Marseille’s ‘Champions Project’ has become something of a Ligue 1 punchline since Frank McCourt’s takeover last year. The American’s attempt to emulate the club’s Parisian rivals has become little more than a budget PSG. Nevertheless, at first glance their squad appears competitive in Ligue 1 but for much of the past year Rudi Garcia’s iteration of OM have struggled for cohesion and excitement while displays are often abject. However, before Sunday’s game at Lyon the ‘Champions Project’ had begun to synthesise the brand of football that the Stade Vélodrome has long demanded; 12 games undefeated and level with Monaco and OL in second. But the frustrating 2-0 loss last night highlighted the long road that yet lays before them and the contrasting trajectories of the two men who have been ordained to lead them back to French football’s summit.
“If he does not want to play football anymore, we will not force him, we will wait, but since he is not working, he will not be paid.” It’s summer 2013 and Lille Deputy Director General Frédéric Paquet is understandably angry. The €3.5m paid for the signature of Bastia’s breakout teenage winger Florian Thauvin 6 months earlier seems to have not been enough. After returning to the Corsican club on loan, 10 goals in 31 Ligue 1 games as well as the league’s Young Pllayer of the Year award caught the eye of Marseille.
Amid a flurry of rumours that OM would attempt to poach the player, LOSC’s increasingly infuriated president Michel Seydoux deemed that Thauvin was ‘untransferable’. This turned out to be false. In a bid to force a move, the 19-year-old refused to train, much to the ire of his new, and very brief, employers. Eventually a €15m deal was reached between the clubs without Thauvin ever playing for Les Dogues.
A haughty self-satisfied attitude, even smugness and petulance have long been associated with the Frenchman. Particularly in England, where he is famous for some weak, anonymous Newcastle performances and incurring Alan Shearer’s wrath on Match of the Day for arriving at St James’ in a tuxedo; Thauvin’s tongue firmly in cheek. Thauvin’s increasingly poor Premier League form swiftly returned him to Ligue 1 and a loan with Marseille where the former sulking, sneering teenager has since transformed into one of the league’s best forwards, carrying an intermittent and disjointed Marseille side for much of that time as the ‘Champions Project’ struggled to coalesce.
While his return to OM did not start well, sent off 10 minutes into his second debut while poor performances persisted for the remainder of the year, his slow maturation since has been pivotal to his burgeoning assuredness as a footballer. 15 goals and 9 assists made last season comfortably his most productive yetm while a graceful ability to glide past defenders, ghost in from his flank and shoot as well as pick passes few others wouldn’t see nor execute made him central to everything OM did well.
Crucially the swagger that makes Thauvin such a glorious, and now effective, player to watch remained as his cocky persona started to dissipate. “When you are a football player, you must do your work and remain discreet, be exemplary.” Thauvin said in May, “Today I try to be exemplary to the maximum, to behave as a great professional.” Shearer would barely recognise him. Thauvin now admits his Newcastle move was ‘too early’ and explains; “At 22, you leave your country, you discover a new culture, a new language, a new league, the food isn’t the same. It’s complicated, but they’re things that help you grow up”.
While Thauvin remoulds expectations, Dimitri Payet’s are scarcely threatened. Payet threw his own tantrum in order to return “home” to OM but the form which saw him tear apart the Premier League with West Ham for a spell and become the poster boy for the Euro 2016 hosts has remained far beyond his reach since. Despite his installation as captain and the obvious quality that remains, the Reunion native’s influence is often feeble and a large portion of his displays fall between absent and mere adequacy. Payet’s capture was designed as a statement and a turning point for the club but it so far has proved to be neither.
Marseille’s recent resurgence has seen Garcia’s side turn prolific in front of goal, become fluid in forward areas and finally play as a unit rather than simply a collection of talented players wearing the same colour shirt. But the credit here falls with Thauvin, the outstanding Luis Gustavo and Adil Rami’s stoic defensive displays, as well as Garcia’s slow evolution of the team, rather than Payet.
The loss to fellow podium chasers Lyon on Sunday evening however underlined these issues and how much Garcia still has to do. A catastrophic piece of keeping from Steve Mandanda, dropping Nabil Fékir’s sixth minute free kick into his net and a Mariano Diaz header early in the second half proved enough for OL to ease to the points. Payet, despite showing some finesse, failed to exert any control on the game, Rami is yet to find an adequate partner in Rolando or Aymen Abdennour while Thauvin, despite again proving himself as OM’s most dangerous outlet proved that, at this level, he can’t always produce the sublime without Payet, or anyone else, as a viable partner.
Marseille teammate Rod Fanni argued that Thauvin failed in England as he thought himself ‘superior’ but now Thauvin’s arrogance has been replaced by a maturity and a consistency that has ascended him to talisman status at OM, seen him repeatedly outshine Payet, return to Didier Deschamps France squad and, this week, earmarked as a potential successor to compatriots Antoine Griezmann in Madrid or Franck Ribery in Bavaria.
The troublemaker in the tux has usurped expectations to forge what could be a world class career but pivotally for Atletico, Bayern and even Les Bleus this summer it is Florian Thauvin’s talent that is now ‘superior’ rather than his ego. On the other hand, now into his 30s, Dimitri Payet may be little more than the effervescent Thauvin’s sidepiece as his career, and with it the Champions Project’s renewed promise, threatens to fizzle out.
1 | Stéphane Ruffier was furious about not getting Fabinho’s goal ruled out for offside; he was correct, as Lyon had a nearly identical goal for Kenny Tete correctly ruled out on Sunday. However, the ‘keeper’s reaction, either kicking the ball away or at the assistant before remonstrating with him, allowed the officials to get a call of another sort correct, as the St Étienne captain was rightly sent off. Ruffier’s frustration was palpable, but one now has to wonder whether his frustration with the decision wasn’t really shorthand for his frustration with his personally situation. He has been quietly one of France’s best at his position for nearing a decade, but Friday’s match marked the first time he has ever been sent off, despite his fiery personality.
After a summer in which Sainté looked ready to finally progress with heavy investment, things have gone woefully wrong, with the managerial duo of Julien Sablé and Jean-Louis Gasset yet to record a win. Not cup-tied, could Ruffier do better than a club seemingly lacking ambition and focus? Nice are still alive in Europe and charging up the table despite having dropped Yoan Cardinale, and Leeds and Watford, to name but two clubs in England, are having decent seasons despite, rather than because of their goalkeepers. A move would likely have to see Les Verts more than double the €3m they spent on his arrival from Monaco, but with promising youngster Anthony Maisonnal deserving of a chance, the current situation just might be the perfect storm for Ruffier’s departure.
2 | Ruffier earns the title as one of France’s best, because an hour to the north-east, Anthony Lopes looks increasingly Ligue 1’s most impressive ‘keeper. Alphonse Areola has been much-improved for Paris Saint-Germain, and summer signing Tomas Koubek has impressed for Rennes, but the Portuguese academy graduate continues to improve, even at 27. His six saves on the night not only allowed Lyon to move what is, with goal difference, essentially four points ahead of Marseille in a 2-0 win, but also allowed the club to send off long-time goalkeeping coach Joël Bats in style. Lopes’ progression, and the career of Hugo Lloris are both impressive testaments to the abilities of Bats, who has remained a constant on the bench through Lyon’s illustrious run of titles as well as through leaner times in more recent years. Set to join former boss Rémi Garde in Montréal in January, Bats’ record speaks for itself, and Lyon will be poorer for his departure.
3 | Stéphane Darbion gave Troyes a late win against Amiens, a rewarding result after last week’s disappointment against Monaco, but the real story of the match between the two promoted sides was an apparent goal being ruled out after much discussion. The referee’s wristband had sounded on the half-hour mark as in-form Troyes striker Hyun-Jun Suk seemed to head the hosts in front from a corner. Replays, however showed the ball hadn’t crossed the line, and the officials eventually got the call right, but it made for a contentious few moments.
The league’s executive director, Didier Quillot, didn’t mince words in expressing his frustration, “Sporting integrity is safe after the official took the right decision, but what happened is very regrettable. The technology must be in the service of the officials. It’s an important aid, but only on the condition of it being infallible.” The German company who service the system, GoalControl, have reportedly been called in to speak with the league and could find themselves replaced by a competitor despite having a contract running through next season, giving further ammunition to those who would see technology as hindering the game.