Head of Academy Analysis Axl Rice completes his analysis on Stade Rennais, analysing the key elements to their defensive success during the 2019/20 season.
The defensive system in place at Rennes has seen success this season, conceding just 24 goals, which is the joint second fewest goals in the league with Paris Saint Germain. Without the ball, Rennes' starting formation of a 4-4-2 is much more apparent. Whilst the opposition begin their possession from deep, Rennes will form a mid-block in a clear 4-4-2 shape. As the opposition build up play in front of the Rennes structure, constant adaptions and adjustments are being made. The front two men will take up positions screening key central areas behind them and protecting the 2-man midfield at the heart of the team. At times they will begin to advance to put pressure on the ball, setting off a chain of alterations behind them. The two wide players will keep a narrow starting position to reduce chances for the opposition to play centrally whilst at the same time staying on the front foot ready to press any passes into advancing fullbacks. The job of the central midfielders is probably the most complex. Positioning themselves to prevent chances for opposition midfielders to receive and play forward, while at the same time acting as screens for any more direct passes into opposition attackers - an immense tactical understanding and feel for the game is essential. The back four’s role very much mirrors that of the players in front of them, maintaining a structured shape with as few a spaces as possible for the opposition to play into. An example of the Rennes initial defensive shape can be seen below.
Much like when Rennes are in possession of the ball, they will work to triggers that dictate a change in tempo. Once the opposition play into areas behind the 2 strikers, there is an immediate reaction to put the receiving opposition under pressure. Any passes into advancing fullbacks or midfielders who have drifted into wide areas are met with an intense effort to be closed down by the Rennes wingers, whilst simultaneously, their teammates adjust in preparation to press the next pass. Similarly the central midfielders will press any passes into the spaces around them, again a task which must be completed in seamless tandem when operating a 2-man midfield to prevent being played around with ease.
Passes per defensive action (PPDA) is a statistic which aims to quantify the pressure that a defensive team applies to the opposition when they are in possession. Context can be provided to this statistic by looking at the Champions League 2nd Leg tie between Liverpool and Atlético Madrid. Liverpool who were for the most part chasing the game with a high pressing style had a PPDA of 4.27 whilst Atlético’s deep, yet successful block resulted in a PPDA of 18.04. While these are extreme examples, it does give context to Rennes Ligue 1 average PPDA of 10.75 (Only matches where a 4-4-2 was the formation used). An initial mid-block, followed by high pressure once past the first line of defence would explain a middle of the road PPDA score.
One defining characteristic of the Rennes back four is their willingness to get tight to their opponents. The fullbacks frequently attempt to knick in front of opposing players to win the ball back, a tactic which for the most part brings success in the early stages of games. The effectiveness of this tactic does tend to subside during matches as opposition players become aware and combat it by playing off single touches or directly exploiting any space behind the defenders on their front foot. Another distinctive characteristic of Rennes defensive shape is the positioning of the opposite wide players without the ball. As the opposing team attack down one side, the wide player will normally press tight in an attempt to win the ball back. As a result, the two central midfield players will shuffle over towards that side of the pitch to offer defensive support. From a defensive perspective it may be expected that the opposite wide player would then shuffle into a central area to close the distances between them and their teammates, however it is very much a game of cat and mouse. The wide players preference is to remain on the front foot and in a position to be readily available for Rennes to switch play quickly on transition. This proves to be an effective tactic in the attacking transition, with 40% of Rennes counter attacks resulting in a shot. The table below provides this statistic with some context and highlights the effectiveness of the French side on the counter.
Whilst this risk seems to pay off when Rennes regain possession in a position to attack the opposition quickly, it does reduce the solidarity of their defensive shape. If the opposition are able to move the ball into central areas from out wide, there is often an obvious pocket of space between one of the central midfielders and the opposite winger which can be exploited. Whilst this is most often due to the desire of the winger to be available on transition it can also be down to a lack of defensive work rate. Although it hasn’t appeared to have a detrimental effect on the defensive performance of the team this season, it is an area opposition teams may become more aware of and look to exploit in the future.
In what has been Stade Rennais' best season in modern times, it appears the alignment of a well-developed tactical plan, with players suited perfectly to each role within the side is what has contributed to their success. In other words, simple but effective. Highlights of the Rennes campaign will undoubtedly be Eduardo Camavinga, Raphinha and Faitout Maouassa. Camavinga has been propelled into the spotlight in the last season, particularly after his match winning display against French powerhouses Paris Saint-Germain at just 16 years old. A central midfielder with elite qualities both with and without the ball matched with the game understanding of a player with many years more experience, it's likely he will be pulling on the colours of one of the top sides in Europe in years to come. Raphinha, who joined from Sporting Lisbon in the summer to replace the Watford-bound Ismaïla Sarr, is a right-midfield player very much in the mould of other Brazilian wide men currently on display around Europe. A skilful player whose ability to travel with the ball has been the teams biggest attacking threat this season and it's apparent to see why he has contributed to 25% of the team's goals this campaign. Finally Maoussa is a left-back who is very adapted to the modern demands of his position. The 21-year old certainly possesses the quality to contribute with the ball, providing constant support with overlapping runs, while also displaying the awareness and concentration levels to be a reliable defensive asset to the team. Whilst there is no doubt the next few seasons will be exciting ones for Rennes fans, holding on to their key assets may prove difficult. Julien Stéphan will certainly have a task maintaining what has so far been an extremely successful first full season in the spotlight.