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Forget Marcelo Bielsa, why the future remains bright for Marseille (Talking Points: Week 1)

Eric Devin returns with his Ligue 1 Talking Points column after the first weekend of French top flight action took place.

It is never fun to lose one’s home opener, something that hurts double if one is one of France’s biggest clubs and one’s guests are one of last year’s strugglers who have had important parts of their team shorn away. It doesn’t matter if one has lost what were arguably one’s four best players last year, or that one’s team’s centre back pairing on the evening are both only 20 years of age, if one is a true fan, one wants to taste victory no matter the cost.  

Understanding all of this, one can thus come to comprehend the ire at the Velodrome this last Saturday night. Facing a Caen side without the influential N’Golo Kante, Thomas Lemar or loanee striker Emiliano Sala, expectations were high, especially with the prospect of another season with Marcelo Bielsa at the helm.

The losses of Dimitri Payet, Andre Ayew, Gianelli Imbula and Andre-Pierre Gignac would sting, but there seemed to be ready-made replacements for all of them. Abdelaziz Barrada would be a natural replacement for Payet, Florian Thauvin could be a more natural fit on the left, and Michy Batshuayi had showed himself to be on the brink of greatness. That was the company line, anyway.

Despite all of the aforementioned three having solid matches, defensive midfield is where Marseille suffered the most, allowing a Caen team not necessarily blessed with pace to over-run them at every opportunity. With Marcelo Bielsa playing in his favoured 4-2-3-1, Mario Lemina and Alaixys Romao took up the defensive midfield roles, Lemina playing slightly ahead of the Togolese.  

Last season, Lemina was to Marseille what Phil Jones has been to Manchester United. Playing at right back, in defensive midfield or wherever “El Loco” desired his services, the youngster’s versatility was key to Marseille being able to pick a cohesive starting eleven on more than one occasion, especially with Nicolas N’Koulou missing large swathes of the season due to injury.

Lemina had a decent enough match, but Romao was perhaps the poorest performer for Marseille. Normally a reliable, almost metronomic presence at the base of midfield, his passing was poor, and his tackling even more so.

Set to turn 32 before the season’s end, Romao looked direly off the pace, and certainly not a player fit to push for the Champions’ League places as the club had last year. With Abou Diaby and Lass Diarra waiting in the wings, the hope is that one or the other of these two vastly, experienced former internationals be match-fit to play alongside Lemina sooner rather than later. 

While it may see a bit strange to hammer Marseille’s defensive midfield so much, particularly as they failed to score, there is indeed a logic to my point here. Marseille are not going to be title challengers, or likely even the Champions’ League challengers of last year, but they do boast an extremely young squad that is filled with a plethora of young, exciting, players.

Brice Dja Djedje was the oldest of the back four this past Saturday, bt besides Delort’s goal, Steve Mandanda had relatively little to do. Both new signing Karim Rekik and Stephane Sparagna look accomplished in the tackle and with the ball at their feet, able to dribble forward from central defence if needs be.

Further forward, Batshuayi was unlucky not to have scored at least once, Florian Thauvin turned in an uncharacteristically gritty performance and Barrada did his best Dimitri Payet impression, showing a willingness not only to pass but to take on a shot when need be. While Romain Alessandrini didn’t have his best showing, his replacement, Lucas Ocampos, now a permanent signing after being on loan for Monaco last season, did quite well in his stead. I could go on, but my point has hopefully been made by now. 

Despite the disappointment of this result, with the exception of defensive midfield, Marseille are young, dynamic and have a potential-filled squad. If the defensive midfield ever does get sussed out, these youngsters have every chance to coalesce as Lyon’s did over the past few seasons, re-forging Les Phoceens into a title contender.

While his unstable contract situation is more likely to blame than the talent available to him, for Bielsa to leave so much on the table in terms of young talent is really a surprise, given the Argentine’s reputation for developing youth.

Whether interim manager Franck Passi receives the job full time, or another, bigger name comes to take Bielsa’s place, the cupboard is far from bare, and should the next manager place his faith in youth, he could be rewarded beyond what most would have expected in the aftermath of “El Loco’s” departure. 

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