Tactical outlook: Rennes’ Julien Stephan

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis

Stade Rennais FC are well known for their youth academy, recognised in 2010 by the FFF (French Football Federation) as the best youth academy in the country. The club is looking for further success from the first team having limited trophy success since 2008 after winning the UEFA Intertoto Cup.

So, the appointment early December 2018 of Julien Stephan will hopefully increase the chance of further success at the club, Julien already has showcased unprecedented success as head coach of Rennes in a short period of time with his preferred playing formation of a 4-2-3-1.

Before becoming a coach, Julien boasted a modest career as a player, hanging his boots up at the tender age of 26, therefore enhancing his coaching experience and career at Rennes from the U19s and then the reserves, building his understanding of the philosophy of the club.

Statistical overview 

With 113 days in charge, Julien’s stats are quite impressive, out of 24 Ligue 1 games he has won 15 – drawn 4 – and lost 5 giving Julien a win percentage of 62.5%.

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
Season stats overview currently for Rennes FC [credit: whoscored]
The stats continue as shown above with goals scored at 39 – 13.1 shots per game, 50.5% possession.

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
Formation review identifying regular formation from Rennes. [credit: whoscored]
Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
Rennes’ typical formation in all competitions

The formation favoured by Julien is a 4-2-3-1 choosing the formation 12 times in all competitions, sometimes changing to a 4-4-2 in European competitions or away from home, giving the team a more balanced approach, with less room on the outside channels and the channels between the players reduced in the 4-4-2.

Rennes under Julien are a positionally balanced team therefore not favouring any side or dominating certain areas of the pitch (thirds), their approach is well structured making them a strong reliable team.Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis

The balanced positional approach plays into the hands of the short possession-based style boasting 83% of all passes short, which increases player movement and angles to receive the ball.

This is coupled with offering width in attack and the objective to control the game in the opposition half, in essence falls into the formation choice with the 4-2-3-1 offering freedom for the WB’s to exploit high and wide giving the width with Sarr and Castillio pushing forward to form a front three, but still offering a defensive block with the 5-6-4-8.

How they attack: in possession style

The attacking style of Rennes has been analysed giving ideas of what Julien Stephan is expecting from his team, what are the main points for his team, which will then build an idea of his philosophy, initially we noticed three main focal points from the Rennes attack –

  • fullback’s look to hold a wide position (chalk on their boots) along with 7 and 11 with 4 looking to offer as an option to all players, playing as the (quarterback) – also splitting five and five in each half of the pitch, giving attacking balance but this is seen mainly from goal kicks.
  • short passes, looking to play through the thirds, causing movements “in” (shorter option) and “out” (longer option).
  • look to cross the ball from wide areas, looking at getting at least 3 players in the box.

    Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
    Example of fullbacks moving out wide while 4 drops into the hole to offer genuine passing angles

The width of the team creates space in order for the 4 to exploit and offer different passing angles which are short and realistic to succeed, this makes it easier for Rennes to break the defence and launch their attack, this requires players to understand their roles and responsibilities and ensure that they are offering genuine angles.

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
Passing lanes that are offered to the player in possession due to the width the team hold

The width offers genuine passing angles in order for a successful pass to a team mate, passing lanes are shown on the image which demonstrates that Rennes are trying to offer three outlets for the ball player, therefore building the attack from their defensive third and looking to progress through the thirds, in a controlled and balanced manner.

Another attacking objective mainly witnessed from the GK is to split the pitch five and five between both halves, Rennes play off a trigger from the defensive unit, which is based upon the press intensity or screening defensive block.

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
Nimes defensive block – triggers to drop to three at the back (blue circled players)

As above the opposition fall into the defensive block, this is where Rennes transition to three at the back and every other player drives into the opposition half, in order to manipulate the block with movements in – out, runs into the channels and overlapping and underlapping movements in order to confuse the defenders or cause them to make decisions.

The opportunity to cross the ball is present on the majority of the attacks in wide areas, Rennes look to get the ball into the box in order to further their chance of scoring, this is done with a trigger of where the ball is, the players position and opposition position, which then leads to at least three players making a run into the area.

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
First goal scored with a ball from the left of a 3 v 3 situation with three players moving into the box

The striker is already present in the area gaining a good position, pinning the CB. The weak side winger coming in at the back as the LB has tucked in and is also watching the ball, so leaves the RAM of Rennes as a genuine option, then a later run from 10-8 who ends up being the goal scorer, as no one picks his run up.

In conclusion 

Rennes look to build the play from the back, recycling the ball through midfield and look to play into wide areas. From there, the objective is to find a ball into the box to increase advanced area actions ultimately trying to get the ball in the back of the net.

In terms of structure, they maintain balanced and have a clear plan as a team, I feel that they may need more individual work and synergy giving players clearer objectives of what and when to complete certain football actions.

How they defend: out of possession style 

Rennes set up in a 4-2-3-1 but this can change when defending to a 4-4-2 offering balance across the pitch with players occupying all five channels of the pitch. In the defensive system, all teams look to stay compact and then adjust in relation to the ball; a lot of defensive systems rely on the ball pressure and work towards secondary cover and emergency defending, which is a tool from a coaching perspective.

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
Image looks at how Rennes press the ball and the system they use in order to do this.

The blue represents the pressing player normally the player closest to the ball and looks to close the space down and shadow the attacker, if possible you would recommend that the player closes the passing lane of the next best passing option.

Here we see a medium press where it is not very aggressive as the ball is within the attacker’s half so there is only a limited threat on goal.

The red player support is looking to close space down between himself and the pressing player to force closer in order to prevent a split pass (third line ball).

The yellow player offers cover although on the image hasn’t responded to the ball, would need to be in a position to pick up an attacker who would be looking to receive the split pass (third line ball). The defence working as a triangle (three) to regain possession of the ball.

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
The 4-4-2 system in action while Nimes build up play across the back

Here we see Rennes demonstrate their defensive structure while the attackers build the play up, the objective here is for the defence to remain compact. This varies per coach and would say this would be medium tightness in terms of compactness. The 4-4-2 system allows for the above to take place.

Rennes look to allow the attack to build up the play in their own half when the triggers dictate this will be covered within the philosophy and translated to the players for them to react within game situations, triggers to look out for usually consist of:

  • Attacking team are not organised/yet to transition into a shape that supports ball retention
  • Opponents condition for control are not present/yet to be created
  • Patterned traps set by the defence
  • Pressure in relation to risk

This gives further structure to the defensive set up and therefore aids player’s decision making when to press and when to screen the play.

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
A look at the defensive third structure.

The final third defending falls into a more structured and compact set up, protecting the danger zone (18-yard box). Rennes hold a good line maintaining their defence outside of the box and therefore squeezing the attack further with the GK holding on the six-yard box placing doubt into the attackers’ mind for a ball over the top.

From there players, in front of the defence have to be alert and pick up movement of attackers and pressure the ball accordingly along the passing lanes of the next option.

Rennes look to suffocate the play with a 5 v 4 (numerical advantage) scenario looking to gain possession of the ball.


If the triggers dictate, Rennes will implement a high press in order to gain possession in an attacking area. They screen play in a 4-4-2 and always look to offer press, support and cover on the ball, within the defensive third they hold a high line with the GK holding on the six-yard box for the ball over the top, and look to suffocate possession with numerical advantage in areas of the pitch in order to regain possession.

Julien Stephan’s transitional play

Rennes look for the counter as soon as possession is won by using 9 to hold a little higher in defence to offer the outlet for a ball to further break and stop the opposition getting back into shape, they then reactively support from the ball.

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
Counter attack launched by Rennes
Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
A good recovery from the defence, three players have committed forward in the counter-attack

A lot of counters are based on triggers, therefore, similar triggers to pressing are used in order to launch the counter and commit players forward.

Rennes look to commit at least three players forward on the counter, by using 9 as the outlet and then players supporting either side one forward, one behind and one at the side, in order to increase angles of support and passing lanes.

Attack to defence 

If the ball is within the final third, then Rennes are reluctant to press intensely and look to get into their organised 4-4-2 to become hard to break down. If the ball is lost in the middle or defensive third, there is more urgency from the pressing player to win possession back, this is due to the opposition progressing to an advanced area action.

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
Trigger of opposition gaining possession but Rennes in good defensive shape.

Trigger to press the opposition and try and win the ball higher up the pitch, presser goes to the ball, support player in position and cover player moving over, Rennes in this example using the touchline to help.

Julien Stephan Rennes FC 2018/19 Tactical Analysis
Lose Pressure Loser press to try and win the ball back.

In this instance, Rennes lost possession and commit one player to try and win possession back while the teammates drop back into their structure and become harder to breakdown.

Again this will work on triggers, which Rennes base on the number of players they have around the ball and a risk reward strategy on winning the ball back.

Final conclusion 

Although a sample of a few games is definitely too small to provide us with a clear estimation of the philosophical approach of Julien and Rennes and the quality of this up and coming coach, it does serve its purpose in giving us an insight into the approach that we can see Rennes and how they look to play under Julien.

The fact that Julien has done so much on such little time is already a great sign for Rennes. A philosophy implementation and a different style of play takes a lot of time for players to take in.

The football played currently by Rennes is balanced and the signs are promising for the future of Rennes and head coach Julien Stephan, we hope that we can see more signs of good fortune for the club and coach in the coming months and years.

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