On 28th April, France Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, announced there would be no sporting events taking place in the country until September at the earliest. This decision, which prohibited even behind closed doors sporting events, immediately brought to a close the 2019/20 Ligue 1 campaign. Despite the uncertainty generated by the announcement, one thing that was confirmed was that State Rennais had secured their highest top tier finish in modern times and as a result will make their debut in next season's Champions League. Sitting 3rd in Ligue 1 when fixtures were indefinitely suspended at the beginning of March, Rennes held just a single point lead over Lille in 4th place while trailing 2nd place Olympique Marseille by 6 points. With 10 games left there were no certainties that the Brittany-based French sides form so far in the season would result in them maintaining their current position. Their expected points (xPTS) tally of 41.18 was just under 9 points less than they had been able to amass and left them ranked 6th in the league based upon this metric, indicating their results had been better than their performances. This article will take a look at the style of play commonly employed by Stade Rennais this season and how it has led to a record breaking campaign for the French outfit.
Manager Julien Stéphen was put in charge in December 2018 initially on an interim basis, however 9 days later was given the job permanently after a number of impressive performances. Included in these performances was a victory that saw Rennes progress to the knockout stage of the Europa League for the first time in the club's history. The 39-year old began his coaching journey in the Rennes academy after an injury forced him into early retirement. After a successful spell working with the Rennes U19’s he became the manager of the reserve team where he remained in charge for 3 years until he got his chance to take charge of the first team. Stéphen’s most used formation this season has been the 4-4-2 which has been deployed against a number of opposition. Against more established opponents, Rennes favoured a more secure 5-3-2 to provide further defensive stability and attempted to utilise a more counter attacking style of play. Looking however at his favoured 4-4-2 system, there are a number of variables which contribute to giving this team its identity.
Firstly is the shape which Rennes often rotate into when in possession of the ball. One of the central midfielders will fall in-between the central defenders who have split to create an equidistant back 3, taking up a quarterback-like role. The full backs will then push higher up the pitch to offer the team width on both flanks and often occupy the oppositions wide players. The wide midfield players will then initially join the forwards playing on the opposition's back line until an opportunity presents itself for them to drop into pockets inside the pitch to receive the ball. The additional central midfielder is tasked with manoeuvring themselves in central areas to either get on the ball and link with the attacking players or use movements to create pockets of space for the more advanced players to drop into. Finally the two attacking players will adopt slightly differing roles. One remains predominately on the opposition's back line ready to threaten space in behind the defence and the other will work deeper looking to get on the ball in pockets of space and create from there.
Another key feature of Rennes in possession is the wide players, both of which are typically inverted. As is the trend with a lot of modern systems, playing wingers with their strong foot inside the pitch is a tactic used to get these creative players cutting into more central areas. The figure below shows the shot maps of the Rennes wide players this season when playing a 4-4-2. It shows how the majority of their shots are taken from the inside lane of the wing they are playing on, often a result of them driving out of the inside pockets they receive the ball in, or from drifting inside when the ball is on the opposite flank.
As a result of Rennes inverted wingers, the wide players will often get in possession of the ball in pockets inside the pitch. From these positions, the wingers will predominately look inside to either play into the strikers, switch play directly or via a central midfielder, play direct behind the opposition back line or carry the ball forward themselves. An example of this scenario can be seen below.
Playing with inverted wingers certainly provides Rennes with more threatening options inside the pitch, but it is still important to maintain width to prevent the opposition becoming too narrow and closing off all the central spaces they aim to exploit. This is the role of the fullbacks when in possession. While Rennes have possession in their own defensive third, the fullbacks will take up a position in line with the midfield unit as an option to bounce off of whilst patiently shifting possession to look for openings to play forward. Once the ball is played into the wide players inside the pitch, this is a trigger for the fullback on the same side to overlap and provide an option high and wide up the pitch. The heat maps below show an example of the fullbacks positioning in 2 games this season and it demonstrates the role they play at both ends of the pitch.
The two strikers will take on slightly differing roles in this system. One will remain mostly on the opposition's back line, looking to offer a threat to the space in behind. Making a number of runs into these areas not only gives the option to play direct passes but also forces the oppositions back line to drop deeper, therefore opening more spaces between the defensive and midfield unit for teammates to expose. Subsequently, this is where the 2nd striker will look to operate, in the spaces in front of the defensive line, attempting to get in possession on the turn and effect the opposition from these positions. Below is a diagram showing the touch maps of the 2 strikers in a match against Lille this season. The difference in distribution shows De Castillo coming deeper to get on the ball and his higher number of touches shows a greater involvement in the game. From observing the game, the majority of Niang’s touches came either directly on or in behind the backline and the 4 shots he managed displays his intentions to be in possession as close to the opposition goal as possible.
M’baye Niang is currently top scorer in the league for Rennes this season with 10 goals and fulfilling his marksman role within the team, he boasts the most shots per 90 minutes (2.78). When compared to regular strike partners Hunou (2.09) and De Castillo (2.02), the difference in the roles of the 2 strikers becomes clearer. Further support for this is the difference in shot assists per 90 minutes between Niang (0.42) and the interchangeable Hunou (1.05) and De Castillo (1.59). The shot map below displays Niang’s on target attempts this season, and exemplifies his importance as the dominant figure in the oppositions penalty box, often benefiting from cut backs or slide passes in behind the opposition.
Rennes general build up play is quite fast-paced. Play begins relatively slow while the back line are in possession, displaying patience and awaiting the movements of the forward players to create openings in the opposition shape. However, once they are able to break the opposition's first line the tempo increases, with the individual skill of Raphinha and De Castillo acting as catalysts to increase the tempo of attacks and exploit spaces quickly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Axl is the Head of Analysis at Nottingham Forest Academy. Currently leading on the U23's programme, he oversees analysis at all age phases. He has also completed an MRes in Performance Analysis.