Eric Devin’s talking points column returns in a week where we look forward to two high profile Champions League clashes involving Ligue 1 sides.
In a win that essentially guaranteed their safety, Rennes edged fellow mid-table side Guingamp on Sunday thanks to a sublime finish from striker Ola Toivonen, the big Swede flicking home a delectable cross from Kamil Grosicki on eighty minutes to provide the match’s only goal.
As superb as the finish was, it surely must have made Rennes fans wistful for the Toivonen of last season, as his arrival (and that of Paul-Georges Ntep) in the January window last year was the catalyst for renewed optimism at the club. Brought in on the cheap due to having missed a large chunk of the 2012-13 season with a injury and only scoring once in the first part of last season, Toivonen’s time with PSV Eindhoven had been more than solid prior to his injury, averaging better than a goal every other game. However, a combination of injury, petulance, ineffectiveness and the emergence of youngster Jurgen Locadia made the striker expendable, and Rennes eagerly snapped him up at a bargain price.
His performances upon his arrival in Brittany saw a return to his best days at PSV, netting eight goals in eighteen appearances as Rennes shook off a six match winless run prior to he and Ntep’s arrival to finish comfortably mid-table. This season, despite the departure of Romain Alessandrini and a few others in the summer, the club wasn’t shy about bringing in replacements, and several of their transactions have come off quite well, including center back Edson Mexer, winger Pedro Henrique and defensive midfielder Gelson Fernandes. With the continued development of attacking midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure and Ntep, Rennes should be challenging for Europe, right?
Well, not so much, the win against Guingamp bringing the club only to ninth, and while it is not all down to Toivonen, the former PSV man’s particular combination of experience and talent make him a somewhat obvious goat. Despite the weekend’s goal, Toivonen’s return of seven goals in 24 matches doesn’t justify the wages that he is on, nor his lackadaisical attitude.
A counter-attacking side much like Monaco, Rennes try (emphasize try) to be solid in defence and hit teams on the break, but Toivonen’s poor work-rate and mediocre finishing may make a pacier player a better fit alongside Henrique and Ntep, as both are often denied space in the box by the Swede’s static style. More of a poacher than a dynamic passer a la his countryman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Toivonen’s one-touch scoring ability is unquestioned, but whether or not he has the desire to put himself in the right positions to take advantage of his talent is another matter altogether, and for a veteran player, there is too often a disappointing lack of desire exhibited. With his actions at PSV already a black mark on his approach to an uncomfortable situation, things could easily become worse.
Philipp Hosiner, another summer arrival, was supposed to provide a more mobile alternative, having been a success in Austria, but found his opportunities limited, Montanier’s loyalties to Toivonen having been cemented by his goals in last season’s run-in. When Toivonen started this campaign three goals in four matches, he seemed to justify his manager’s faith quite well. Following that flurry of scoring, however, he notched only a solitary goal over the next twenty weeks, and Rennes struggled, only now having pulled themselves clear of the relegation scrap.
Despite Toivonen’s struggles over that interval, however, there was no competition for places as the Hosiner’s season had come to an end prematurely owing to a kidney ailment, leaving Montanier little choice. With his contract running through 2017, and Hosiner hopefully healthy and ready to be given more of a chance next season (Ntep could also be an option centrally) , this summer probably represents Rennes’ best opportunity to realize some sort of return on Toivonen. Having been linked with several English clubs previous to his departure from PSV, there are sure to be suitors for a Swedish international, and while Rennes may not be able to recoup all of the fee that they paid for the player, the opportunity to clear his wages from their books is perhaps one that shouldn’t go lacking.