TALKING POINTS: Week 31: Marcelo Bielsa’s 3-3-3-1 might have blown the title for Marseille

Eric Devin returns after an international break with his round of Ligue 1 Talking Points.

The hallmark of Marcelo Bielsa’s tactical approach is inarguably his pressing style, something to which he adheres without fail. However, he has, due to injury and suspension this season, been forced to add a couple wrinkles to it on occasion, at least as regards formation. With a fully fit squad, Marseille would line up in a 4-2-3-1, freeing the full-backs to get forward by allowing the defensive midfielders (Gianelli Imbula and Alaixys Romao when fit) to drop back and aid the centre backs.

However, with Andre Ayew missing a large chunk of time due to the Africa Cup of Nations and Nicolas N’Koulou having missed most of the last three months due to the same competition and a subsequent knee injury, the manager has been forced to adapt. While placing trust in young centre backs has worked out well for other contenders Lyon (Samuel Umtiti) and PSG (Marquinhos), Bielsa has wanted no such part of a youthful back line. Even in the Cameroonian’s absence, French U-21 international Baptiste Aloe has been limited to a handful of appearances and equally promising Brazilian youngster Doria has been loaned to Sao Paulo for the duration of the season.  

Absent a natural centre back that had his confidence, but still wanting to use the attacking full backs Brice Dja Djedje and Benjamin Mendy, Bielsa has instead often adopted a 3-3-3-1, with converted full backs Jeremy Morel and Rod Fanni as part of the back line alongside Romao. In this formation, Imbula operates as a lone holding midfielder, with Mendy and Dja Djedje playing as wing backs, the front four unchanged.

The general level of success that Marseille have had with this makeshift formation is poor indeed, recording only fifteen points in ten matches, as opposed to 42 in 21 with the preferred 4-2-3-1. While nothing is inherently wrong with playing three at the back, as Pep Guardiola has demonstrated in recent years, it is a formation that requires quite a bit of industry from not only the wing backs but also from the holding midfielder, who essentially becomes a central defender when his side are without the ball.  

While still relatively young, Gianelli Imbula has done fairly well in this role, but owing to his suspension due to yellow card accumulation, he was unavailable for yesterday’s match, and his absence was sorely felt. Mario Lemina attempted to deputise, but his poor communication repeatedly led to PSG being able to play the ball over the top or make runs in behind, with Morel and Fanni frequently at sea. While Dimitri Payet has aided in tracking back at times in this formation, with OM chasing the game, his ability to do so was limited and with Mendy and Dja Djedje tiring, it was only down to a lack of clinical finishing that PSG were unable to come out winners by a more convincing score.  

While N’Koulou appears to have recovered and may be available as soon as this weekend’s match against Bordeaux, what Mendy and Dja Djedje offer in attack is too easily nullified by how open playing with three at the back leaves Les Phoceens. If Marseille are to continue challenging for the top three, playing 4-2-3-1 is mandatory, even if it means partnering Aloe with one of Morel or Fanni centrally at the back in N’Koulou’s absence. With Romao and Imbula in midfield, the difficulties that the back line will face will be minimized, and despite their struggles yesterday, the two older players should be able to cope alongside a natural centre back.


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