Mohammed Ali writes about the enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa’s first season in Ligue 1 and why Marseille must try to hold on to him.
After the desperately disappointing 2013-14 season which saw Olympique de Marseille miss out on Europe for the first time in a decade, eyes were turned to incoming coach Marcelo Bielsa with heavy anticipation and excitement. Just what would this crazy, famous coach achieve with this crazy, famous club?
“A cultural revolution”, was what beaming president Vincent Labrune stated, once the announcement of the arrival of the Argentine coach was officialised. Given the bleak, mundane and stale ending to the season under Jose Anigo, what Marseille really wanted from the 59-year-old, was to shake things up from top to bottom.
That was to be expected, but no one really bet on Bielsa hitting the ground running, just days after the end of the 2013-14 campaign. A testament to the coach, with his insane attention to detail and meticulous planning. No time for resting, or to acclimatise.
Indeed, with the Argentine’s entourage of coaching staff – one member, Diego Reyes, had already begun laying the foundations with the youth team in the last week of May. The 2014-15 season officially began for Marseille in the second week of June, just days after the start of the World Cup. Bielsa was here, and he had work to do.
Of course, the former Bilbao coach had come prepared. It was reported that he had watched every Marseille fixture of the season three times, and already knew what to expect. Things didn’t go all to plan – the futures of Lucas Mendes, Mathieu Valbuena et al, were in the air. And then was the issue of their replacements.
But like a consummate professional, Bielsa was keen to not let things get in the way of his grand plan down on the Canebiere. The club’s social media platforms regularly updated fans with videos of key players out of breath, and going through excruciating drills throughout the heavy summer. There were no pre-season tours, or showy friendlies. Much of the gruelling work was done at home.
It was a stark change to the previous season, where players were seen as lethargic and complacent. Not taking training seriously, and even defying coaches. The OM fans were pleased. The players were made to work for their hefty salaries. It was the beginning of Bielsa being endeared to the Marseillais. And it didn’t stop.
OM hit the ground running. Eight wins in eight, and playing scintillating football. The club were playing some of the best football on the continent. And the plaudits flew in for the coach from all corners. By Christmas, Marseille were top, though looking a little shaky. With the absence of European football, Bielsa’s task was made easier in making his side fresh for one game a week.
Questions remained from cynics: Would Marseille sustain themselves in the title race? The first half of 2015 posed questions for the coach’s methods. The stubbornness when it came to tactics, the continuation of playing the underwhelming Florian Thauvin, and OM’s growing ineptitude at the back.
Bielsa took the hits of course. Never admonishing his players in public, and taking full blame for each and every defeat. Not once did the fans turn against him. Marseille’s season unravelled in April, where four consecutive defeats not only put paid to a surprising title race, but as it turned out last weekend, to a place in the Champions League.
Some may put the blame at Bielsa’s door – something that the heralded coach would not mind. El Loco believes squarely in defending his team at all times. But those defeats pointed to the side’s mental frailties, the starting eleven’s failure in remaining concentrated and focused, even when the tide turned against them.
Some may draw parallels to Bielsa’s second season in Bilbao, where the coach oversaw a sharp deteroriation in the club’s fortunes. But like in Spain, Bielsa was not helped by the playing staff’s lack of focus and belief. As Marseille floundered against the likes of Lyon, Paris, Nantes, Bordeaux and spectacularly against FC Lorient (3-5) – it was difficult to place the blame at the coach.
Indeed, the players & fans believe the same. During that run, Andre Ayew lamented his colleagues’ ability to translate the coach’s instructions on the field. Dimitri Payet, the club’s best player believed that Marseille were failing their coach, not the other way around. Routinely, even during the low points of the season, the fans remained behind the coach.
The hashtag #BielsaNoSeVa trended continuously on Twitter. Each home game was met by some appreciation of the coach by the fans in the Stade Velodrome’s northern and southern ends. And indeed, once Marseille rallied to finish the season strongly (four wins, including thumping victories – as well as a thrilling defeat of Monaco) – Bielsa was acclaimed again.
Nicolas N’Koulou opined that the Argentine coach revolutionised the club. Each player put on record their wish that the coach would remain at least for another season. So did president Labrune, who was keen to continue the project started – Champions League or otherwise.
Bielsa himself has so far not made any indication that he will quit the hot seat this summer. Following the final game of the season, the coach took stock – praising France for Ligue 1, and his players for a tumultuous season. One thing could not be denied – Marseille may have fallen short on their aims, but the fans were continually entertained throughout.
The tendency is that Bielsa will remain for another season, as the club prepares another summer of upheaval with the departure of key players. No one will be more suited to the challenge than the Argentine. Gone are the days of profligate finishing, and turgid fixtures. Banished were the memories of negativity that plagued Elie Baup and Jose Anigo. Marseille are not a finished article yet, but they are a club on the ascendancy with exciting players and a brand of football to match.
It was a fantastic season from start to finish. And I for one sincerely hope 2015-16 will be the same with Bielsa at the helm.