Building play from the back to patiently progress through the thirds and then finish it off with a clinical finish. The dream goal of every football fan. When we think of these types of goals, we directly link them to certain managers and teams. Teams like Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola with his inverted wing-backs or Leeds United’s Marcelo Bielsa with his dropping midfielders or even Tim Walter’s Holstein Kiel with his penetrating centre-backs.
All of these managers are described as innovators of the game by using newly found tactics that inspire coaches all over the world. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at a team that isn’t particularly associated with possession-based football.
Averaging a season possession stat of 52 per cent, Rennes aren’t known for their fluid possession-based football. Although having this average percentage, Julien Stéphan has his Rennes side build from the back using creative tactics. Beneath is a tactical analysis where we take a look at what makes Rennes’ build-up so special even though few credit them for it.
Below, the names on the teamsheet are those who started the most games this season. We can see Stéphan prefers a 4-4-2 formation in possession. Infield the positions can differ due to the movements of the players.
Goalkeeper Mendy and the two centre-backs, Damien Da Silva and Joris Gnagnon complete the heart of the defence. Their task in the build-up is mostly to play simple passes to each other to create horizontal gaps in the opposition block or play to the full-back on the ball near side. As a consequence, the successful pass rate for both centre-backs is above 80 per cent.
The full-backs, Hamari Traoré and Faitout Maouassa, have a lower successful passing rate. Both under 70 per cent. This is because their job is to play more forward passes to the wingers or diagonal passes to the midfielders in the build-up phase.
Below we see an average position map from the game against OSC Lille. In this game, Eduardo Camavinga and Benjamin Bourigeaud complete the central midfield. Their average position (number 18 & number 14) is deeper to act as a connection between defence and attack.
Also, the position of the wingers above is interesting. In this case, Raphinha and Flavien Tait occupy these positions. Their positions are predominantly in the half-spaces to create diagonal passing lines but more so, as we will see in a moment, to create space behind the last line.
Lastly, the two strikers, M’Baye Niang and Romain Del Castillo will take on more central positions. One will move between the lines as the other becomes an outlet for long balls. Looking at the average positioning map you can see one striker deeper than the other.
Now we have a global understanding of each position in Stéphan’s system. To understand how Stéphan approaches the build-up phase we will have to analyze the specific positions and roles his players undertake in detail. So let’s do that.
Building through the centre
Most opposition in Ligue 1 will drop into a medium block against Rennes. This gives their centre-backs a chance to drive forward with the ball to the middle third of the pitch. From here, like most teams, they try to build through the middle. The way they try to do this is with numerical superiority. By letting Camavinga drop in between the centre-back, they create a three versus two situation, (see below). When dropping, Camavinga has to move outside of the striker’s cover shadow and be available for a pass.
If the dropping midfielder (Camavinga) is still not free to receive a pass because of the cover shadow. Rennes will try to find the dropping midfielder through a bounce pass.
The way they do this is by letting the centre-back play a vertical pass to a dropping striker or winger. This player has a tight marker, so he will just play a simple lay off to a player who is facing the opposition’s goal, who now is freed from the cover shadow as you can see below.
The deep full-back
When Rennes can’t find a solution to progress through the middle, they’ll look to build through the flanks. The full-backs play a big part in this progression.
Below we see the full-backs taking up a deeper position. By taking up this position the full-backs are always available for a simple pass from the centre-backs.
The other reason for this position is because the opposite winger can’t mark the full-back and space at the same time. As you see below, the full-back is in a deeper position and so trying to attract the opposite winger. As the winger steps out, he makes the choice to leave the half-space or the outside zone unmarked. Now the full-back has at least one option to play too.
In this case (pictured above), the full-back can receive the ball easily without pressure due to his position. From here the full-back can easily play forward passes. Stéphan’s idea is to play in behind as quickly as possible. For this idea, there has to be space in behind of course.
To create this space, the winger uses one of the five ways to lose his marker. By dropping deeper the opposite marker follows the Rennes winger. This creates space behind the full-back for the winger to run into. As the opposite full-back has his body shape towards the ball it’s more difficult to react to the wingers’ movement. This concept is explained by Marcelo Bielsa, current manager at Leeds United in the EFL.
When the opposite full-back doesn’t mark the winger tightly, but he does follow the winger, there will still be space in the behind the full-back. It wouldn’t be smart from the winger to attempt to run into this space as the opposite full-back has a couple of meters advantage on him. As a consequence, a centre midfielder will try to exploit this space by running into it, see below.
If the opposite full-back stays in position, Rennes will overload the area around the opposite full-back. As we can see below, the winger and centre midfielder move wide and wait for the pass from Rennes’ full-back. From this situation, it’s easier to advance as they have a numerical superiority out wide.
The higher full-back
Above, in this tactical analysis, we spoke about the reasons behind the deeper position of the full-back. However, this does not occur in every situation, in some situations, they will stay higher.
For example, when Rennes try to confuse the opposition, the full-back and winger will change their position. As the winger comes into a deeper position to ask the ball to feet, the full-back will push up higher giving the opposition a decision to make regarding who to follow, see below.
At times the centre midfielder can fill this position during the build-up phase too. As a result of this movement, the full-back (Traoré) pushing up and the winger moves inside. This rotation creates a three versus two overload on the side and makes it easier to progress forward, see below.
Another outcome of the higher full-backs is that the opposite winger gets pinned. The winger has a decision to make. Does he close any passing lines behind his back or does he press the upcoming centre back? In the situation beneath, we see that the winger stays in his zone waiting for a pass to the Rennes full-back or the Rennes centre midfielder in the half-space. In both cases, the winger is in a good position to recover the ball.
However, Rennes take advantage of the position of the winger, who isn’t pressing the centre-back. As the full-back in a high position gives the centre back time on the ball. The centre-back drives forward and plays a long ball behind the Olympique Marseille defence as there is a lot of space to play into. Striker Niang runs onto this ball and creates another opportunity for Rennes to score.
Lastly, Stéphan asks his full-backs to position themselves higher, to exploit the space in behind the opposing full-back. This space is created by the winger who drops deep into the halfspace. Also, note that Camavinga runs towards the dropping winger to receive the bounce pass. Camavinga then plays the ball in behind the defence to the forward running full-back.
When under pressure
As mentioned before, Rennes’ overall average possession percentage this season isn’t that high. This clarifies for us that Rennes aren’t a team, that no matter what will build from the back.
So when playing against a mid-block, Rennes find creative solutions to progress. When being pressurized high, however, they struggle and often use the long ball. But even then, they find creative ways of being at the end of the long ball.
Below, we see Rennes under pressure against Marseille. Mendy is forced to play long. As this happens Traoré moves from the full-back position to the inside. With this movement, Traoré creates an overload in the centre of the field. This way there is a higher chance of winning the first ball if not the second.
Even from the goal kick Rennes have a rather clever way of finding the free man. The whole team will move to one side of the pitch and stay close to each other. This is a principle every team uses when playing a long goal kick. Because it’s easier to win the long ball when supportive players are around the receiver.
But Stéphan’s side uses this common principle to their advantage. As everybody is on one side of the pitch, Raphinha moves to the less crowded side as Mendy tries to find him with the goal kick. This is an easy and creative way to progress quickly up the field, pictured below.
Although Rennes haven’t caught the eye of the footballing world because of their build-up play. By using versatile full-backs, bounce passes and different movements, after reading this tactical analysis in the form of a scout report we can clearly say that this aspect of their game is tactically well developed.
At the age of 39 years, Stéphan is a young coach that is taking the football scene by storm. As he hasn’t had a glorious footballing career he has worked himself up through the ranks over the years. Over this time he has developed his unique game model. A game model that has brought a lot of joy to Rennes this season. Despite their disappointing run in the Europa League, Rennes finished third in the Ligue 1. This gives ‘Les rouges et noirs’ a ticket to the Champions League qualification stages. After a season with ups and downs, this was the icing on the cake as a result of their hard work.