It was more of the same for Marseille on Sunday evening at the Parc OL, a frustrating evening ending in yet more dropped points against a rival for the Champions’ League. Last season, Marseille had earned just two points from eighteen against the combination of Lyon, Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. Even with the champions operating in another financial stratosphere, it still made for grim reading, especially with the margins for those top three places having been so fine in recent seasons.
Marseille had no problem running rough-shod over the bulk of Ligue 1, but when the chips were down against high-quality opposition, the situation often became quite a bit more tenuous. Things seemed to be changing this season, though, as Marseille were at their opportunistic best in thumping Monaco 3-2 at the Stade Louis II at the beginning of the month. Even with their southern rivals enduring an uneven start to the campaign, the same fixture last year had yielded a 6-1 loss, and no small amount of confidence would be taken by Rudi Garcia’s players as result.
However, for all of the hand-wringing that Lyon supporters had done over a perceived summer of going backwards, it appears that in reality it is their Olympico rivals, and not they, who have failed to progress. Lyon’s famous win at the Etihad notwithstanding, Marseille had entered the weekend’s play in far better form, with the Monaco result key in seeing them occupy second place, as their fantastic array of attacking players led by Florian Thauvin have impressed with regularity save during a loss to Nîmes.
Thauvin extended his record to six goals in as many matches in Ligue 1 this season, but it mattered not, as Lyon, buoyed by the effervescent Bertrand Traoré, the passing nous of Tanguy N’Dombélé and a determined Nabil Fékir, made short work of Marseille’s defence in a 4-2 win that slightly flattered the visitors. Marseille would have been frustrated to have lost to ten-man Eintracht Frankfurt in mid-week, but the perspective was always there that, especially given Monaco’s struggles, the top three, and with it, a much-desired return to the Champions’ League was the real prize on offer this season, and a result against Lyon, on the road, would be a real indication of progress for the club.
Garcia was admittedly lacking his first choice centre backs of last season, with Rolando and Adil Rami both out injured, but even had that pair been available, they would have been in no way a guarantee of evincing said progress. They were also joined on the sideline by Steve Mandanda, who himself hasn’t featured in a month. Certainly players of that trio’s quality will be missed by any side, but even then Rami in particular has hardly covered himself in glory this season, having been twice embarrassed against Monaco. Their absence, however, has laid bare the foolishness of counting on two players of their age without trusted cover. With the pair unavailable, Garcia has often turned to Luiz Gustavo to deputise in defence, as the Brazilian is capable enough in that role.
Capable, however, is probably the limit of Gustavo’s aptitude for playing as a centre back, especially when compared to how influential he was in central midfield last season. Having Gustavo playing a deeper role makes midfield, already in a position of flux following the move of André-Frank Zambo Anguissa to Fulham, similarly vulnerable, as Kevin Strootman, particularly given his display on Sunday, seems a far way off from his pre-injury best, and Morgan Sanson also seemed to struggle more than is his wont with the physicality of Pape Cheikh Diop and N’Dombélé.
Issues in midfield aside, though, the blame for this defeat must also be laid at the feet of Garcia for his decision to bring Duje Caleta-Car back into the side. The Croatian youngster was torn to shreds by Nîmes’ attackers and he was no better here, capping a poor evening with a rash challenge on Traoré that saw him earn a straight red card. Thus, for his side’s biggest match of the year, Garcia deployed, in central defence, a defensive midfielder and a young player whose confidence was sure to be fragile after such a poor prior outing. With the likes of Grégory Sertic and Boubacar Kamara (to say nothing of Aymen Abdennour) also available, Garcia’s bizarre decision well and truly backfired, even as Lyon failed to particularly sparkle themselves.
Garcia after the match was quick to rue missed chances by Valère Germain and Lucas Ocampos, but he was frank about the bottom line for Marseille if they truly want to not only shake their reputation as big-match bottlers: “Our second half performance was catastrophic, with too many mistakes in defence… …we have to shut off the taps.”
Whether it’s giving the likes of Sertic or Tomas Hubocan a chance, or moving to a back three and drafting in Hiroki Sakai, the answer for Marseille clearly doesn’t lie in Garcia’s use of Gustavo or Caleta-Car in central defence. It is still early in the season, and Marseille are actually ahead of Lyon on goal difference, despite Les Gones having recorded the victory. However, with a mid-week match against the always-opportunistic Strasbourg looming and a trip to Lille at the weekend, things are far more likely to become more difficult for Marseille than they are to become easier. If Garcia can get his defence sorted, this result may be naught but a bump in the road, but if not, this could quickly become a very long season for the manager.
1 | While PSG were rightly criticised for their lack of impetuous and defensive rigour at Anfield this week, the reasons behind their latest meek display remain more nuanced than Ligue 1 simply being ‘not good enough’. Plagued by mismanagement at every level, PSG are a club with a host of engrained issues. Firstly, huge sums spent on a collection of celebrity forwards mean areas in need to refreshing (specifically central midfielder & left-back) are criminally neglected. Unai Emery and Laurent Blanc then stood by as player power took over while the team’s slow possession-based approach became painfully one dimensional.
PSG’s youth system meanwhile has long been overlooked in favour of average senior additions, robbing Paris of exciting academy graduates and the homegrown heart crucial to their European “peers” recent continental successes. Juventus and Bayern Munich find themselves in similarly dominant positions but remain wily operators in the Champions’ League while the ‘weaker’ Marseille, Lyon and Monaco have all threatened in European competitions of late. PSG have simply managed to haughtily squander their advantages and a closer title race won’t affect the misguided management that has come to define the club and the team’s performances.
2 | Over the last five years Guingamp have lead the way for Ligue 1’s upstarts. A team from a tiny Breton town with minimal top flight history who miraculously won the Coupe de France twice and made the knockout stages of the Europa League in the last decade despite minimal resources, but now they sit bottom with zero points. EAG had made Ligue 1’s mid-table their home despite being pragmatic both tactically and in the transfer market but over the summer their losses dropped the wrong side of manageable for the first time. Lynchpin Clément Grénier was sold as per a gentleman’s agreement, chief source of goals Jimmy Briand left in acrimonious circumstances, while premier creator Yannis Salibur joined St Étienne. Rangy Caen forward Ronny Rodelin has helped plug the gaps left behind, but they were unable to secure other quality replacements and now are struggling with players the wrong side of experienced or untested. Despite the respected Antoine Kombouaré’s astute stewardship, Guingamp’s top flight dream may have finally lost its momentum.
Results: AS Monaco 1-1 Nîmes, Lille 2-1 Nantes, Angers 0-0 Toulouse, Montpellier 1-0 Nice, Reims 0-0 Dijon, St Étienne 2-1 Caen, Strasbourg 3-1 Amiens, Rennes 1-3 PSG, Guingamp 1-3 Bordeaux, Lyon 4-2 Marseille.