Rennes making a striking impression
Sir Alf Ramsey's use of the 'wingless wonders' was a revolutionary tactical innovation that won England the World Cup in 1966. The Ligue 1 title may not quite hold the same cachet as football's biggest prize, but if Rennes succeed in being crowned champions of France without any strikers, it may just knock Sir Alf's achievement into a cocked beret.
The homely club from Brittany lined up at Lens recently without an established forward, earning themselves a goalless draw that took them two points clear at the top of the table, a position they last enjoyed some 40 years ago. A similarly toothless line-up suffered a first defeat of the season at home to Montpellier this weekend to see their lead halved, but realistic ambitions remain of the club staking a claim for their first-ever Ligue 1 title.
With the French league renowned as being one of Europe's most defensive, the move could be seen as the logical progression of the competition's trademark tactics. However, despite coach Frederic Antonetti being one of France's most flamboyant tacticians, the outspoken Corsican cannot really claim credit for the bizarre situation, which has left his team looking as fearsome as a handbag-wielding granny.
As ever, the lustre of lucre has played a major role. Starting the season with Ghana's World Cup star Asamoah Gyan, plus the talented but temperamental Guinean Ismael Bangoura, and having poached Victor Hugo Montano from Montpellier (where the Colombian starred along his club's way to a surprise fifth-place finish last season), Rennes arguably had Ligue 1's best attacking line-up.
The departures of Jimmy Briand for Lyon and Moussa Sow for Lille certainly appeared to have been more than compensated for. But fast forward a couple of months, add in hefty cheques from Sunderland for Gyan and the United Arab Emirates for Bangoura, as well as an untimely hamstring injury to Montano, and Antonetti is - ironically in a country paralysed by industrial action - without a striker.
"Rennes is a good French club, but there are four or five clubs ahead of us because they have more money. Our budget doesn't allow us to keep our players," said the former Saint-Etienne and Nice boss, who steered his side to ninth last season, a position almost on a par with their budget which is the eighth-biggest in Ligue 1. "Rennes' results are in spite of rather than because of their means. Rennes is an average club. We need more financial muscle."
The situation is all the more bizarre given the club is the play-thing of Francois Pinault, a Brittany-born self-made billionaire who weighs in as the 77th richest man in the world with a healthy bank balance of €6.2 billion - or almost 66 Cristiano Ronaldos.
That sort of cash could not only buy Rennes the Ligue 1 title, but establish them as one of Europe's leading clubs. However, Pinault is Breton through and through, unfussy and cautious. You don't go from rags to riches like he has without taking care of your pennies so the pounds - or rather francs and now euros in Pinault's case - take care of themselves.
This iron grip on the club's purse strings has meant Rennes have built a reputation as a selling club, but - as Pinault understands only too well - people will only buy something they want. His parsimonious distribution of his vast wealth means his club have had to work hard to remain competitive, developing a scouting network and youth academy the envy of the lazier, 'just-throw-money-at-it' bigger names such as Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille.
Mikael Silvestre, Ousmane Dabo and Yoann Gourcuff have been guided through the Rennes ranks to greater things, while Petr Cech, Andreas Isaksson, John Utaka, Stephane Mbia, John Mensah and Kim Kallstrom have all used the Stade de la Route de Lorient as a springboard.
The current squad at Antonetti's disposal also boasts promise. Sylvain Marveaux has been out of form this season, but is one of the division's most exciting wide men on his day, while 20-year-old midfield enforcer Yann M'Vila underpins Laurent Blanc's newly-modelled French side. The summer departures of USA captain Carlos Bocanegra and Sweden international Petter Hansson have done little to undermine the side's defensive strength with up-and-coming duo Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik and Kevin Theophile-Catherine helping make Rennes the second-tightest back four in France after ten games this season.
That burgeoning talent, blended with the experience of Jerome Leroy and Stephane Dalmat as well as solid 'keeper Nicolas Douchez, means Antonetti insists he can challenge for the title if: "I'm left with the current team for two years with just some minor adjustments". It seems he may now just about get his wish.
"It's not a problem of how we do things; it's a problem of budget. It's almost an obligation to sell, not to swell the coffers, but to reinvest," stated sporting director Pierre Dreossi, who in his interim spell as coach took Rennes within seconds of Champions League football for the first time on the final day of the 2006-07 season. "But for the likes of the Briands, Gourcuffs and Kallstroms, who left young, it would be good to keep them not ten years, but just a season longer."
The acid test of Rennes' staying power starts this weekend when they visit champions Marseille at the start of a three-game run that sees them bump up against last season's top three.
Truth be told, no one really expects Rennes to be crowned Ligue 1 champions next May. However, the team leading the table after eight games in the last 20 seasons has always finished in the top three. That would already represent the club's best-ever season, and if Monsieur Pinault can be convinced to delve into his bulging wallet to add options up front, and talent-poachers and their chequebooks can be resisted a little longer, perhaps Antonetti will have an opportunity to fulfil his promise come 2012.