Revolution at Marseilles

When Marseille president Vincent Labrune made Marcelo Bielsa manager in May, he was hoping for a revolution. So far, El Loco has not disappointed.

Eleven games in with Marseilles sitting top of Ligue 1, Bielsa is offering renewed hope to the fans of a club struggling in the face economic realities and super rich rivals.

It’s been an impressive start not only because the Argentine didn’t have funding with which to transform a squad that finished a disappointing sixth last season but also because of the positive, energetic and attractive manner in which Marseille have been achieving results.


Next Sunday, Marseilles travel to Paris to play champions PSG in what will be sternest test yet of Bielsa’s reign. The Parisians sit four points behind Marseille in second place and have yet to get fully into their stride. Victory would be a statement of intent and a restoration of the recent order.

Naturally, those who rail against the nouveau super riche will be looking for inspiration from Bielsa and his men. But some French football watchers have other broader reasons for hoping that the Argentine’s revolution holds firm.

For many, the league has become far too conservative, with too many teams looking not to lose rather than taking the risks required to go and win. For these, Bielsa is becoming something of a white knight.

To tease out some of these issues, assess Biesla’s work with Marseille so far and add a little context to Sunday’s top of the table clash, I talked to Paris-based Irish journalist Mark Rodden, who covers French, Belgian and German football for the likes of ESPN and Eurosport.

At the end of the summer, Bielsa had an argument with Labrune over what he perceived as failure in the transfer window. I take it he’s been brought in to succeed on a budget?

With no Champions League football, Marseille are already down about €30 million on last season. Their policy has been to sign young players who are likely to have a significant resale value.


They had a deficit of €12 million and were only able to buy players in the summer after owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus pumped another €20 million into the club. They hope that that investment will pay off with improved results on the pitch and increased gate receipts at the redeveloped Stade Velodrome.


That said, they still need to sell players. The likes of Andre-Pierre Gignac and Andre Ayew are on big salaries and their contracts expire next summer. There’s a move to keep Gignac but it looks the like the latter, one of their best performers, will be leaving sooner rather than later.

Can you put your finger on what Bielsa has done to draw such an impressive start from Marseille? Is it tactical? Motivational?

It’s a bit of both. Bielsa is a workaholic and apparently has his own set of keys for the training ground.


He’s used the same players as last season when they finished way off the pace in sixth but delivered a massive improvement. Toulouse boss Alain Casanova says they’re unrecognisable from the Marseille team of the past few seasons.


After watching all of Marseille’s matches last season on video, Bielsa said he noticed that left-back Jeremy Morel was strong in the air and decided to play him at centre back. Morel had come in for serious abuse from the fans in the past but now they’re singing his name.


Dimitri Payet has moved from the wing to play in behind striker Gignac, and he’s thriving there. Payet said that he’d never seen such a demanding coach – that Bielsa found things for the team to improve on in games where they won by four or five goals.


Bielsa puts a strong emphasis on video analysis and defender Nicolas Nkoulou, another to rediscover his form, has also praised how much work he does individually with players.


Players like Payet and Gignac are much fitter and even goalkeeper Steve Mandanda lost six kilos.

Tactically, for those of us who don’t see them much, are we getting the traditional Bielsa emphasis on high pressing and ball retention? Is he going with a 3-3-1-3 – which brought him success with Chile – or the play on 4-2-3-1 that saw him do well with Bilbao?

Marseille play 3-3-3-1 when the opposing team plays with two strikers and 4-2-3-1 when the opposition have one up front. So far, the team seem to have no problem adapting – after playing six games in a row with four at the back, they switched to a three-man defence in their recent win over Toulouse.


Pressing collectively is a massive part of the system. Gignac said that Bielsa insists on the team winning the ball back within 10 seconds of losing it. Gignac believes that, as a result, the players now run less but more effectively than they did before.


For that to work obviously takes a lot of coordination. The players are being worked very hard at training, but with results going so well, they’re happy to buy into it.

Bielsa admits that his approach is demanding not just on opponents – but on his players as well. Can he and Marseille maintain these standards across a season (not playing in Europe should help – not just in terms of fitness but in terms of meticulous preparation I’d imagine)?

Time will tell – not having European football for the first time in 10 years certainly helps, and they’re out of the League Cup as well after losing to Rennes last week.


They would have had to play the next round of the competition in between two tough league matches against Monaco and Lille, who completed the top three behind PSG last season.


After nine matches, they’d used the least number of players in the league (14 different starters and 19 players in total). Bielsa finally rotated his squad against Rennes, naming his team 24 hours in advance and handing four players their first starts of the season.


The worry is that they tire in the second half of games so they need to make their pressure count. A clear example of that was in their last away game in the league at Lyon, when they did everything but score and then got caught on the break. Bielsa said after the loss to Rennes in the League Cup that he may have to rethink things after suffering two defeats in a row.


The strain seems to be showing on the players too – a front page story in L’Equipe last Friday (October 31st) suggested that Andre-Pierre Gignac Brice Dja Djedje had a scrap in the training ground canteen arising out of the latter’s sending off against Rennes.


Another concern is that four key players (Nkoulou, Romao, Dja Djedje and Ayew) could be involved in the Africa Cup of Nations in January, which could stretch their resources.


Some people involved with Marseille believe they can’t be champions if Paris Saint-Germain play to the same level as last season or like they did against Barcelona in the Champions League. But we’ll know a lot more after Marseille’s game in Paris on Sunday evening (November 9th), especially since Ayew, Romao and Morel are suspended for that game.

Bielsa has a two year contract – could you see him stay longer?

Marseille President Vincent Labrune has already talked about renegotiating his contract in the new year, but Bielsa has been evasive on the subject. Labrune says Bielsa told him he always focused on short-term goals at the start of a new project.


Bielsa has pointed out that they have a tough series of fixtures to come before Christmas, and we’ll only know the real value of the team (and his work) after that. They were unlucky to lose at Lyon but that game is perhaps a sign that it will be tough to maintain their run.


Marseille are a difficult club to manage, and France’s second-biggest city is football mad. Bielsa has already won over the fans, who were completely disillusioned last season. There’s a great atmosphere at the Stade Velodrome now, and 62,000 watched the recent win over Toulouse.


Labrune said that the fans needed a star and, lacking the finances to buy a player to satisfy them, he tried to recruit a coach that would. For the moment, El Loco seems like the perfect fit for their often volatile fan base.

Would you agree with view that French League football has become very conservative? The emphasis on shape, on giving nothing away and on waiting until late on in games before pushing players forward hence serving to make Bielsa’s attacking approach all the more refreshing?

Absolutely. At times over the past decade, a list of French league results has read like binary code (1-0, 0-0, 0-1) and Ligue 1 has lagged behind the other top leagues in Europe with an average of in or around 2.5 goals per game.


It has improved in recent years, mainly thanks to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paris Saint-Germain, but even on the third weekend of this season, there were only 14 goals in 10 matches.


Players often reflect on how tactical and closed Ligue 1 is once they experience another environment. Newcastle midfielder Moussa Sissoko said last season that teams in England start the game to win it, while in Ligue 1 teams are more concerned with not conceding a goal in the opening half.


He said that, especially in more limited teams, you’re not allowed to leave your position as much.


Salomon Kalou, who recently joined Hertha Berlin from Lille, backs up the view, saying that you’re often waiting for a goal from a set piece. Lille finished a lofty third last season despite only scoring 46 goals in 38 matches.


Mark Rodden is an Irish journalist and commentator covering sport (mainly football and rugby) plus French and international news. He contributes to Eurosport, Setanta, ESPN and RFI. Follow him on Twitter.

The Author

Paul Little

Freelance football columnist. European Football with the Irish Daily Star. Hold the Back Page podcast regular. Family and Renaissance Man. Dublin born, Wicklow resident.

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