Despite an initially shaky opening two games in which they drew three-all with Bastia and then lost two-one at home to Montpellier, Olympique de Marseille started the current 2014-2015 with a renewed sense of optimism, and why wouldn’t they have?
Arguably France’s best supported club, OM started this season with a magnificently improved Stade Vélodrome and with one of football’s most recognizable managers, the Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, ready to implement his positive high-pressing tactics into his new side’s game.
The optimism then soon involved into genuine excitement when Les Marseillais began to thrill their support as the season got well underway with their new style of play, before eventually embarking on an eight game winning the streak. By the time Marseille took on Paris Saint-Germain in the capital, there was a wide sense of belief that Bielsa’s side could actually do the unthinkable and beat their deadliest rivals in their own backyard.
With this first half of the season sense of success in mind, Friday’s three-two home defeat at the Vélodrome against SM Caen would have been seen as an unexpected result for football fans who had taken an eye off the men from the Phocean city.
The manner in which Caen, a side that are in full confidence at the moment, came back from two-goals reveals a lot about the psychological state of this current Marseille side, with their low levels of confidence contrasting that of Les Caennais‘ starkly.
It was a point that former Marseille coach Élie Baup touched upon recently, when he said in an interview with Marseille-based daily La Provence, when he alluded to the fact that Marseille’s high-pressing style is not only physically draining on the players, but that it is also psychologically tiring. According to Baup, Bielsa’s system places high amounts of pressure on players because of the importance of their individual roles to the side’s shape.
Despite winning eleven games out of fourteen matches in Ligue 1 sur La Canebière, Marseille’s away form has been, to be quite frank, distinctly average. OM have managed to record just four victories on the road this season, with their run without an away victory in France’s top flight stretching back to a narrow two-one win over Caen in October. Their form on the road has been, quite simply, not good enough for a club of its size, with title winning ambitions.
Questions could also be justifiably raised about the manner in which Marseille have won some of their games at home this season, as the home side narrowly won matches against traditionally weak away sides such as Guingamp and Lens, and two serious penalty claims were turned down for Évian TG when the home side won by a single André-Pierre Gignac goal from a penalty of their own. At times, Les Marseillais have been far from convincing.
Marseille’s recent slump in form, which has seen them go four games without a win, has caused their longest run of games of the current season without a win and has lead fans and the press in France alike to question what has happened to the side that delighted at the start of the season.
There are definite and well-documented long-term communication issues at OM, and although these may not be the sole reason for the club’s recent cold streak, they could well be playing a contributing factor. In late September, the now West Ham United and ex-Marseille midfielder Morgan Amalfitano gave a stinging parting shot to club when he appeared on RMC Radio, explaining that relations had already effectively broken down at the club between Bielsa and the club’s president Vincent Labrune.
More recently, the curious case of Dória, the twenty-year-old Brazil centre-back who joined the OM from Botafogo for a relatively sizable fee of around €7million and who has since been loaned to Sao Paolo, raised questions about the club’s organizational structure, and more particularly about Labrune and Bielsa’s turbulent relationship.
Biesla claimed that Dória, who had been tracked by OM’s Ligue 1 rivals Olympique Lyonnais after impressing with the Seleção at last year’s Toulon U20 tournament, was signed by Labrune and that he had no idea about the twenty-year-old’s signature until he was undergoing a medical at the club’s La Commanderie complex.
The situation became farcical, with Dória failing to making an appearance in Marseille’s first-team and only playing matches against local amateur side’s for the club’s reserves in French football’s fifth-tier. Clearly, the atmosphere behind closed door at the Vélodrome between the club’s hierarchy and the head coach had begun to sour.
There are quite obviously on the field issues as well that have been singled out as contributing factors to Marseille’s demise of late. At times, Marseille’s defending has been quite simply pitiful, with points having been lost when the often fragile back four have pressed the self-destruct button, much to the delight of title rivals PSG and Lyon.
Although their high-pressing pressing game has won the club admirers, Marseille have also been punished by counter-attacks when they have had more players up the park than back defending. A notable example of this phenomenon occurred in one of the most important matches of the season so far, when Bielsa’s side lost one-nil thanks to a Yoann Gourcuff stirke at the end of a quick breakaway.
It’s most likely that the solutions to Marseille’s current problems lie in several different factors and it’s more probable that there is less of a dichotomy between the effect of issues on the park and issues off it.
Marseille at the moment visibly lack confidence when they play, and this lack of confidence means that there are no easy games for this side at the moment. Nicolas Nkoulou’s recent injury has ruled him out for up to six weeks and this will be a massive blow for the club, especially given their defensive woes, but if Marseille can resolve their defensive issues without the Cameroonian’s presence, they will soon be back to winning ways.
In the long-term, it is imperative that the issues beween Labrune and Bielsa are resolved, as they will continue to cause damage if they are left untouched. Bielsa had targeted the current Southampton loanee Toby Alderweireld and the now Tottenham Hotspur player Benjamin Stambouli as defensive signings in the summer window, and either of these two players could have brought defensive stability to the club.
If Bielsa remains at the club at the end of the season, he will almost certainly demand that he is given authority over who arrives and leaves during the summer transfer window, where Marseille could potentially be looking to build a more expansive squad before a UEFA Champions’ League campaign.
Despite their current disappointment, and most obviously the humiliation they feel after Friday night’s defeat, there are still plenty reasons for Marseille fans to remain optimistic. PSG’s draw against Monaco and Lyon’s defeat against Lille prevented Friday’s result from being the catastrophe it could have been, as Marseille are still very much within touching distance of the top two, as they are currently just a win away from going level on points with PSG and four points off the league leaders Lyon.
Marseille’s priority now however has to be that they make sure they reverse the current trend and make sure that they don’t lose third-spot to a resurgent Monaco side who have in recent weeks proven that they are once again very capable challengers.
All is not lost at the Vélodrome, but there is plenty of work that needs to be done.