Rennes are something of a sleeping giant in French football, but that may be changing. They were accused of being greedy when they sold Ousmane Dembélé to Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2016 and did not reinvest the €15m they made from the transfer. Fans were even more unimpressed when Kamil Grosicki, Paul-Georges Ntep and Pedro Henrique left the following January. A team that was not the most prolific at the best of times had eviscerated its forward line in six months.
The club’s approach changed last summer as they started to spend some money, bringing in young forwards Ismaïla Sarr, Faitout Maouassa and Benjamin Bourigeaud to leave them with a net spend of nearly €40m. They also signed Diafra Sakho from West Ham in January and brought in Wahbi Khazri on loan from Sunderland. However, the results did not follow the financial outlay and veteran manager Christian Gourcuff was sent packing in November.
His replacement, Sabri Lamouchi, was an intriguing choice. Lamouchi had put together a decent run while in charge of the Ivory Coast, but he was inexperienced in club management, having only taken charge of Qatari side El-Jaish. Things did not improve right away. The club continued to bob along in mid-table while Nantes and Montpellier, clubs who had been considerably more parsimonious in the summer transfer window, chased the European places.
After conceding a gut-wrenching late winner to regional rivals Guingamp in early February, Rennes were still 10th, far below expectations. Some players had improved – such as goalkeeper Tomas Koubek and young defender Jérémy Gélin – but they were still underwhelming and their failure to score against Guingamp was another disappointment. That defeat has been something of a turning point, though. They have since fashioned a remarkable unbeaten run, stretching to eight matches after their draw at Nice this weekend.
In a battle that had massive implications for the top six, things could easily have gone pear-shaped after Alassane Pléa opened the scoring with a deflected shot. Rennes could have shrunk from the task and lost their unbeaten record but, inspired by Benjamin Bourigeaud, they turned things around. The 24-year-old scored the equaliser and nearly gave his side the lead just before the interval, having spotted Walter Benitez off his line. The keeper managed to tip the shot over the bar, but Bourigeaud’s performance embodies what Rennes have become under Lamouchi.
Gourcuff was resolute in his adherence to a 4-4-1-1, even when it clearly didn’t fit the players at his disposal, which left Rennes overly reliant on individual brilliance under the veteran manager. Under Lamouchi, however, they now play to their strengths, namely a midfield that possesses a good blend of physicality and ability on the ball.
Central midfielder Benjamin André is comfortably their best player and the team tend to line up in a flexible 4-2-3-1, with André partnering 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 who is a threat with the ball at his feet, while Prcic offers more creative nous – his return from a knee injury has coincided with their improved form.
Bourigeaud is not simply a right-sided attacker. He can drop deep to help the defence when Prcic or Lea-Siliki go forward or he can offer his own attacking threat – he leads the team in assists and is their second top scorer this season after Khazri. Bourigeaud’s flexibility and workrate give Khazri and Sarr freedom from defensive responsibilities and more space in which to work. In defence, Joris Gnagnon’s partnership with Gélin is evolving into one of the best in Ligue 1, despite their youth; Rennes have only conceded three goals in their last six matches.
The team could still do with a reliable striker and a left-back – as Ludovic Baal has struggled with fitness – but those improvements may come in the summer if they stay fifth in the league and qualify for the Europa League. Ligue 1 has been accused of having a pronounced division between the haves (the current top four) and the have-nots (the rest of the league) but, given their financial power and evolution under Lamouchi, Rennes could yet bridge that gap.
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• Marseille have endured a tough week, with their inability to find the net harming their chances of winning the Europa League and finishing in the top three in Ligue 1. Their 1-0 defeat in Leipzig and goalless draw against Montpellier highlighted their lack of a leading striker. Neither Valère Germain nor Kostas Mitroglou have proven reliable, regularly either disappearing or squandering simple chances. Despite their improvement under Rudi García – and Florian Thauvin’s glittering form – this season could yet become a backward step for Marseille.