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FRIDAY FEATURE: Why are Marseille flying high in Ligue 1? A major tactical breakdown:

After their early jitters, Marseille are the form team in Ligue 1, currently on a run of seven straight wins and five points clear at the top of the table. They have been resurrected by new boss Marcelo Bielsa, whose strict attention to detail and authoritative style have seen L’OM reap the rewards so far, playing some of the best football in France. So what has “El Loco” changed about Marseille that has made them so much more effective, especially considering that the basis of the squad remains the same from an abysmal 2013-2014 campaign?

Under Elie Baup, the team finished an impressive second in his first year but drifted significantly in during the subsequent campaign, in both seasons’ adopting a focus on a solid base in midfield, but struggling to find the correct attacking configuration to become the free-scoring side that they have become under their new coach. They rode their luck on occasions, sneaking wins with just a one-goal margin on eighteen occasions, but that luck eventually ran out as teams began to adopt a less conservative approach when playing Marseille, more confident of crafting attacks without feeling exposed at the back.

L’OM would usually set up with a 4-2-3-1 which appeared, on the face of it, as a safe setup that was essentially split into two. With a relatively flat back four and two holding midfielders installed, they would generally hold the fort barring the occasional foray forward from the full-backs, but the attacking quartet was usually left to attack together. However, following considerable investment in the summer of 2013 and with the club being 13 points adrift of PSG, Baup was fired and the then Sporting Director Jose Anigo was installed in the interim leading up to the culmination of the 2013-14 campaign. The club would only go on to win two games in a row once for the rest of the season and Anigo, almost like a kid in a sweetie shop, began a series of repeatedly catastrophic tactical tinkering sessions in which he played around with different formations so often that Marseille no longer possessed a footballing identity.

The defence that stood so strong the season before was utterly short of confidence; they managed just four clean sheets in 22 games under Anigo and would only win eight games in that very time period. They were far more adventurous going forward but that was due to the fact that they were often chasing score-lines for the vast majority of their fixtures. Gone were the days of the tepid 1-0 conquests under Baup. Transfers that Jose Anigo had orchestrated, like those of Dimitri Payet, Saber Khalifa and Florian Thauvin struggled to make an impact, often at all, with Thauvin looking perhaps the most promising.

Speculation of Bielsa’s possible arrival began to foment at the end of the season, but the rumour really became a possibility after he attended OM’s league fixture against Montpellier, spelling the inevitable and self-accepted end to Anigo’s end as boss. The fans had turned on him quickly, his antics had ultimately failed to change what mattered: league position. Fresh ideas plucked from thin air were no longer helpful nor necessary, a coherent philosophy and style was what L’OM needed to take themselves forward and to re-identify themselves as the self-proclaimed “Big Club” in France.

Low and behold, a distinctive Argentine famed for his tactical individuality and with a proven track record at Athletic Bilbao and Chile. Bielsa had every intention of implementing an exciting brand of football on this squad of players and Marseille have certainly been playing far more in their opponents’ halves than over the course of the previous two seasons. In defence, Bielsa has been happy to concede slight slips of concentration in this early stage of the project so long as this has been coupled by a professional and vast work ethic. Jeremy Morel’s resurgence is a prime example of that.

High pressing has been installed and the squad is in far better physical shape than it has been previously. Winning the ball higher up the field usually catches the opponent out of position and some of Ligue 1’s younger or less talented players have fallen foul to Marseille’s counter-attacking efficacy. Bielsa prefers to play with three central defenders, a holding midfielder who can drop back when needed, two out-and-out wingbacks, a more creative midfielder behind three attack-minded players.

That’s the system that he chose to deploy in his first few games in charge but much like Marseille has had to adapt to Bielsa, El Loco has had to adapt to the players at his disposal at L’OM. It became quickly obvious that the team lacked the necessary the strength in depth in the central defensive position, and, frankly, the required quality for such a formation to have a consistent and lasting success. This combined with some undoubtedly culture-shock related early season injuries forced Bielsa to return to a more familiar formation. One must devote considerable praise to Bielsa for his open-mindedness and tactical intelligence in accepting early on that his initial system was simply not going to be successful when taking into account the characters at his disposal. One only has to look at Manchester United’s van Gaal who persisted for far longer with a central defensive trifecta. 

However, with the ideas that Bielsa has brought to the table, the outfit are playing much more attractive football which is lighting up the now completed Stade Velodrome on a bi-weekly basis. They have scored 23 goals so far this season, eight more than anyone else in the division, whilst only conceding three since their poor start of conceding five times when deploying a back three.

The confidence he has instilled in his players to consistently push forward in order to be dangerous but also dominate more unequivocally is statistically evident, with OM in control of the ball as much time in the defensive third, at 28%, as they are in the attacking third. That intent seems to have surprised some teams in Ligue 1 who prefer a lower-tempo event and the in-your-face attitude brought by the South Coast side has led Marseille to simply crush the league’s weaker teams who struggle to contain their aggressively attacking intent. This tactic is apparent in the mentality that Bielsa has seemingly installed in his players: there is a far more “envie”, as the French would say, in the eyes of the most crucial members of the squad. A hunger to succeed now exists in a team who finally have faith in their manager.

On a more individualistic level, the changes have positively affected the form of several of the Marseille contingent and that is no more evident than in the case of Andre-Pierre Gignac. He has been nothing short of outstanding so far this season, scoring nine goals with 3.9 shots per game with 58% of his attempts on target. He is currently scoring a little over a goal a game and has taken the added responsibility of the fulcrum of the attack in his stride. He is now dependable; the man who adds a finish to their newfound attacking edge and his contributions have either catalysed their excellent run or typified it- the answer frankly remains unclear because of the relatively early stage of the season that we currently find ourselves in.

Other players have shown vast improvements as well. Dimitri Payet looks like the player that the club bought from Lille even whilst playing in a central role and gives the team more offensive options than ever. Giannelli Imbula looks much more settled, and has shown his capabilities both as a holding player and as a marauding attacking force with a lethal shot. Jeremy Morel, who was seen as disposable during the summer, has really reinvented himself to the point where it will be difficult to oust him from his new centre-back position.

It could however be argued that some players are still adapting to the new playing style and are yet to shine quite as brightly as they might have done. It could be that the surrounding attacking players are simply carrying themselves in a more resourceful way but Florian Thauvin has yet to hit the heights of last season where at times he looked like the team’s best player. He is getting plenty of opportunities but is lacking the finishing touches, both in terms of carving out dangerous crosses and in front of goal. Super-sub Romain Alessandrini must be wondering what more he will have to do to convince Bielsa that he deserves a starting spot instead.

In all, it has been a fantastic start, and the aforementioned alterations have elevated this team to another level but whether they can maintain that success is another question entirely. Marcelo Bielsa’s high-pressing style demands a lot from his players and whilst the team do not have the extra distraction of European football to contend with this season, it is difficult to imagine that this brutal dominance can last forever, at least in its current form. Bielsa’s demands have previously taken their toll on a club in the long run but the fundamental foundations laid down by the Argentine provide the squad with the necessary infrastructure to excel and that is not to say that Bielsa cannot gently adapt his style to help conserve his team’s energy during the long season.

This dominance is also looking more impressive because of the weaker performances from the big teams around them, with both Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco showing indifferent form and other than the other surprise team so far in Bordeaux, L’OM have little competition at the top. They have also had a soft early schedule, having played just one team currently sitting in the top eight, a team they actually lost to in the form of Montpellier, so it could be argued that their success is inflated by the calibre of opponents they are facing.

The real big tests will come over the next month as games against Toulouse, Lyon, PSG and Bordeaux will give us a clearer picture as to whether this team is as good as they have shown in the early stages of the Ligue 1 season. There is no doubt that they have been terrific so far and they have a real chance of competing with Les Parisiens for that coveted title. PSG have had some considerable blips and suffered from a bad World Cup hangover. The ball is now in PSG’s court to match Marseille, a dynamic few expected at the start of the season.

Even if they finish second, then the first stage of Bielsa’s job will be complete in terms of getting Marseille back into the Champions League. With some investment, a bigger squad and the progression of the young players that are currently at his disposal, they could even become a force in France again but while nobody can deny how impressive their start has been, we are merely talking about a snapshot in time. League titles are never won in two months, let alone in 90 minutes.

N.S. with C.N.

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