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Week 27: Ligue 1 Talking Points: Should Marseille have learned from Arsenal’s over-confidence?

In a brand new column, French football expert Eric Devin writes about five major talking points following each Ligue 1 weekend. The first of this week concentrates on Marseille’s failure to overturn Caen last Friday night.

1) Should Marseille have learned from Arsenal’s over-confidence?  

While there is no shame in losing to in-form Caen (who managed to lift themselves to the dizzying heights of 12th) doing so in the manner which they did is certainly cause for chagrin. At home, with a chance to not only move ahead of Paris Saint-Germain provisionally, but to close the gap on Lyon to just one point, with the holders and leaders facing challenging matches in trips to Monaco and Lille, respectively, a positive result was absolutely imperative for Marcelo Bielsa’s charges. 

Three points have been almost a given at the Stade Velodrome this season, with OM having taken 34 of an available 39, and who could blame the manager for feeling over-confident in his attacking players’ abilities, especially as Caen would be missing Damien Da Silva, an ever-present in the centre of their defence thus far? 

With such confidence, much like Arsenal have done in recent weeks, of the ten outfield players that Marseille fielded in their nominal 4-2-3-1, only three seemed ready to commit to any sort of defensive work, with Andre Ayew taking up the Santi Cazorla role as a “defensive midfielder” alongside Gianelli Imbula. 

The full backs, Brice Dja Djedje and Benjamin Mendy got forward as well, leaving only Imbula and centre backs Rod Fanni and Jeremy Morel (themselves both converted full backs) to deal with the counter-attacks of Caen. And, much like Arsenal on Wednesday, Marseille, despite a bevy of chances, were left to rue missed opportunities as slow-footed centre backs were undone by an aging yet canny striker (OK, Sala was the nominal striker, but Feret’s heat map from Friday is remarkably similar to Berbatov’s from the Emirates) whose ability to release pacy, opportunistic wingers was one of the keys to the match.  

We really shouldn’t be surprised at the result, though, given the form Caen have found, especially in attack, where they lie fourth in the goals scored column, with 42, 20 of those coming in just their last seven matches, as well as the unfortunate injury to Marseille’s central defender Nicolas N’Koulou, who looks set to miss at least six weeks with a knee problem. 

Shorn of his best player at that position, though, shouldn’t Bielsa have been more cautious, especially with Mario Lemina likewise a miss due to suspension? Realistically, in front of a hungry home crowd eager for l’OM to get back into the title reckoning against what the casual fan would regard as weak opposition, that was never really going to be an option. 

Tactically, while the idea of the pacy Ayew occupying a central midfield role seemed ludicrous at the match’s outset, especially with Alaixys Romao available, the Ghanian actually did quite well, covering lots of ground and making himself a potent threat by running onto several crosses, finding himself unlucky to strike the bar from a delicious Dja Djedje delivery late in the second half, and later finding the back of the net in first half stoppage time.  

Rather than finding fault with the performances of players, the blame for this defeat has to be laid at the feet of Bielsa. While the Argentine is most often associated with a high-intensity 4-2-3-1, it should be noted that he has diverged from that many times this season, particularly against teams that are dangerous on the counterattack. Against Montpellier in January (a match in which N’Koulou was also unavailable), for example, OM lined up in a 3-3-3-1 with Romao joining Fanni and Morel in a back three,  Mendy and Dja Djedje pushed up alongside Imbula as de facto wing-backs. 

While Marseille did lose that match, 2-1, MHSC’s goals weren’t necessarily counter-attacks of the style that Caen executed; the first was controversial as Dja Djedje had had his hand trod on and was unable to get back to defend, while the second came from the full-back failing to clear his lines. 

On both occasions, Marseille had men behind the ball coping with MHSC’s attackers (numbers are one thing, marking is another), and La Paillade were unable to generate much besides those two opportunities. Thus, if Bielsa can adapt his system when short-handed, personnel-wise, against one counter-attacking side, why not against another? It is a question that deserves an answer, and soon, for as OM were lucky to see their title rivals struggle in their own matches, to fail to put them under any pressure in such a situation is fairly inexcusable. With Lyon visiting the south coast in a fortnight’s time, another result like this could see Marseille’s title hopes, once so promising, soon dissolve. 

E.D.

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