Rennes Star Paul-Georges Ntep Shows His Quality Against Toulouse

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Prior to Round 14 of Ligue 1, Rennes weren’t exactly developing a reputation as fast starters. Their earliest goal had only arrived in the 21st minute, and they had needed to wait until Round 13 before Giovanni Sio scored it against Angers. In fact, they were one of only two teams, along with Lille, who had not scored a goal within the opening 20 minutes of a league match this season. So when Yoann Gourcuff netted in the first minute of Rennes’ Round 14 clash against Toulouse, courtesy of a neat strike with the outside of his right boot, it might’ve come as something of a surprise. The name of the man who assisted the goal, however, wouldn’t have.

After a long switch of play from the right-hand side, Paul-Georges Ntep received possession. He then casually dribbled the ball forward, cut inside and had time to calmly assess his options. He soon spotted Gourcuff hovering on the shoulder of the last defender, and when Toulouse defender Steeve Yago made the slightly strange decision to step out from the back line, Ntep saw his chance. He slid a rapid pass into the feet of Gourcuff, who was now in behind the opposition defence. The talented journeyman found himself one-on-one with the 17-year-old goalkeeper Alban Lafont, and with a sharp little strike to send the ball between the legs of Lafont, Rennes were ahead.

Ntep’s assist was his fifth of the Ligue 1 season so far, a figure so good it places him second in the league, alongside Angel di Maria and behind only Nice’s Jean Michael Seri. This kind of passing has been his key contribution to the campaign, and when viewed in combination with his tricky dribbling and searing pace, it makes him a dangerous proposition from the left wing.

His coach, Christian Gourcuff, is acutely aware of this, so he tries to maximise Ntep’s qualities by getting him out into space. The quick switch of play illustrated above, to the touchline-hugging Ntep, is one way in which Rennes do this, but they also like to use his speed to get in behind. You only need to look at the chance he created for Adrien Hunou in the first half against Toulouse for an example of this. The move started with Ntep dropping deep to receive a short ball near the halfway line, after which he gently pushed the ball back to Ludovic Baal. Then, as Baal tracked down the pass, Ntep took off.

His speed carried him way beyond his marker, Somalia, so much so that all the Toulouse fullback could do was watch Ntep tear along the touchline. Baal kept up his end of the bargain, delivering a pinpoint through ball into the young Frenchman’s path. Ntep then followed up with an excellent piece of distribution of his own, but despite an excellent cross from the left, Hunou could do little more than volley a weak effort at goal.

While the result may not have been exactly what Rennes wanted, the sequence nonetheless highlighted the way in which the team tried to get Ntep into space. Initially, the club’s coaching staff likes him to drop short during build-up play, either wide to the touchline or into a more central position, before asking him to look for an opportunity to dart in behind. The thought process here is sound, as when Ntep is followed into a deeper position by his direct opponent, he almost always has the wheels to beat them for speed once he spins in behind. The move described above highlights this nicely, and in the second half, a similar passage of play nearly allowed Rennes to double their lead.

Again, things kicked off with Ntep drifting away from the frontline. He floated into a deep left-of-centre position, so deep, in fact, that his starting spot was well within his own half. Next up, Ntep waited for his teammates to circulate possession, and having drawn Somalia, Toulouse’s right-back, all the way into midfield along with him, he sensed the moment. He weaved around Somalia, leaving the Brazilian looking like a statue, before charging towards Toulouse’s central defensive duo. At the same time, teenage Rennes defender Joris Gnagnon launched a long ball, and after outpacing Yago, Ntep latched onto it. He turned on the afterburners to make his way into the area, but despite opening up his body nicely to shoot towards the far post, Lafont was up to the challenge.

Again no goal, but this, in many ways, was Ntep at his best. He is a player who likes to use that combination of speed, dribbling and power to wreak havoc, and when you consider how well he uses the ball – he picked up another five key passes against Toulouse – it’s no wonder that Rennes try to generate as many opportunities as possible for him to receive the ball in space. Granted, the missed finish signifies an area of Ntep’s game that he can improve upon, as he hasn’t yet hit the back of the net this season, but his nine-goal campaign back in 2014/15 proves that he has goalscoring potential.

Throw in the fact that he missed much of last season with injury, only starting 11 games in the league and coming on three times as a substitute, and it’s clear that he is a player on the rise. Not only that, but he is also trying to deliver upon his top-end talent, the kind of talent that has seen club such as Liverpool and Arsenal linked with him in recent times.

At 24, the France international may feel he is ready for a move. His current contract expires at the end of this term, and now that he’s playing regularly and producing on the pitch, it’s entirely possible that he may opt for a transfer, even as early as January. As it stands, though, Ntep needs to continue to build momentum, and if he can do it, he might just be poised to announce himself, in a big way, to the broader European football market.