Olympique Marseille: Staring into the Abyss
I wasn’t exactly bullish on Marseille coming into this season. Though I was pleased with the club’s more youthful approach, the sheer amount of prime aged talent let go combined with the potential ramifications of Marcelo Bielsa second year syndrome meant that a 4th-6th place finish was more in order. But I didn’t expect this much of a drop off. No one could’ve expected that Marcelo Bielsa would leave after the home opener because of various reasons involving the Marseille higher ups.
Marseille are currently 10th in Ligue 1, seven points from 4th place and six points away from relegation. The quality of football has been turgid, at times depressing. They haven’t won at home since September, they haven’t led in a match in over a month and haven’t had a lead of two or more goals since beating Caen in mid January. At this time last season, Marseille were in the driver’s seat to qualify for the Champions League and possibly even win the league. Now, they’re staring at a grim future with no European football and another summer of roster reconstruction.
In the context of Ligue 1, last year Marseille were solid with peaks of scintillating football. They had one of the best players in the league in Dimitri Payet, a chance creating machine whose career hit another level when Bielsa came aboard. Andre-Pierre Gignac had a second straight season of scoring at a 0.5-0.6 NPG per 90 clip and the rest of the team was composed of both young-ish players coming into their own and established players nearing the end of their prime years. In the hands of Bielsa, Marseille produced shot numbers both raw and in the context of shot quality that were good. They had the 2nd highest xGD in the league, were 4th in both SOTR and Team Rating (SoTR + PDO). Throwing those metrics into a bin rates them as around the 4th best team last season, a couple of points off of Monaco.
More than anything though, Marseille under Bielsa had an identity: to press like a pack of hyenas.
As we can see, Marseille were in their own league in pressing opponents and at their best, it led to many times where they were able to get possession in an advantageous scenario and create dangerous scoring opportunities.
One of the things that made Marseille especially captivating last season was their ability to create multiple goal leads, especially in the first half of the season. They created ten leads of 2+ goals in the first 19 games, which was top in Ligue 1.
||Multiple Goal Leads
||MGL First 19 games
||Points First 19 Games
||MGL Second 19 Games
||Points Second 19 Games
The 2nd half was different. It was clear that Marseille were running on fumes over the final 19 games in the context of both individual games and the season at whole. Leads weren’t so readily achieved which could be attributed to a fatigue that comes with playing a pressing tactic and the squad being relatively small. In the end they couldn’t hold onto a top 3 position with a resurgent Monaco gaining 100% of their points when going up by 2+ goals while Marseille didn’t. A season that at one point had the promise of a surprise title win ended with a disappointing 4th place finish.
Summer Transfer Exodus
With Monaco’s demise in the CL qualifying rounds, it would’ve been a long shot that Marseille would have got into the group stage. Even then, having the chance to qualify would’ve probably lessened the mass departure that occurred. Finishing 4th meant that the club let go many dependable talents. Ayew and Gignac were already confirmed to be leaving before the season was over but there were many more. These are the 11 players that had played the most minutes in their respective positions last season for Marseille. X’s indicate that they left during the summer.
Combine that with the likes of squad men Mario Lemina and Rod Fanni and Marseille lost a staggering eight players who had played regular minutes for the club.
So how did they rebuild over the summer? Well… they pretty much went to the bargain bin of loans and free signings and hoped for the best. Some things worked out; Buying Bouna Sarr and George Kevin Nkoudou for €4M combined were nice value plays especially in the case of Nkoudou, and Lassana Diarra on a free is one of the best moves Marseille have made over the past 5-10 seasons. On the other hand loan acquisitions for the likes of Rolando, Lucas Silva and Manquillo combined with failed transfer signings (at least so far) for Remy Cabella, Karim Rekik and Lucas Ocampos nullified the good things done.
The end result was a mishmash roster for a club coming into the season with no backup striker and almost no room for error if they wanted to make it into the top three.
If last season Marseille played scintillating football, this season it has been practically the opposite. The high octane attacking football that made their name last season has been replaced by meandering nothingness. Remember all the multiple goal leads that Marseille created last season? They have all but disappeared this season with just five so far. The majority of their transfers have been flops and the environment around the club appears quite toxic. Their shot numbers on the whole have still been fine but the quality of chances have decline by over 20%, essentially becoming Ligue 1’s version of Bournemouth, which when you consider their status before, is significantly different.
||Expected Goal per shot For
*data provided by Julien Assuncao*
This fact bears highlighting: Marseille haven’t won a home game since beating Bastia 4-1 in September. They’ve won two games at home all season and the other one was against Troyes, who are one of the worst Ligue 1 sides in recent memory. The club has tried to maintain their desire to hold onto the ball and dictate play but that’s just ended up in many wayward crosses into the box, reminiscent of Manchester United under David Moyes. Meanwhile the few moments of competency this season have come via counter attacks. With the speedy wingers at hand and a striker like Batshuayi up top, perhaps Marseille should’ve leaned towards more of a speed game with the lack of an influential #10. It calls into question the quality of coaching that’s gone on with Michel as Bielsa’s replacement, especially with his lofty goals in the near future.
The future of Marseille looks quite grim. It’s no secret that the club has been trimming its wage bill over the past few seasons and there are only faint hopes of new ownership coming in. No Champions League football once again will mean another huge squad turnover. Whether it be players who have their contracts expiring (Mandanda, N’Koulou), players finishing their loan spells (too many to list), players who have massively rehabilitated their value (Diarra) or youngsters with varying degrees of upside (Batshuayi, Nkoudou).
The one saving grace for Marseille’s faint hopes of European football next season is their final 9 games don’t feature either PSG or Lyon and the toughest match is Monaco away. That said they probably require 25 points over their final 9 games and let’s just say that models out there are skeptical of this happening. Champions League football would mean that they would have to win out the rest of the way and hope for lots of luck, and Marseille haven’t put that type of run together since peak Bielsa-ness last season.
More than anything though, there’s an alarming sense that Marseille are lack a plan. Monaco have morphed into the French version of Porto, Lyon will use their academy + selective transfers while big bad PSG will continue to dominate and be their very expensive selves. What is Marseille’s identity? Hanging on the coattails of big clubs or Premier League sides desperately wanting to take their misfit toys on loan?
France has a vast amount of talent in both smaller clubs playing in Ligue 1 and lower divisions. Marseille don’t have anywhere close to the finances to spend like PSG but they could easily rebrand themselves as the club in France who buy talent domestically. The likes of Vincent Koziello, Nicolas Benezet, Nicolas De Preville, Benjamin Lecomte, Andy Delort, Youssouf Salaby, Martin Braithwaite and others are within their price range and they’re right around 23-25 years old, the sweet spot for when players usually step into their prime years. And it’s not like the club doesn’t have recent success with buying in house: Benjamin Mendy, Gianelli Imbula, Mario Lemina, Bouna Sarr, George Kevin-Nkoudou to name a few. There’s also Belgium and Holland to shop around if you’re looking outside France for potential hidden gems, like with Batshuayi or what potentially Vincent Janssen could be.
Unlike the Premier League (sans this season), it isn’t as impossible in Ligue 1 to miss out on CL football one year and qualify for it in the near future. Lyon did it in 2013/15, Lille in 2011, Bordeaux in 2008. Add in that Lyon could be selling one or both of Nabil Fekir and Alexandre Lacazette this summer and Marseille could convince themselves that good summer business and hiring a capable coach would propel them back into the CL. Someone like Saint Etienne manager Christophe Galtier would qualify as a capable coach for them to consider as a replacement for Michel or even Nantes manager Michel Del Zakarian.
There’s a roadmap for Marseille that will get them back to being one of the three best clubs in France, one that would have them also building for the next 5 to 7 years and with some luck here or there possibly taking advantage of a down season by PSG to win the title. That last part is a way away but finishing top three over the next couple of seasons should be a doable task. Sadly though, very little of Marseille’s recent work under the stewardship of President Vincent Labrune suggests that they’re capable of rational roster building.