Big things were expected of Rennes this season, but a poor start to the campaign has left the Breton side in a state of turmoil.
Young defender Joris Gnagnon, however, has offered a rare reason for positivity at Roazhon Park, where his contribution from the centre of the defence has played a key role in Christian Gourcuff’s side winning three matches in succession.
In these fixtures, they have kept clean sheets in Ligue 1 against Lille and last weekend against Montpellier — a side that had caused quite a stir by enjoying an unbeaten run that included fixtures against the top three from last term. And Gnagnon has starred.
For several months now, he has been considered the next gem to come through their famed youth academy, which has already wrought the likes of Abdoulaye Doucoure, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Ousmane Dembele over the course of just a few years.
Indeed, if that wasn’t pedigree enough for the 20-year-old centre-back, he was born and raised on the streets of Bondy, birthplace to one Kylian Mbappe.
But while Mbappe may have already exploded onto the Ligue 1 scene by the time he turned 18, Gnagnon was only just signing his first deal at Rennes, having spent much of his time instead playing with various amateur clubs around the Paris region.
That has not hampered his development, though, and he is now considered one of the top young defenders in Ligue 1, mentioned in the same breath as Paris Saint-Germain’s Presnel Kimpembe.
Gnagnon's attributes are actually remarkably similar to the France international.
“He puts his physique to good use, but he also reads the game well and his technique means he's capable of bringing the ball cleanly out of defence. For me, he's an ideal defender,” head coach Gourcuff explained earlier this year.
“He seized his chance when it came, he's improving all the time, and he has a big future.”
That future could have been at Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea approached him over a potential summer move. But the lure of the English champions was not enough to prise him away from Rennes, where player development is among the best in Europe. It is no coincidence that Ismaila Sarr chose to reject Barcelona for the switch to Rennes.
“He's very humble and has everything you need to succeed,” Gourcuff said of the Gnagnon’s attitude. “We've extended his contract, we know that he's the kind of player we need to keep if Rennes are to grow in the coming years.”
While Rennes may be toiling, Gnagnon is enjoying regular game time and his performances have not been greatly affected by his team’s slump. They are struggling in spite of his good performances, and the experience of playing for a struggling side can only be of benefit as his career develops.
So, although, he is currently slogging it out at the foot of Ligue 1, don’t be surprised to see Gnagnon at the top of the game in the very near future.