After the departure of Ousmane Dembélé last summer, fans of Stade Rennais were left wondering who would be next hotshot along the conveyor belt from ‘la Piverdière’ training centre.
Defender Joris Gnagnon answered that call, as he went on to have a fantastic breakthrough season with les Rouges et Noirs, cementing his starting spot at centre back and pledging his national allegiance to the Ivory Coast.
The 20-year-old was born in Bondy, France, and played on and off for two clubs throughout his youth before committing his early future to the Rennes youth team in 2014. After graduating from Rennes’ academy system, his first team debut came in January 2016, starting an entire match against Troyes at a time when Rennes were flying near the top of Ligue 1 under Philippe Montanier. Future appearances were limited that season, but the promising stopper got his occasional chance as Rennes appointed Rolland Courbis as the new manager towards the end of the season.
After just a few months in Ligue 1, he earned his first international call-up with France’s U20 team in March, but chose to play for Ivory Coast at the senior level this summer instead of trying his luck for Les Bleus.
According to Léo Domenech, a French Rennes fan, “He defends while standing on his feet and doesn’t lose many challenges. He’s not extraordinary at passing but clean enough so that it isn’t a problem.”
What is most notable is that his size isn’t the most conventional for a centre back, as he young Ivorian just stands at six foot tall. However, what he lacks in height, he certainly makes up for in upper body strength and athleticism, which he uses expertly to shield opponents off the ball and compete for headers. He wins the majority of his aerial duels, and while he struggles with positioning from time to time, these casual can be rectified with time.
After impressing in a league cup victory against Lorient, Gnagnon became a permanent fixture in the line-up, establishing his solid reputation with the Rennes faithful.
His stand out moment for Rennes last season was a late goal at home against rivals Nantes in the Brittany Derby, tying the game at 1-1 and preserving a seven-game unbeaten run.
Gnagnon times his tackles with flawless accuracy, and his drill and determination to track back allow him to win the ball back at the final second. Unfortunately, Joris hasn’t been able to form a stable partnership with Rennes, as Pedro Mendes, Mexer and Ramy Bensebaini have all played alongside him in the past 12 months.
A player that I would compare him to is Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk. Like the Dutch international, Gnagnon has an air of confidence about him and doesn’t seem fazed by the big occasions. For the prices quoted for the experienced van Dijk, Gnagnon would be a steal for any Premier League club – but that’s not to say the Rennes man will come cheap, with Sevilla having a reported 10 million euros bid rejected in January. Where van Dijk was in front of the set-pieces at Celtic, Gnagnon is definitely a target behind them, as he is a prime target for balls into the box.
Furthermore, Gnagnon is similar to Tottenham’s Victor Wanyama in terms of how he shields the ball, using his upper body strength to shove off opponents.
Still, Gnagnon is still far from the finished product, and he would be wise to hone his skills at Rennes for another season, so when he does make the move to a bigger club, he’ll be more prepared and Stade Rennais will receive a higher fee.
“He’s still prone to the odd error, like any professional footballer, but he’s grounded enough to know he is still developing as a player,” according to British Rennes fan John Gray. “It is in his best interests to continue his development at Roazhon Park for the forthcoming season, at least, before he can harbour dreams of landing a big-money move to a world-class club.”
Rennes staff have stated that he will not be sold, but as we know, every player has their price. This time, if Gnagnon does leave, Rennes fans will hope for a better price than what the club got for Dembélé (15 million euros plus add-ons) as they’ve watched him progress seamlessly at a massive club in Borussia Dortmund.
Gnagnon just made 28 appearances for Rennes last season, but with a starting spot and the faith of the fanbase under his belt, he will surely play an even greater role this season. With Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré in their twilight years, he has the potential to be the leader of Ivory Coast’s next generation. Whether he does stay at Rennes or not, Joris Gnagnon can become one of the finest defenders of his era.
By: Connor Gordon/@ConnorGordonn1