It has been a really disappointing season for Stade Rennais but fortunately for the Breton club there are clearer skies on the horizon. Those skies seemed an awful lot a few weeks back as Real Sociedad manager Philippe Montanier was confirmed as the man to replace outgoing coach Frederic Antonetti.
Montanier arrives in France following a wonderful season with Sociedad where he has taken the unfancied Basque side to 4th place thereby qualifying for the Champions League, ahead of the likes of Valencia. A different prospect awaits him in France as Rennes ended their league campaign in 13th. The situation may seem like a step down but in reality, and I suspect Montanier can see this, there is a truly fantastic platform on offer here.
First and foremost there is the club’s infamous youth academy. The Centre d’Entraînement Henri-Guérin (named after former player and manager Henri Guérin) is renowned as arguably the best in the country and one of the best in the world and is a vital source of new talent. 20 year old Dimitri Foulquier has made huge strides this season and now looks nailed in as the man to replace club captain Romain Danzé at right back whilst Christ Mavinga (a member of the highly esteemed Le50 from FrenchFootballWeekly) has really stepped up his development.
The club also possess two of the more exciting young forwards in France in the shape of Cheick Diarra and Wesley Said. Both players rely on speed as impact strikers and look set to become fully fledged first team members in the near future. Midfielder Vincent Pajot has grown into an established, cultured playmaker but there has been a cruel twist of fate regarding another of club’s promising youngsters. Abdoulaye Doucoure set fans’ pulses racing following some impressive performances after making his debut but the midfielder has been struck with a cruciate ligament injury that is likely to rule him out for six months.
That was the second devastating injury Rennes suffered this season and the first was even more catastrophic. At the turn of the year Stade Rennais were on the cusps of a Champions League spot and that was largely due to the form of Romain Alessandrini. In mid-February the Frenchman had scored 13 goals and was the key man in the side but against Lille on 16 February he was stretchered off injured. That was it for Alessandrini this season and it is no surprise that Rennes’ form has declined horrifically since then.
When he is back and fully fit Alessandrini makes up a group of players that suggest Rennes really should have finished higher than they did. Explosive winger Jonathan Pitroipa is an important figure who was sorely missed when he was at the African Cup of Nations whilst the mesmeric Julien Feret is perhaps the side’s best player right now. At the back Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik continues to produce composed performances far beyond is 23 years and Benoit Costil has developed into a really solid goalkeeper.
Then there is the man behind the scenes, Francois- Henri Pinault and this may come as a shock to many people but in Pinault senior (FHP’s father) Stade Rennais actually have a billionaire owner. Francois Pinault bought Rennes back in 1993 and his son became a more prominent figure in 2001 but the club are nothing like the likes of PSG or Monaco.
The Pinault family, ranked at 53rd on the Forbes rich list, invest the money wisely and heavy investments in the transfer market are far from a frequent occurrence. The reliance on the academy has perhaps grown a little stale recently despite some promising graduates and if Montanier is to bring Rennes back to challenging at the top of the table his relationship with the men at the top could be crucial. If he can persuade them to invest in a few shrewd summer signings then I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rennes back where they belong.
This all sounds rather promising doesn’t it? Keep key players, make a few signings and Montanier should be laughing. Unfortunately there is one big problem that will provide a huge test of his man-management skills. This Rennes team is one bereft of confidence and self-belief. Their second half of the season collapses have started to become greeted with a sense of inevitability and if Montanier is to succeed at Rennes he must find a way to keep their form going throughout the season.
The cup final defeat to Saint-Etienne was another blow for the club this season and Montanier must install the belief that the club can challenge with the best in the country. The last thing anyone wants is for a label of ‘chokers’ or ‘underachievers’ but this season represents another cup final defeat under Antonetti. In 2009 the club made it all the way to the final of the Coupe de France before incredibly losing to Ligue 2 side Guingamp. The defeats, heart-breaking as they are, do demonstrate that the potential is there for silverware, the side just need to believe.
In France this season the likes of Saint-Etienne, Nice and Rennes’ local rivals Lorient have stolen the headlines as the plucky underdogs taking on the established elite. I believe that next season Rennes can take over the mantle from these sides and become a real threat to the likes of Marseille and Lyon. The treatment of Yann M’Vila shows that no one player is bigger than the club and if Montanier buys into this philosophy at Rennes they could be a match made in heaven.