Come In Out Of The Rennais: The four step plan to fix Rennes season

October 1, 2012 9:00 am

Before their excellent 2-0 win against Lille, Rennes fan Bastian Leclair looked at Frederic Antonetti’s difficult position as coach of Rennes. Now French football expert Jonathan Fadugba proposes four changes that Rennes could make which could just get this club back on track.

It has been a long and dark six months for Stade Rennais. A painful Spring. A cruel summer. They haven’t forgotten. They won’t forget. Quevilly. The word alone is enough to make any Rennes supporter wince. Nightmares in Normandie. Le cauchemar à Caen.

Playing the tape back is like playing back a murder scene from a horror movie in slow-motion, watching slide-by-slide as the knife is plunged deep into the torso of the unlikely victim. The demise began on that night, in the 93rd minute; Anthony Laup races through at the Stade Michel d’Ornano and slides a low shot past Benoit Costil, sending minnows Quevilly through to the Coupe de France final and dunking Rennes into a crisis that endures to this day. ‘La sensation Quevilly’ the French media delighted in their Coupe de France final TV packages. ‘The indefensible’ according to Rennes coach Frederic Antonetti.

This was a defeat the pain of which sank deep into the very bones of the club. More than a cup upset to an amateur team, this was an unacceptable, brutal indictment of the players, the manager, the staff – of everything Rennes represents. 41 years since their last major trophy and 3 years on from another devastating cup letdown, in the Coupe de France final against Guingamp, Rennes had once again found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Rennes have not been the same since Quevilly. On that day Antonetti offered his players no protection. “I knew we lacked character and it’s been confirmed,” came his damning (and perhaps quite unwise) assessment. The season petered out from there, Rennes failing to make the Europa League having been in prime position. The already fractious relationship between supporters and players broke down completely. Yann M’Vila and Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik were involved in a car park fracas with fans.

The Saturday after Quevilly around 50 others turned up to the club’s training session at Piverdière with a sign that simply read ‘Shame on you.’ In their next game, against Nice, Rennes fans booed their players onto the pitch with all the venom usually reserved for an away team in the most bitter of derbies.

Rennes began this season losing four of their opening five games. The rot continued. Antonetti was given three games to save his job. A 2-0 win over Lille appears to have kept his seat warm, for now. Despite this reprieve however fans are apathetic – a cursory browse through forums such as the excellent Stade Rennais Online confirms this.

Nonetheless there have been some encouraging signs in Rennes’ three games since Antonetti was reportedly issued his ‘do or die’ ultimatum. From my own personal observations here are three fairly small steps (and one big one) Rennes can take to stop the rot and potentially save their season:

Step 1: Switch Kevin Theophile-Catherine to right back

A minor tweak but increasingly appears a necessary one. It is only when you really stop and think about it that the question becomes obvious. What is Kevin Theophile-Catherine – a right-footed right back who broke through down the right hand side of defence – doing at left back? Even the manager doesn’t seem to know. “He plays on the left but he would probably be better on the right,” Antonetti commented towards the end of last season – an admission that makes you wonder what on Earth Antonetti is thinking.

In his own words, the Corsican coach’s explanation for playing Theophile-Catherine at left back is that ‘the experience [and versatility acquired] will do him well later in his career.’

Though he can play in several different positions Theophile-Catherine emerged primarily as a right-sided defender, before Antonetti switched channels at the start of the 2010/11 season. The verve in his performances at right back against Toulouse and Lille in the last fortnight (including an assist, one more than the entirety of last season) suggest the time has come to occupy a more natural role.

Step 2: Find Chris Mavinga a regular place

With Theophile-Catherine back where he belongs, this opens up a space at left back. Enter former Liverpool player and France Under-21 Chris Mavinga. Described by French youth team coach Francis Smerecki as a ‘modern defender, strong, smart and aggressive,’ Mavinga has shown an intriguing level of promise in the handful of appearances he has been afforded since joining Rennes in 2011.

Mavinga actually fell out with Antonetti towards the end of last season after taking exception to being made to train separately from the group. But in his two appearances so far this season he has looked strong, dynamic and a genuine alternative to Theophile-Catherine on the left hand side. Where this leaves fan favourite and club captain Romain Danze however is anyone’s guess… (including Antonetti, who dropped him v Toulouse and played him out of position v Lille).

Step 3: Nurse Yann M’Vila back to form, build midfield around Jean II Makoun

Though Rennes’ summer transfer window was basically a mess, the one good thing to come of it was the signing of Jean Makoun. Mature, calm, composed; the Cameroon international is everything this youthful Rennes side is not and his experience has already proved invaluable in a short time.

Antonetti has been full of praise for his midfield sentinel and the signing also provided the added benefit of allowing him to drop Yann M’Vila – the golden child turned bad boy.

The hopefully temporary demise of M’Vila has been difficult to witness for anyone who loves a wonderkid. So much promise, so many high hopes. Rennes pretty much banked their entire summer transfer strategy on the back of his apparently inevitable departure, so for him to remain at the club has been awkward to say the least, particularly given his less than savoury relationship with fans.

For now Antonetti has decided Makoun, Vincent Pajot and Julien Feret can hold together midfield just fine, leaving no room for the man every major club in Europe has had watched at one point or other. M’Vila appears to have realised the gravity of the situation he is in now and in a recent frank interview promised to make lifestyle changes, from drinking less soda to cutting off fake friends, in order not to become the next big thing that never was.

We hope for his sake, but some time on the sidelines may actually help Rennes in the short-term.

Step 4: Sack Antonetti?

It seems strange to think that over the summer Antonetti was linked with Marseille, ostensibly a bigger club, and yet few Rennes fans if any were bothered about it. That alone speaks volumes about his current, precarious position and barring a serious upturn in fortunes over the coming months that sceptical stance is unlikely to change.

Antonetti is a curious figure in many respects – a real character of Ligue 1. His relationships with players varies; at times endearing, like the obvious strong bond he shared with Jires Kembo-Ekoko. Then there is Antonetti’s sour side – like when he chastised George Mandjeck so relentlessly (and harshly) from the touchline during a game last season the player never recovered mentally and was sold soon after. Despite this, when I interviewed Kader Mangane and Jonathan Pitroipa last season both were genuine in their admiration and praise.

This unique juxtaposition in perception extends to his managerial style. Some feel he motivates his players, that he’s responsible for what is a top six side. Others say he holds them back. Compare Rennes’ squad to Montpellier’s last season and one might reasonably conclude the latter.

He may have done enough in three games to survive the ultimatum. But, ultimately, is the gruff, outspoken Corsican’s departure the only real way to get Rennes back on track?

Jonathan Fadugba is the creator and editor of Just Football and a French football analyst for Football Radar. Follow him on Twitter @FrfootballJonF and @JustFootball.

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