Since Les Bleus’ inspiring victory at the 2018 World Cup, French football has received an encouraging vote of confidence as one of the peaks of the sport. After recently being considered as the fifth wheel in Europe’s prestigious top five leagues, the country’s role in the beautiful game is now seen as an integral, youthful side of the continent. A number of clubs in Ligue 1 have taken advantage of this focus and emphasised the importance of youth. Stade Rennais is one of these clubs. The Brittany club has long been known for their youth academy and recently has reached heights long since seen at Roazhon Park. The man behind these milestones is Rennes-born manager Julien Stéphan.
Stéphan began his career in football as a player, but early on shifted his mindset to become a manager. After taking on the role of player-manager for FC Drouais’ senior side and youth academy respectively, he retired from playing and coached youth sides at Châteauroux and Lorient before joining his boyhood club Stade Rennais. Stéphan then rose up the ranks at the French outfit, and began as interim manager of the senior squad in December 2018 before becoming permanent manager merely nine days later following two consecutive 2-0 wins. He vindicated the decision the very next day in another 2-0 win, this time in the Europa League hosting Astana, thus securing Stade Rennais their first-ever trip to the knockout stages of a European competition.
Personnel and structural fluidity
Stéphan’s preferred structure is an organised, positional hybrid 4-4-2/4-2-3-1, using the former out of possession and the latter in possession. In common 4-4-2-involved systems, a defensive block is often prioritised, and for Stephán, a former defensive midfielder, the focus is similar.
Here we see the most common player personnel in Stade Rennais’ 4-4-2. Hamari Traoré and Faitout Maouassa have been mainstays in the backline, with depth at centre-back providing flexibility. Raphinha and Romain Del Castillo have both played major roles in attacking transitions, alongside a sturdy central pairing of Benjamin Bourigeaud (or at times Clément Grenier) and the 17-year-old Eduardo Camavinga. The front duo of Adrien Hunou and M’Baye Niang is where the most routine of the movements in transition would take place.
As previously mentioned, the defence of Stade Rennais sets up in a defensive block. Succeeding defensively while allowing opposition possession in your own half requires disciplined defensive shifts. Fortunately, Stéphan has hard-wired his back eight into doing just that.
In the scenario seen here, Stade Rennais’ defence is playing against an attack from a 4-3-3-playing side. When the ball moves past the midfield line of defence, the more defensive-minded central midfielder, most often Bourigeaud, drops back either just in front of or next to the backline. With the rest of the backline marking their assignments, this defensive shift by the midfield Frenchman plugs a gap and blocks a potential attacking opportunity. This normal defensive movement is especially helpful against quicker attacks, and in turn can create similar attacks for Stade Rennais.
In transition from defence to attack, Stéphan’s side completes high-percentage passes between the players in the half-spaces and the wide areas.
In the final third, this progression together with Stade Rennais’ attacking front two creates a multitude of options. Depending on where the centre-backs opt to defend, the wide attacker can complete a pass centrally either in front of or behind the backline, with the 4-4-2 in defence now fully transitioned to a 4-2-3-1. This specific attacking display has led Rennais on many of their goals this season.
This style of play has allowed Stéphan to win games even against superior opposition. The numerical advantages and fluidity in both defence and attack have played a major part in the club’s success this season, including wins against Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyon.
With an average possession percentage of about 49%, Stéphan doesn’t necessarily stress keeping possession. Off the ball, he allows the opposition to progress into the middle of the pitch at the very least and instead instructs his side to maintain solidity in the defensive structure.
Even against quick attacks, Stade Rennais foregoes the press and focuses on defensive organisation. Wide areas are often left open, but with the rigidity of the defence in the central areas, it is difficult for the opposition to gain access to more dangerous areas.
In this scene, the opposition while in possession used a backpass to create space centrally. Camavinga was moved towards the ball, opening up space in the central midfield area for the player receiving the backpass to dribble into. However, the next level of defence was more difficult to penetrate, with the added reinforcement of Bourigeaud dropping back into the defensive line. This quick defensive transition led to Stade Rennais having the advantage in a 5v4 situation. The far side attacker was allowed space, as Stéphan’s side does, but the opportunities to successfully move the ball to that side was extremely limited due to the numerical disadvantage.
Additionally, the use of covers is also effective against quicker attacks.
Here, Nantes complete a through ball past the midfield line into a dangerous area. However, thanks to the conservative positioning of the backline, the far-side centre-back is able to shift over and suffocate the space intended. To complete the defensive cover, the far-side central midfielder also drops back to block the central space previously occupied by his left centre-back teammate.
This level of organisation has led to Stade Rennais conceding virtually zero goals this season in the time between the 15-minute mark and halftime. With control of the match often coming earlier rather than late, another formation seen utilised by Stéphan, especially this season, is the 5-3-2. The positional adjustments organised by Stéphan has helped create a defence difficult to penetrate, as they have conceded the tied-fifth fewest goals in Ligue 1(17, tied with Lyon).
In possession, Stade Rennais switch to using width. Short passing is utilised in building out from the back and progressing using variations in tempo, playing calm and slow before initiating fast attacks primarily into the wide areas of the attacking half.
Here, attacker James Léa Siliki dribbles the ball from the wide area into the left half-space. He intentionally lures the right-back towards him, thus giving Hunou space down the left side to run into. These exploitations of the wide areas often employ the considerable speed of young attackers such as Maouassa, Niang, and Raphinha to progress rapidly.
Furthermore, Stéphan has also used another weapon in progression this season; Eduardo Camavinga. The teenager has burst onto the scene as yet another one of the bright young Stade Rennais academy graduates and has been an inspiring addition to the club’s success this season. His prowess both on and off the ball have allowed Stéphan to also teach central attacking progressions.
In Stade Rennais’ recent 0-1 win against Lyon, Stade Rennais held the ball in a wide area on the right side of the pitch. Thanks to an overload by Lyon and Camavinga’s awareness, Camavinga found space centrally and moved into this area.
With his teammates maintaining their wide positioning, this left Camavinga 1v2 against the two centre-backs. He took advantage of this by forcing one of the centre-backs to press him on a dribble. Camavinga then sharply redirected his attack using his ball control into the space departed by the active centre-back and found himself with open space between himself and the keeper.
The ensuing action in attack after Stade Rennais’ usual progression is often more direct. From possession in these wide areas, the front two attackers move the opposing defence out of position in the central areas.
In this figure above we can see the positional shift in attack. As the ball-side attacker, in this case, Niang, stays in his space, the ball-side centre-back moves forward to cover the potential passing option. This, however, leaves space behind him. Hunou makes a swift run in front of his marker from the central space beside Niang to the near half-space in front of him; right into the open space made available by Niang’s movements. This long pass was completed and resulted in a penalty drawn for Stade Rennais.
This example is excellent at showing the purpose of the front line’s positional movements in a dangerous area. After Stade Rennais moves the ball swiftly down the right side, a 3v3 is formed. The deeper, ball-side attacker, typically Hunou but in this case Raphinha, slows his run enough to make the ball-side centre-back pull up on his backtracking. The bait opens up space behind that centre-back, and Niang moves into that space. The shift from a horizontal front two to a more staggered front two in an attacking progression has led to an easy goal.
Stéphan’s attacking system may seem somewhat simple, but it is extremely effective. The usage of pulling defenders out of position and exploiting space is a massive key to ball progression in football. Stéphan’s savviness to use this tool and the strengths of the players he has at his disposal has been seen throughout his career.
Coupe de France
In April 2019, Stéphan and Stade Rennais received concrete proof of their budding success in the form of the Coupe de France trophy. Their hard-fought conquest of French giants Paris Saint-Germain in the Final received global recognition and placed the club in the footballing spotlight as a team not to underestimate.
Last season, with Hatem Ben Arfa, Stéphan’s side attacked in a more balanced style of play, as having a dynamic creator in the central attacking midfield position such as Ben Arfa allowed for more possession and more variety in attack. Even with this, however, against such a superior opponent, many similar themes from this season’s Stade Rennais could be seen.
Stade Rennais focused their defensive play on structure and coverage of space rather than pressing. While this wasn’t always successful due to the astonishing individual skills of the opposition, it allowed Stade Rennais to at least attempt numerical advantages defensively.
Another familiar tactic was used in attack. As mentioned, Ben Arfa was a centrepiece to the attack. So when he dropped into the midfield to act as a passing outlet, he often dragged a defender out of position. In the case above, Stéphan’s side bypass the wide area and complete a long aerial ball towards Niang. He is able to bring the ball down in a 1v1 situation against Marquinhos, with the other centre-back in this situation, Thiago Silva, marking Ben Arfa forward. Niang executes a smart turn inside into the space Silva normally marks, and the result was an excellent curling shot which rang off the far post.
These tactics resulted in Stade Rennais winning just their sixth ever trophy and their first in 48 years. Stéphan not only adjusted his strategies to the opponent but also took advantage of PSG’s individual mistakes. These are signs of heads-up coaching by Stéphan, and his credit was well deserved.
Stade Rennais is in an exciting position. Currently fourth in Ligue 1, the club renowned for its youth emphasis hasn’t strayed from this mantra. A vast number of young players have plied and developed their trade under Stéphan, be it at the pro level or academy: Ismaïla Sarr, Camavinga, Raphinha, Ramy Bensebaini, Niang, Jordan Siebatcheu, and last but not least Ousmane Dembélé to name a few. His time as a youth coach helped him develop a strong sense of man-management, of which many of his current and former players have praised him for. Not only does this nurturing ability of talent give Stéphan a brilliant edge, but it also bodes well in bringing more talent in who are eager to work with him wherever he goes.
At age 39, Julien Stéphan is still learning and growing as a manager. His tactical acumen paired with his youthful personability makes him a modern, forward-thinking coach with his own ideas independent from the popular system. Despite exiting Europa League dead last in a difficult group consisting of Celtic, CFR Cluj, and Lazio, at the time of writing Stade Rennais were on a five-match winning streak, including having just beaten imposing clubs such as Lazio and Lyon. Stéphan’s career at Stade Rennais has been impressive, and his future whether at the French club or another will surely continue his unique identity.