summer spend with on-pitch results. Eric Devin expertly reassesses his early season Rennes-related joy and has serious questions of a tactical nature for Monsieur Montanier.

While losing 1-0 to the defending champions while missing two of their most important players is nothing be ashamed about, Friday’s match at the Roazhon is only the latest in a string of poor results.

Now winless in seven in the league, with a trip to notoriously obdurate Angers to come this Friday, Rennes’ slow slide down the table has been nothing short of agonising. Under the stewardship of Philippe Montanier, who had done so well at Real Sociedad, the club had struggled with a constant flux in the playing staff, achieving successive mid-table finishes.

This summer saw more movement, including the arrivals of Ludovic Baal, Juan Fernando Quintero, Mehdi Zeffane and Chelsea loanee Jeremie Boga, and the early returns were promising.

I had written as much in this space after week three, praising Montanier’s innovative 3-4-3 for getting the best out of the likes of Baal, youngster Steven Moreira and the central defenders. Four successive wins after week five had the club in the heady space of second place, behind only the ever-present Paris-Saint Germain.

In retrospect, though, those wins are seeming less impressive with time. Rennes had started the season with a loss to Bastia at the Furiani, but admittedly there is no shame in that result. Many a well-heeled side have fallen on their sword in Corsica, a fiery atmosphere instilling fear in even the most successful sides.

That was followed by a home win against Montpellier, a 2-1 victory over Lyon at the Gerland, a home victory over Toulouse and a 2-0 defeat of Nantes at the Beaujoire. In a typical Ligue 1 season, consecutive victories over that set of opponents would be impressive, but this season is a bit different.

Montpellier and Toulouse have struggled mightily, the former dealing with a host of injuries and the latter with general indifference, the two locked on nine points after a draw in Saturday’s multiplex.

The result left the pair either side of the drop on goal difference, scrapping with the likes of Troyes and Gazelec to pull closer to mid-table. One would, despite the relative pedigrees of each club, therefore expect Rennes to get three points from their rivals, especially given the forced austerity of both as regards transfer funds.

The win over Nantes looks impressive on paper, as the Beaujoire is one of Ligue 1’s most intimidating venues, but Les Canaris had two men sent off, and both of Rennes’ goals were scored with a numerical advantage.

No matter the defensive nous of Michel Der Zakarian, to ask any club to defend well with only nine men on the pitch is tough. The result, if not the scoreline, was all but inevitable on the day.

Defeating Lyon, who had not seen Nabil Fékir relegated to the surgeon’s table at that point, remains the club’s most impressive victory, but even that must be taken with a grain of salt.

Beyond their Fekir-driven thrashing of Caen, Lyon have looked a spent force this season. Alexandre Lacazette and Claudio Beauvue have failed to make an impact up front, and other vaunted acquisitions, such as Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa have similarly disappointed. So, not an impressive victory to be seen some two months later, even if the club did exact revenge on Bastia in the Coupe de la Ligue this last midweek.

While admittedly hindsight has dimmed the lustre of Rennes’ start, more crucial to their recent slide is the doubt which has crept into the club. This is most apparent in how Montanier has been setting out his stall tactically.

With Mexer and Paul-Georges Ntep missing of late, the manager has veered away from what had seemed a promising solution to the resources on offer at the club. Obviously getting thrashed by Nice certainly wouldn’t have encouraged continued use of the 3-4-3 formation, but without the pace of the Mozabiquean in defence, a rethink was needed.

What has followed, however, has been a horror show of instability. Of Rennes’ last four Ligue 1 fixtures, only Fallou Diagne, Ludovic Baal and Pedro Mendes have started all four. Mendes has started as a right-sided centre back twice but also on the left of a three and in defensive midfield.

Diagne has played across the entire back line, with the exception of left back, lining up at right back against Paris Saint-Germain on Friday. Baal has been used on the left side of a midfield three in a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-1-1 and as a wingback in a 3-4-3.

Admittedly Rennes have done well defensively despite these chop and change combinations, aside from the Nice match.

It took a superb finish from Angel Di Maria, with Laurent Blanc already having made attacking changes to midfield, for PSG to break through on Friday, but it is in attack where the club have really been lacking.

Even with Ntep injured, the club still boasts a bevy of talented attacking players of the likes of Abdoulaye Doucoure, Kamil Grosicki, Giovanni Sio and others.

However, being tasked with different responsibilities week to week as well as acclimating to unfamiliar teammates (remember that revolving door transfer policy?) means a general lack of synchronicity going forward, and the results have seen a precipitous drop down the table.

If Rennes are going to make something of this season in which no team aside from Paris Saint-Germain has delivered anything approaching consistent quality, Montanier needs to find a system which fits the personnel week to week, allowing for a minimum of changes, even in the face of injury.

Ntep and Mexer should return by the end of the month, making a return to the 3-4-3 the most promising option, but with a critical level of self-doubt apparent in the manager’s match planning, it is no wonder that rumors are beginning to surface regarding his future.

To aid in developing a continuity both in attack and in his players’ own confidence, Montanier needs to quickly figure out the best way forward, otherwise another disappointing mid-table finish beckons.

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