FEATURE | Marseille’s Champions Project did not make a dent in the summer transfer market, but it’s a start

Frank McCourt’s OM Champions Project: Perhaps not the fireworks everyone expected… but it’s a start.

There are two sets of thoughts on the transfer strategy adopted by Olympique de Marseille. The optimists, and the realists. It was perhaps easy (too easy?) to get caught up in the wild rhetoric about how much Marseille were ‘back’, how a sleeping giant would immediately stake a claim for the Ligue 1 title, and finally had the financial clout to match its gloried history, storied fanbase and wonderful stadium.

It didn’t help either that the club’s hierarchy were peddling an optimistic dream in France’s media over the course of the year that has elapsed since Frank McCourt agreed a deal to buy OM from Margarita Louis-Dreyfus – whose own ‘hands-off’ strategy left OM at the knees.

Statements such as McCourt’s willingness to spend €50m on a striker (if the opportunity presented itself) were met by virtual acclaim on the Twittosphere. It whetted the appetite of a notoriously hard-to-please fanbase whom, after suffering for the best part of 5 years were keen to live a plausible situation in which their club were able to spend serious money in search of a place back in Europe’s elite.

And so, after the early blow made by the signings of Morgan Sanson and Dimitri Payet in particular, the latter earning OM continental notoriety in a typically morose January window seemed to buy into the idea that McCourt and co. were ready to spend, and spend big.

The groundwork for the summer window was laid out with a rather impressive 5th place in Ligue 1. With former Barcelona Sporting Director Andoni Zubizarreta and his network of scouts ready, it would only be a matter of time before the ‘Champions Project’ would be in full swing.

Fast forward 91 days to the end of the summer 2017 window, there remains a distinct sense of unease by the OM support as to how the first test of McCourt’s plans have panned out. It’s not that the investment hasn’t materialised – Marseille have spent more on this window than in any other – but questions remain about the supposed strength of the players acquired.

There was to be no Giroud, no Koscielny, not even valuable young performers in the form of Moussa Dembélé, Joris Gnagnon or Issa Diop. What OM settled for was for a motley crew of players ranging from the surprising addition of Luiz Gustavo, a former treble winner with Bayern Munich, to the welcome additions of Jordan Amavi and Valere Germain, and the welcome (Steve Mandanda) and not-so-welcome (Lucas Ocampos) returns of familiar faces.

The main sticking point of the mercato had been two key positions up front and at the back, a search that initially had started upon McCourt’s acquisition of the club last year.

Indeed, the search lasted much longer than anyone hoped – right the way until the final hours of August 31. It mirrored OM’s farcical chase to find a partner for Michy Batshuayi in 2015 where, having failed to find a suitable player in the summer, put all of their eggs in the basket of Steven Fletcher on January 31.

This time around, it was the Greek striker Kostas Mitroglou who debarked on the south coast. And even then, it was only after Stevan Jovetic left OM on the altar to sign for Monaco on the final weekend of the window.

Mitroglou at 29 isn’t exactly the youngest sharpshooter around. Though, with a seemingly impressive goal record with Benfica and Olympiakos, it remains to be seen just how much of an upgrade he is on Gomis.

The centre-back question proved also to be a major issue for OM. Interesting names such as Koscielny were fantastical to say the least, while young valuable defenders from Ligue 1 such as Issa Diop and Joris Gnagnon were also spurned.

In the end, France international Adil Rami and former Monaco defender Aymen Abdennour joined the project. Each with considerable Ligue 1 experience, but by no means the show-stoppers the fans craved.

So yes, in all there can legitimately be some disappointment at how the summer has turned out in terms of how many first-choice players OM managed to convince. The optimists may not have had their ‘Icardi’ or ‘Koscielny’, but consider the following.

One, this has been a quite unique transfer window for all concerned. Fees have been inflated no end, and the fact that OM made a big splash in the January window to nab Dimitri Payet from West Ham would have surely alerted clubs across Europe should Zubizarreta and co. come knocking for their players.

Two, McCourt’s investment – while welcome, is not infinite. The American made it clear that his initial plan was to spend €200m of his own money over 4 years – i.e. the first 8 transfer windows of his reign. In just 2, OM have dispensed just over €100m. This, from one individual who is not backed by a sovereign wealth fund unlike in the capital. McCourt has invested, but only time will tell if the sporting cell of the club has used that wisely.

Three. The project is long-term, not short. OM have built a squad that is widely thought to be capable of finishing in a Champions League position. If that goal is not met this season, there remains some investment in the budget to ultimately reach that goal.

Conversely, if OM do reach the Champions’ League group stage next season, McCourt’s personal investment would take a back seat to the financial riches that group stage participation promises. In the latter scenario, OM could conceivably spend north of €100m next summer, thereby beginning a cycle in which the team can qualify for the UCL year-on-year, as was the case between 2007-12.

Spending big from the off is unwise. Had McCourt spent the vast majority of his €200m investment this summer, and the club missed out on the top 3 – it might’ve marked to a return to the Margarita Louis Dreyfus days of selling assets to raise funds as the owner was unwilling to commit any more funds.

Take AC Milan, another sleeping giant in a similar position for example. The Rossoneri have no doubt spent big to return to the Champions League with the acquisitions of Leonardo Bonucci, André Silva, Franck Kessié, Hakan Calhanoglu among others via the influx of dubious Chinese money and rumours of significant financial risk if they were to miss out on their goal. Marseille on the other hand, have been more risk-averse in this scenario.

Yes, it’s largely, not the players that OM would have wanted, but it is – or it should be enough for the first stage of the ‘Champions Project’ – i.e. to get back into the Champions League. On paper, it should be the 3rd strongest squad in Ligue 1.

The task of steering OM towards their goal now lies at the hands of Rudi Garcia, whose recent coaching has left a lot to be desired. A 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the champions last weekend has only heightened concerns that OM fans were sold a dream.

However, as one fan put to me on Twitter recently, OM must crawl before they can walk. Many would do well to remember that.



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