The Europa League round of 16 has thrown up some interesting clashes including Arsenal’s latest tripwire as they will face France’s Stade Rennais over two legs. Unai Emery’s men will travel to Brittany on the 7th of March before hosting Rennes the following week but who are Arsenal’s opponents and what threat do they pose to the Gunners?
Talent in the Dugout
Rennes’ qualification for the Europa League last season came as a surprise to many French football fans as they have always plodded along in mid table but Sabri Lamouchi really drove the team to new levels when he took over from Christian Gourcuff in November of 2017. The team was 14th when he took charge but he managed to drive them up the table, clinching 5th spot on the third last day of the season.
This success was short felt though as Lamouchi started this season very much in the same horrible form that Gourcuff started the 2017/18 campaign. The Tunisian was fired to make way for the man currently in charge, Julien Stéphan. Son of French National Team assistant Guy, Stéphan was promoted from within after spending some years in charge of the u19s and reserve teams and the effect has been pretty drastic already.
Julien Stéphan is a hugely impressive young manager. His Rennes side have just won 3-1 at Betis to qualify 6-4 on aggregate. Reward for bold tactics and an incredibly determined performance
— Matt Spiro (@mattspiro) February 21, 2019
His first match in charge saw his side beat Lyon 2-0 and he has only gone from strength to strength since then with his record standing at eleven wins and three defeats after 18 games. Several key players have been playing with new leases of life, more on that later, and after they surpassed Real Betis 6-4 in the previous round of the Europa League, there is a real belief back in Brittany with the team soaring up the table and progressing on the continent; they currently sit 11th in the league but are only four points away from 4th place. The fact that he is a local boy has made caused fans to fall in love with him and that relationship will only continue to grow if he can continue to churn out great results. This will be Stéphan’s biggest challenge yet bar PSG but the rookie has shown bravery rather than inexperience so far in his managerial career and this will have to be something Arsenal watch out for.
Talent on the Pitch
Several of Rennes’ best players underperformed in the earlier stages of the season with Sabri Lamouchi not getting the best out of them but much of that has changed since Stéphan has joined. Hatem Ben Arfa, formerly of Newcastle United and Hull City, has always been a tricky player to coach with Sabri Lamouchi and Unai Emery high profile managers that the Frenchman has fallen out with but he has performing so well under Stéphan.
Ben Arfa has operated more as a number ten under Stéphan and this has resulted in him creating many more chances for the team with him making 20 key passes and 57 dribbles in the ten Ligue 1 matches under the new coach, his numbers in the games before that under Lamouchi were considerably worse. Ben Arfa always had a frosty relationship with Emery when the pair were at PSG so this will be a great opportunity for the attacking midfielder to get revenge on his former trainer.
Another player who has been excelling has been Ismaïla Sarr. The Senegalese attacker was one of the bright sparks under Lamouchi but he has managed to continue this under Stéphan with him operating on the right wing. Arsenal were linked with the twenty-year-old earlier in the season so this could be a great audition for Sarr ahead of the summer transfer window.
Sarr is a very tricky winger who loves to dribble at full-backs so it will be interesting to see how Monreal or Kolašinac cope with the Senegalese’s speed.
The Fortress of Roazhon Park
Julien Stéphan has taken control of ten home matches so far and boasts a fantastic record of eight wins and two draws so far at Roazhon Park. Rennes didn’t win any of their six home games before Stéphan took over but he has made the stadium such a difficult place to play. It always has a tremendous atmosphere with the fans turning it into a cauldron for the away sides and Stéphan has managed to replicate that on the pitch with some great results over Saint-Étienne (3-0) and Lille (2-1) coming in the last few weeks.
Arsenal haven’t been boasting the best away record recently so they will have to be careful in the first leg of the tie that they don’t get blown away by the attacking talents of Sarr and Ben Arfa.
Arsenal could have gotten a better draw, definitely could have gotten a worse one but they will need to be switched on for these games as they lacked that professionalism against BATE and were almost punished for it. Julien Stéphan is still early in his managerial career aged 38 but he will be desperate to keep the good vibes going with a big win over Arsenal, and he definitely has the talent at his disposal to cause an upset. Rennes face Marseille on Sunday while Arsenal also play then as they host Southampton, you can find both of our betting previews linked.