By appointing a bright young coach and developing exceptional talents like Eduardo Camavinga, Champions League-bound Rennes are setting an example for other Ligue 1 Conforama clubs to follow, writes Matthew Spiro.
At this moment it is difficult to imagine what the 2020-21 Ligue 1 season will look like. Such is the uncertainty created by COVID-19, not just in France but around the world, it is not yet possible to know when the new campaign will commence, whether supporters will be allowed into stadiums at any point, and what sort of a state the clubs will be in.
There is still hope that Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyonnais will be able to continue their respective Champions League campaigns. Both are in strong positions – with PSG having brilliantly progressed to the quarter-finals and Lyon boasting a one-goal advantage over Juventus in their Round of 16 tie – and before the pandemic kicked in, there was a sense that France had a genuine chance to claim its second continental crown. The side from the capital, in particular, appeared to have a strong case.
Now, though, thoughts have drifted to far more morose, serious matters. The priority for fans and players alike is that their loved ones get through these difficult times. For the football family, our collective wish to see the sport resist the financial strain that this enforced break is causing and for every single club to live to fight another day.
Although we only witnessed 28 matchdays, PSG were worthy winners of the Ligue 1 Conforama title – the ninth of their history – but Thomas Tuchel's charges were made to fight for the club's seventh crown in eight seasons. The emergence of Rennes and Marseille were two of the feelgood stories of last season, and those two combative sides created extra competition for the champions – on top of that provided by more traditional title rivals Lyon and Monaco.
The prolonged interruption gives clubs the opportunity to take stock. Interestingly, Rennes are busy restructuring: the Breton side have a new president at the helm in Nicolas Holveck – the former director general at Monaco – and reports suggest Lyon's head of recruitment Florian Maurice will soon make the switch to Roazhon Park too. Coupe de France winners in 2019, Les Rouge et Noir have now qualified for the Champions League for the first time courtesy of a third-placed finish.
In many ways, Rennes are setting an example for the other clubs, behind PSG, to follow. They have appointed one of the youngest – but crucially also one of the brightest – trainers in Europe in Julien Stéphan. The 39-year-old did not always see eye to eye with the former president Olivier Létang, but Rennes fans will be relieved that their coach was ultimately the one who stayed on. With Stéphan at the helm, and with a host of exciting kids breaking through, the future looks extremely bright in Brittany.
Rennes have been outstanding at developing talent for years, notably bringing through Sylvain Wiltord, Yoann Gourcuff and Ousmane Dembélé, yet Eduardo Camavinga looks like he will be the best of the lot. The exceptionally strong, mature, gifted 17-year-old midfielder leads the current generation, with Faitout Maouassa, 21, also impressing at left-back and another teenage midfielder, Yann Gboho, knocking on the door.
Lately Rennes have allied youth development with shrewd recruitment. For a club of their size, the signings of Mbaye Niang (€15m) and Raphinha (€21m) were massive outlays. But both transfers are paying off. Senegal striker Niang enjoyed a fine season and Brazilian forward Raphinha, after a slow start, has begun showing his ability and looks like he could emerge as one of the stars of Ligue 1 Conforama next term.
The challenge now will be to hold on to Camavinga amid growing speculation that Real Madrid are ready to spend big on him. The prospect of Champions League football may well convince the precocious France Under-21 international to stay put – and all Ligue 1 Conforama fans will certainly hope to see more of him. If Rennes keep Camavinga and make a couple more good signings, then they could become a fixture in France's top three.
But whether or not clubs will be in a position to spend money on new players when the next transfer window opens is another matter entirely. French teams have always had to be clever in order to compete with wealthier clubs from England and Spain, and that will be the case more than ever before when the financial consequences of the current crisis kick in. Indeed, big-money transfers may well be a thing of the past.
Luckily, Ligue 1 Conforama clubs are already very good at finding and developing young talent. They might have to get even better at it. Nurturing gems through the academy and scouring the world for exciting, hidden talents will surely be the blueprint going forward. And right now Rennes are the team setting the standards in that respect.