The 2019/20 Ligue 1 season has kicked off in style and three games in, here’s my first impressions of André Villas-Boas’ Marseille side, the obstacles he will have to tackle and what to expect from them going forward during the Portuguese manager’s maiden campaign with Les Olympiens.
First off, we need to look back at the 2018/19 season to get a better understanding of where the club are in relation to other sides in Ligue 1. Marseille finished a disappointing 5th under Rudi Garcia last season, with a myriad of issues facing the side that continue to exist today. To start with, Marseille had an awful record against the top 6, winning just 2 of there 10 fixtures, only beating Montpellier and Saint-Étienne at home.
Heavy defeats on the road and at the Stade Vélodrome to Lyon and Lille are perhaps comprehensible but add defeats home and away to Nantes into the mix and perhaps that’s a good indicator that finishing 5th was absolutely the best that Rudi Garcia’s men merited.
According to Understat, Marseille’s xPTS for the season would have placed them 7th, and you can see why. Their defence was very leaky over the course of the campaign and conceded 52 goals, the joint 6th worst in Ligue 1 in 2018/19 and although their attack made up for this scoring 60 goals, xG has them down scoring 52.08 suggesting that this was another big overachievement. So, what does all this mean for André Villas-Boas going into this season?
Well, in effect it means he has to find a way to improve their backline with only centre-back Alvaro Gonzalez of Villarreal coming through the door on loan while Adil Rami leaves the club in disgrace, and at the very least get the same out of his frontline which will be a big ask, especially considering Mario Balotelli has left for his hometown club Brescia on a free transfer, and his replacement, Dario Benedetto has never played in Europe before and looks like a step down on paper to Super Mario.
Lucas Ocampos, who contributed four goals and seven assists last season, also left the South of France in favour of Spain, joining Sevilla for a poultry €13.5m. Marseille’s over reliance on Florian Thauvin and Dimitri Payet last season will be playing on Villas-Boas’ mind too with the pair directly involved in 56% of Marseille’s goals last campaign.
However, with Thauvin, yet again outscoring and assisting his xG and xA by a considerable amount, he will need to stay fit and keep up his impressive if somewhat unrealistic numbers if Marseille’s attack is going to function. To put it simply, if there’s a significant injury to either of Payet or Thauvin, their frontline will face big issues.
Marseille kicked off their 2019/20 campaign at home to Stade de Reims, a game which saw the visitors come out 2-0 victors. Villas-Boas set the side up in his preferred 4-3-3 formation, with Steve Mandanda between the sticks and the familiar backline of Sakai, Kamara, Caleta-Car and Amavi in front of him.
The midfield three was made up of Luis Gustavo at the base with Strootman and Sanson on either side. Dimitri Payet started out wide on the left flank and Germain started ahead of Benedetto with Radonjic on the right. Marseille were poor with their biggest chance of the 90 falling to Kevin Strootman, who somehow managed to hit the crossbar with a volley at close-quarters, 10 yards out from goal unmarked in fact, while a disorganised backline saw a clinical Stade de Reims side take their chances.
What was striking about this performance however was Marseille’s complete lack of any sort of presence up front. Valère Germain took 1 shot, from outside the box, that was blocked and that was literally it. To give you some context, both Boubacar Kamara and Caleta-Car took more shots per 90 last season for OM. If Marseille are going to rely on Valère Germain even as a backup, he has to start taking more strikes on and from better locations. His numbers have been dropping incrementally each season for the past 3-4 years and if you’re trying to compete for a place in the Champions League, Valère Germain isn’t going to cut it as a sole striker. His vision and positioning as a second striker is invaluable, but he is blunted in a 4-3-3.
One week later, the side travelled to the west coast to face Nantes and put together a better defensive showing, managing to limit Nantes mostly to poor quality chances from outside the box, however their #9 troubles continued. Dario Benedetto made his debut for Marseille, starting over Valère Germain, and although I did not think it was possible to put in a worse showing than Germain’s performance against Reims, Benedetto outdid him, taking one shot. From the penalty spot. Which he skied. Literally not a single shot other than that, no key passes, no dribbles, nothing.
On a more positive note, Dimitri Payet ran rings round the Nantes defence, taking two shots, completing three dribbles and making an astounding five key passes. xG would suggest that with the penalty, Marseille really should have won this match with an xG of 1.34 to Nantes’ 0.33 and André Villas-Boas will have left the Stade de la Beaujoire feeling hard done by.
Marseille then enjoyed an 11-day break from football giving them plenty time to recover before they took on Patrick Vieira’s Nice away from home, with André Villas-Boas desperate for his first competitive win as manager for OM. Villas-Boas’ wishes came true as Marseille came away with all three points in a 2-1 victory, however the homophobic banners unveiled by Nice fans which led to the game being suspended for 10 minutes will make the victory slightly bittersweet for Marseille fans. Dario Benedetto opened the scoring with his first goal for the club on the half hour mark and enjoyed an improved performance from his debut at Nantes.
The Argentine took three efforts, completed one dribble and made one key pass leading the line for Marseille, this, all despite OM operating almost exclusively on the counter-attack for the entire match. Dimitri Payet as usual ran the show though for Villas-Boas’ men, taking three shots and making a match high four key passes as well as one dribble. Marseille went into half time with a one goal advantage but 20 minutes into the second half, Wylan Cyprien brought the home side level from the spot. Dimitri Payet was quick to answer however, converting a penalty for Marseille just seven minutes later.
After speaking with some Marseille fans, it’s clear that they wanted a change from Rudi Garcia, however André Villas-Boas would not have been their first choice to replace him by far. Marseille lack an identity, a clear style of football that’s attractive to watch, and André Villas-Boas is a notorious pragmatist stemming from the José Mourinho school of thought.
Marseille fans want to be excited, they want to enjoy watching their team play football again and there seems to be a real sense of longing for the days of ‘Bielsa ball’ where even if the club didn’t succeed in the long term, they were still exciting to watch. Ultimately that’s what football’s about. It’s a spectator sport and to keep the fans happy, you need be exciting to watch.
OM have lost key personnel this summer for below market prices and have reinvested what little money they made poorly. They’re far too over reliant on Dimitri Payet and Florian Thauvin, whilst Pipo Benedetto is a downgrade on Balotelli. Unless Villas-Boas can magically improve a side, which from a purely data side managed to overachieve significantly last season, Marseille are bound for another year of Europa League football at best.