The failings of Marseille’s defence

The title challenge for Marseille throughout this entire season was always one that at best could be described as nonconformist, and at worst could be described as maddening. An up tempo, high pressing side with very little regard for balance has been the blueprint for Marseille’s success this season.

The highs were exemplary, highlighted by their goal scoring explosion during weeks four though twelve. Of course there have been some low points as well, including their road form that until recently was shockingly bad.

Perhaps no game more symbolised what Marseille are then the 3-2 home defeat to Caen, when they were both intoxicating going forward and horribly inept tracking back:

Marseille had 21 shots, nine on target. Those were the type of numbers the club produced when they were on their scoring tear earlier in the season. The first half in particular was a dominant attacking display from Marseille. They set up camp in Caen’s own end for the majority of the time and picked apart their defense when they had the ball. The tempo to their passing was crisp and purposeful, something that they haven’t showed in weeks.


But the problem was once Marseille gave up possession, it was a code red. It’s great to be able to hem in your opposition when you have 68-70% of the possession, but when you’re facing an energetic 4-1-4-1 formation with no traditional CDM, you leave yourself in a world of hurt when you lose the ball.

Obviously playing Paris St. Germain is a bit different from playing Caen, who live to play on the counter attack. PSG love to play much more of a possession game. Playing PSG is equivalent to someone continuously picking a scab until it starts bleeding again.

Compared to the Caen match, Marseille tried to play a more traditional midfield with the inclusion of Mario Lemina because of Gianelli Imbula’s suspension. PSG played their usual 4-3-3 formation with Thiago Motta as the holding midfield.

But the problems that Marseille had versus Caen (and in general this season) were prevalent once again versus PSG. The balance of the Marseille set up even with a less radical/insane lineup was still a big mess.

Teams that play a high pressing line will have their CBs press high up the pitch, which is nothing new to Marseille. However, when not done properly, it can look downright putrid in its execution.

Having midfielders who can’t track the run of the opposition in a high line allows for moments like that. It’s especially troublesome when you don’t have the quickness in the back line to help compensate for this, which Marseille don’t have as well in the make shift centre back combination of Jeremy Morel and Rod Fanni.

It’s especially alarming to see that lack of awareness from someone like Lemina, who generally does a good job in this department.

Marseille welp

Of course when PSG monopolized the ball for long instances of play, they were doing just fine as well in exploiting the holes that the Marseille defense had, and it proved once again the lack of defensive aptitude the Fanni/Morel duo had in this match.


In truth, the pair has always been questionable in terms of holding a solid line together. They’re natural full backs being asked to man a high line for a title contender. You can understand why moments like this happen, even though it’s been happening over and over again.

With the knee injury that’s kept Nicolas Nkoulou out since January 28 and the lack of CB options Marseille already have (which calls into question why Bielsa never bothered giving Doria a chance this season), it’s no wonder why Marseille’s defense has always looked like the weak link for their title hopes.

It wouldn’t be totally correct to only pick out the shortcomings of Marseille’s pressing nature because it did breed some success. The second goal by Andre Pierre-Gignac was the plutonic ideal of what man-marking + pressing should breed, even though it was helped by Thiago Silva’s nonchalant response to the danger that presided that situation and Verratti somehow thinking his pass to Pastore was a good idea.

Alaixys Romao with the tackle and pass sequence that led to Gignac’s goal; there were moments (that one included), particularly in the first half where Marseille looked the part of the football radical that took Ligue 1 and European football by storm.

But those moments were too few and far between and the second half more or less exhibited the failings of the effects that comes from rampant pressing. Marseille looked tired, more discombobulated in the synchrony of their defense and their attack, which in the first half had some zest and zip to it, also declined.

The Morel own goal that sealed Marseille’s fate looked a lot similar to the Pastore breakaway where the combination of having everyone go forward allowed for the leaks to occur.

It was classic Bielsa, not conforming to the situation despite every reason saying you should. For the neutral he’s been a godsend to Ligue 1 but games like this and the one versus Caen are perfect illustrations as to why being radical for the sake of being radical doesn’t pan out.

PSG deserve a lot of credit for the failings of Marseille’s performance. For a club that domestically has not had a signature win this season, this was the win you’ll remember from PSG if they go on and clinch the title. It was cagey, grimy in instances and the sort of performance you would expect from a two time defending champion.

They created the better chances, scoring a 2 — 1.4 win in the expected goal tally according to my data and they exploited Marseille time and time again. Blaise Matuidi in one game reminded everyone of his value to PSG with the amount of ground he covers and the peach of a goal he scored.

PSG have gotten a lot of flak this season (much of it deserved) for monopolising the ball to the degree that they do but rarely dominating opponents but this was different. It reminded you that when PSG play close to their potential, no one in Ligue 1 can match their production.

For Marseille, it was a case of an old enemy coming back to bite them in the butt. Even during their hot streak earlier in the season, their defense was at best suspect but their goal scoring more than made up for it. Now? Not so much. They’ve conceded the 14th worst expected goals tally in defense this season and over the past five weeks, it’s been the 3rd worst at 7.61 goals.

Their title hopes rested on being able to bend but not break on that end but it broke and it broke very hard versus PSG. With their title hopes all but vanquished, securing one of the three champions league spots looks to be the only thing that will salvage this season.

In classic Bielsa fashion, a club he manages starts out blazing and ends in chaos. What once looked like a possible fairytale chapter in Marseille folklore got a big dose of reality courtesy of their failings that has plagued them for so long.

The Author


Ligue 1 analyst/writer for Back Page Football. Data is often incorporated. Ligue 1 is really fun, just give it a chance!

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