As he prepares to join West Bromwich Albion and bring his three-season spell at Rennes to an end, Tongo Hamed Doumbia’s departure will leave a strange taste in the mouth of the Rennes support. There isn’t bitterness, or relief, or joy, or despair at seeing him go; just a vague feeling of uncertainty. In fact, to most Rennes fans, the French-Malian centre-midfielder remains a bit of an enigma to this day, exactly as he was when he arrived from Chateauroux in June 2009.
Having come through the ranks of several amateur clubs in the greater Paris area, Doumbia joined Ligue 2 side Chateauroux in 2007, aged 18. Given a trainee contract despite the club’s professional status, Doumbia played most of his two seasons in the Berry region as a member of the Reserve squad in the CFA 2 division (Tier 5), only earning five minutes of professional playing time in a Ligue 2 defeat to Guingamp, in February 2009.
This would be his first and final appearance with the professionals at Chateauroux, since he had opted to snub his club and sign his first professional deal at Ligue 1 side Stade Rennais, despite interest from Olympique Lyonnais. The chance of playing time was key, it seems, and he recently named this as the main factor in making the choice of West Brom despite alleged interest from Arsenal.
At Rennes, he continued his progression mainly with the Reserves, impressing the staff and spectators with his performances in the centre of midfield although only playing in the fourth division. He would only earn six professional appearances in his first season, struggling to find a place in a Rennes midfield bursting with quality and quantity. He didn’t convince his manager in his first few games, showing a worrying lack of consistency and exasperating nonchalance despite evident physical and technical qualities.
These two issues would remain something of a constant concern throughout Doumbia’s time in Brittany. On the pitch, his second season was encouraging, with nine starts and a total of nineteen appearances in Ligue 1, Doumbia started displaying his style of play; an athletic, tireless centre-midfielder with a strong defensive impact and decent technical ability. In a very defensive-minded team, however, he mainly played the role of a second anchor-man in front of Stade Rennes’ midfield maestro Yann M’Vila, only sparsely showing his ability to rush forward and support his team-mates in the attacking line.
Having managed equally to interest and exasperate most of the supporters with incredible lapses of concentration (Rennes fans will remember Doumbia stopping his run and yelling in frustration when not given the ball, absolutely unmarked 20 metres away from the goal… only to see a perfectly distributed ball roll five metres in front of him, in what would have been a golden opportunity had he followed the action), Doumbia entered his third and last season in Rennes in a much better position.
In a much more attack-minded team since the arrivals of Julian Feret and Jonathan Pitroipa, Doumbia suddenly revealed himself as something other than just a physical defensive midfielder, showing great ability across the pitch in recovering the ball, carrying it forward, launching counter-attacks and supporting his forwards effectively. He especially excelled in the Europa League, particularly in Rennes’ home draw to eventual winners Atletico Madrid (1-1); Doumbia had reached a new level in terms of football and, it seems, in terms of being able to concentrate throughout an entire game.
Tongo went on to complete his best season to date, taking part in twenty-five of Rennes’ games in Ligue 1 (thirty-three games in all competitions) and scoring the first two goals of his professional career in the second half of the season. Rotating for one position with French U21 starlet Vincent Pajot and Norwegian international Alexander Tettey, however, Doumbia is leaving Rennes having never installed himself as a permanent member of the Rennes midfield, leaving the Rouge et Noir fans to wonder and debate about his real potential.
For the Baggies, this signing could be a very exciting move, depending on the success of Steve Clarke and his backroom staff in realising the youngster’s potential. West Brom will welcome a young player with loads of physical and technical promise, a great margin of progress, and potentially a brilliant future in front of him… as long as he doesn’t lose his focus.