Unai Emery has won the competition three times as a manager while in charge of Sevilla, but he has a lot of work to do if he wants to win a fourth.
Arsenal raced into an early lead through Alex Iwobi, but a red card for Sokratis Papasathopolous on 41 minutes changed everything as Rennes immediately equalised.
The home side fought back in the second half, scoring two further goals to put Arsenal to the sword and inflict defeat on the Gunners for the first time on French soil.
It was a disastrous night for Arsenal in the end, and they have it all to do in the second leg next week.
Here’s five things we learned:
1. Iwobi is a key player for Unai Emery
In the three seasons he played under Arsene Wenger, Iwobi was in and out of the team and couldn’t stake a claim to be a regular starter. Under Emery, he is a permanent fixture in the Arsenal side and one of the managers’ most consistent performers.
Iwobi got Arsenal off to the perfect start, scoring after three minutes when his cross found its way into the Rennes goal. The Nigeria international was involved again soon afterwards when his cross from the left found Lucas Torreira who came close to doubling Arsenal’s lead after 11 minutes, his shot was well saved by Tomas Koubec in the Rennes goal.
Iwobi was heavily involved for Arsenal in the first half, and he’s been heavily involved for Arsenal all season. He has appeared in 36 of the Gunners’ 43 games so far this season, starting 27 of these matches. His pace, high stamina levels, willingness to chase back make him an ideal fit for Emery’s high-pressing game. Both Wenger and Emery have attempted to start Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang together, but the inclusion of Iwobi creates balance in Arsenal’s attack and adds cohesion to the system.
The role that Iwobi plays for Emery is similar to the one Vitolo played for him at Sevilla. Vitolo started each of the Sevilla’s Europa League finals between 2014 and 2016 on the left of a 4-2-3-1 formation which served well as they won the trophy three years running.
Iwobi came off after 52 minutes as Emery rearranged his team structure after going down to 10 men, but in the first half he was Arsenal’s bright spark.
2. A lack of discipline from Sokratis
In recent weeks, it looks as though Sokratis was playing a big part in Arsenal’s defensive revival. The Greek defender along with Laurent Koscielny have the makings of a solid pairing, and they were relatively untroubled in the first 40 minutes of their contest against Rennes until a moment of stupidity from Sokratis.
Having already received a yellow card, Sokratis dragged back Ismaila Sarr when Koscielny, his central defensive partner appeared to covering in behind. Two cheap yellow cards for the former Borussia Dortmund centre-half overshadowed an otherwise good and controlled fir half performance from Arsenal.
Within a minute of Arsenal going down to 10-men, Rennes levelled through a stunning strike from Benjamin Bourigeaud. His initial free-kick which came as a result of the Sokratis foul went straight into the wall, but when he got a second bite at the cherry he rifled the ball past Petr Cech. The red card certainly had an impact on Arsenal, it changed the whole complexion of the game and potentially the tie.
3. Rennes have pace in attack
Arsenal were control of the first half, enjoying most of the possession and playing the game largely at their own pace.
When Rennes won the ball back, though, they were quick to launch their own attacks, using the pace of Sarr and former Newcastle United man Hatem Ben Arfa. It was Rennes’ pace and counter-attacking abilities which earned Sokratis his two bookings, with Ben Arfa drawing the first foul from him and Sarr the second.
The pace of Sarr caused more problems in the second half, a player Arsenal couldn't handle.
The game is likely to follow a similar pattern to the first half in the second leg, and if Rennes can release Ben Arfa and Sarr they have the ability to cause the Gunners serious problems. Arsenal have been susceptible to the counter-attack against teams with pace in attack over the years. Rennes were another team who exposed Arsenal’s defensive weaknesses and hey have the potential and ability to do so again at the Emirates.
4. A game of two halves
The classic football chiche ‘a game of two halves’ certainly applied to Arsenal’s game in north-west France. A controlled first half away performance from Arsenal was followed by a barrage of Rennes attacks in the second.
In contrast to the first half where Arsenal dominated the ball, possession changed hands in the second half when Rennes, Clermont Grenier in particular, began to see more of the ball. They made their possession and extra man count on 65 minutes when a cross from Mehdi Zeffane took a wicked deflection off Nacho Monreal and found its way into the Gunners’ goal to give Rennes the lead.
Sarr doubled the hosts’ lead at the end, a goal which could prove vital in the outcome of the tie.
Monreal struggled to cope with the pace and directness of Sarr, and Bourigeaud had the beating of makeshift full-back Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the other side. It was a good second half performance from the home side, who take a crucial lead to North London next week.
It could have been more were it not for Petr Cech, who made two second half saves from Ben Arfa and one to deny Adrien Hunou.
5. A quiet night for Ozil and Aubameyang
Ozil has been largely out of favour under Emery this season, and he showed nothing in his display against Rennes to warrant a starting berth in Arsenal’s crunch game against Manchester United on Sunday afternoon. Aubameyang was equally as disappointing, he did little to trouble Rennes central defenders.
Both players were withdrawn for Aaron Ramsey and Saed Kolasinac on 69 and 78 minutes as Emery looked to keep the score at 2-1 ahead of a big night at the Emirates next Thursday. Lacazette returns from suspension in the competition next week, and Ramsey is likely to get the nod in attacking midfield in a game Arsenal must win to progress to the quarter-finals.
They have it all to do next week, and Emery will know that his side must play to a good level to stand a chance of going through. They overturned a deficit against BATE Borisov after defeat in Belarus in the first leg, but the game against Rennes will be more of a challenge against a side full of energy. Arsenal must score two goals without reply or win by three clear goals.
They’ll have a chance to do so if they keep 11 men on the pitch for 90 minutes.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies