“I roll up my sleeves and I work hard. I do believe in work. I work with all my heart but it doesn’t seem to be enough. Resign? Never. I have known difficult times; I have always wrestled my way through them to come out a stronger person. “
After conceding his fourth defeat in five league games, Frederic Antonetti insisted he isn’t ready to leave just yet. Even though the pressure has risen considerably on him after the team’s worse start to a season since the summer of 2005, the Corsican manager wants to believe he can salvage his team’s season. But has he really got any control left in the dressing room?
After a humiliating home-defeat to regional rivals Lorient and the failure to salvage a point even though Rennes played the last 35 minutes of the game against a nine-man team, it seems that even the board is losing patience with the Corsican manager. He was given three games to get his men back on track: a trip to Toulouse, and two home games again Nancy (League Cup) and Lille. Achievable when you look at the squad he is managing, seemingly impossible if you base your observation on Rennes’ first few games of this season.
Rennes did well in their first two games, showing a much more composed, and sometimes dominant face in Toulouse, despite conceding an incredible last-minute goal by Toulouse’s goalkeeper Ali Ahamada (2-2). A mid-week Coupe de la Ligue success against Nancy (3-2) punctuated with a brace for Mevlut Erding (three goals in two games) came to confirm the team’s improvements, but Antonetti’s future is still hanging by a thread. In fact many believe that a defeat to Lille, this Friday, could seal the fate of the Rennes manager. Not an easy task ahead…
But even if Antonetti managed to take all three points against Lille, one of the Breton club’s traditional nemesis, the road to recovery would remain very long, possibly too long for him since the scars are rooting way beyond his personal situation. Antonetti is certainly in the eye of the storm at this moment, but the club as a whole is going through one of the worst identity crisis in its centennial history.
Just five years ago, in May 2007, Rennes was very much a club on the up. And on the pitch, the “Rouge et Noir” had earned their first ever participation in the Champions’ League. Or so they thought, as they strolled to a last day victory in Lille would secure a place at Europe’s top table. Alas, the history of Stade Rennes is riddled with anti-climaxes of the worse type: A Nicolas Fauvergue equaliser in the dying seconds of stoppage time levelled the scores and sent Toulouse through to the most prestigious of competitions and Rennes were relegated to the UEFA Cup.
Time went by in Brittany, and disillusions followed in quick succession for Rennes, including an unimaginable defeat to second-tier Guingamp in the 2009 Coupe de France final. On the night, Rennes had scored first before collapsing and losing 2-1. Guy Lacombe left Rennes shortly after and let Frederic Antonetti take over in a club haunted by this May evening in the Stade de France.
Antonetti was soon to realise how high the expectations were at Rennes. In a club deprived of silverware for thirty-eight years, he arrived with the mission to avenge decades of humiliation and near-misses. A disappointing first season brought him to reduce his squad drastically and rely mostly on youngsters from the prolific Academy in Rennes. He completed his side with powerful, athletic players with one aim in mind: results…
On paper, the first eight months were a success, and Rennes were joint league leaders going into the last two months of the season, before collapsing in an apocalyptic end of the season where the Bretons only just managed to finish sixth and qualify for the Europa League. Not too bad, except for the demand of the Rennes fans, who had started criticising for his lack of ambition and cagey tactics (Which one could understand knowing both Asamoah Gyan and Ismail Bangoura had left the club in the closing hours of the transfer market before Yacine Brahimi and Jires Kembo were sidelined with long-term injuries in Autumn, while Victor Hugo Montano was the only attacking recruit brought in during the summer).
The protest would never stop, and Antonetti went on to be criticised both inside and outside the club, pressured even within the club’s board for hiring players subject to controversy (Stephane Dalmat in particular) and outside for not providing the exciting style of play desired by the fans. Although Rennes ended the season with the league’s best defence, it wasn’t enough and the damage was already done.
The following season, Rennes brought in creative players, with the likes of Jonathan Pitroipa, Julien Feret and Youssouf Hadji signing to bring some spontaneity to the team, and a definite evolution towards a better flowing attacking attitude. Although the team proved able to compare with the best teams in France and Europe, Rennes still choked when in favourable positions, and probable victories against Udinese, Atletico Madrid, Paris or Lille were wasted by the lack of realism shown by the Stade Rennais.
As the season went by, and although Rennes were showing a better spirit, playing with the sole aim of winning games, criticism was always stronger on a team lacking the cutting edge whenever the going got tough they showed an inability to kill supposedly ‘easy games’ off. The last straw was another Coupe de France tie, and another defeat to lower-tier opposition.
Rennes came to face third-tier Quevilly in the Coupe de France semi-final, and once again choked after scoring an early opener… The Normands would equalise in the second half and win the game in injury time… It was too much for the fans, and an usually measured fan base erupted at the club’s training base, triggering some unusual scuffles at La Piverdiere.
Confidence was lost, but the season went on, and although Frederic Antonetti just failed to reach a European position (finishing sixth, one point behind Bordeaux), one could argue that the season wasn’t a complete failure in terms of achievements (Rennes fans would have loved to have achieved a French Cup semi-final and Ligue 1 sixth place ten years ago, when the level of ambition was limited to remaining in the top flight) , anger was building up.
This summer, Rennes made a few internal changes. The board was cleared of one of its members often denounced by Antonetti as a “dark force” in the club’s environment and several major changes were made into the club’s staff at various level. Frederic Antonetti, himself, remained despite a major interest from Marseille, but he had to agree with the necessity to make deep cuts in the wage bill of a club reducing its yearly budget from 52 million euros to 46.
Out went Kader Mangane, Hadji, Tongo Doumbia, Alexander Tettey and later Razak Boukari, Jires Kembo-Ekoko and Yacine Brahimi, as all players had either expressed their desire to leave or being deemed undesired by the club for various reasons from indiscipline to poor results. Sadio Diallo, Jean II Makoun and Romain Alessandrini came to replace them but the issues were elsewhere. The club’s failure to sell Yann M’Vila after an average season and a calamitous Euros was a blow to Rennes, and although the idea of having the French international on board for another year could be a reason for optimism, that wasn’t the case.
Antonetti was told three days before the end of the transfer window that although he had asked for another centre back and an additional forward, he would not be able to sign those players because of the impossibility to clear the funds expected from M’Vila’s sale. The Rennes manager then started the season with probably the hardest imaginable calendar – four of Rennes’ initial six opponents remain unbeaten to this point, and five remain placed in the league’s top five – their only win a scrappy 3-2 victory at home against Bastia as well as the unlucky draw in Toulouse.
This piece is not meant as a plea in favour of Antonetti however, although at Rennes he has a rough time in strange circumstances, he could for example be blamed for his inability to change tactics and his obsessional attachment to an unmovable 4-3-3 formation. He is also known for his full-on managerial approach which has happened to scare and inhibit some of his players (Georges Mandjeck and Samuel Souprayen are two very good examples).
Antonetti has also generated a very strong love-hate relationship with some of his players, which has sometimes worked in his favour (when his position has been rumoured to be at risk in the past, you could often see the whole squad celebrating goals with him on the touch line) but also caused some conflicts and durable rifts. After three seasons, Antonetti’s approach seems to have worn out and exhausted some of his most faithful players. Rumours that Captain Romain Danze and playmaker Julien Feret – two ordinarily reserved players – had openly complained about his training methods appeared suddenly a few weeks ago, and with it, a whole new can of worms opened for the Corsican manager.
Now, with two of the three vital games gone, Antonetti is left with his back against the wall. Mevlut Erding will remain his only reasonable option to start at centre forward, with Victor Hugo Montano suffering a broken foot and Abdoulaye Sane lacking the experience required to make a mark at this level. M’Vila is yet to return to his best in midfield and the defence is incredibly shaky with John Boye proving week in week out that he is a tough athletic defender but certainly no Marcel Dessailly.
Tonight, Frederic Antonetti will probably scream from his bench, in his very typical way, asking for his players to gain in anticipation, requesting more movement and enraging when his forwards don’t call for the ball at the right time. But, whether he comes out with success or defeat, and as it has happened since three years now, he could well leave the stadium with the disappointment of seeing that his players just don’t get it.
And this is the main issue with Frederic Antonetti himself: After training smaller sides, he came to Rennes thinking he could slowly mould a team of young players into a fast passing, fast moving, free-scoring unit a la Barcelona. Either he got his speech wrong, or he over-estimated the intelligence and physical ability of his players but it has never quite clicked. Lack of ability from the coach or the players, lack of understanding on both sides, pressure heaving on all parties or simply an utopic project for a squad unable to process it? Regardless of the causes, all indicators now lead to believe that Antonetti is near the end of the road in Rennes. He could possibly lead the team to another top eight finish, and maybe manage a decent cup run, but he also knows his days are now counted at the club, and he can’t rely on any sort of support from the fans.
From a Rennes fan perspective, maybe it is a shame, maybe this is the best way to go. His successor will probably have the chance to work in a slightly calmer environment as far the board is concerned, and hopefully with a better reception from the fans. Antonetti simply joined the club at the worst possible time, and although he managed some of the best results ever achieved by Rennes in the league, good results simply weren’t good enough when the supporters were expecting to dream.
Bastien is a life-long Rennes fan – follow him on twitter @Puchkin_B