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  • January 13, 2020

    The return of the André Villas-Boas constrictor defense at Marseille

    By David Rudin
  • Welcome back, André Villas-Boas. We hadn’t been expecting you. Nor should we have. A manager who left the Chinese Super League to focus on rally driving is not an obvious candidate to manage a large club in one of Europe’s big five leagues — even if that club is skint and in France. When Villas-Boas arrived in Marseille last summer, however, he was a vision of grey tailoring and artful stubble, exactly as casual football watchers remember him . It was like no time had passed. 

    At a time when it’s customary — and correct — to observe “what a decade the last six hours have been,” noting that AVB’s last ten years were quite the decade lacks for rhetorical effect. And yet! This is a manager who crammed being a Europa League-winning ingenue, the Premier League’s flavour of the month, life as a distressed asset working at the margins of football’s geography, retiring to focus on an amusing hobby, and returning to manage a big club into a single decade. Such narrative arcs are rare and tend to belong to football lifers. Only Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman can rival AVB when it comes to packing a lifetime of events into a short-but-also-long runtime. 

    A peripatetic decades does not appear to have changed AVB. His Marseille, like his Chelsea and Tottenham sides before it, is an exercise in offensive shot volume and high pressing. It’s also pretty successful. 

    As ever, Villas-Boas’ personal presentation remains more elegant than his tactical approach. His theory of football is straightforward: Both teams take a similar, small number of good shots; his side generates far more speculative chances; his side converts just enough of those lesser shots to prevail. This approach is not always aesthetically pleasing, but it tends to work. Going into Ligue 1’s winter break, Marseille had the fifth-best expected goal difference. All those lower-value chances really do add up. 

    In this context, Marseille’s high line and aggressive defence is best understood as a way of winning the mediocre shot battle. Sure, among all Ligue 1 clubs, Marseille’s average chance conceded has the second-highest expected goal value, but those chances are few or far between. While opponents periodically break through, they are more likely to come away with nothing. This all works out to an above-average defence. At the same time, turning the ball over higher up the pitch provides Marseille with opportunities to get shots off in transition. On a per-match basis, AVB’s men generate the second-most high press shots and an above-average volume of counter-attacking shots. 

    Given Marseille’s lack of resources, Villas-Boas is implementing these ideas with an inherited and limited squad. Dimitri Payet, who will soon turn 33, remains responsible for set pieces and getting the ball into the penalty are from open play. Morgan Sanson is good at pressuring opponents and turning the ball over in midfield before dribbling forward and finding a shot. The 25 year old has been a natural fit in this system. Other incumbents have struggled. Jordan Amavi, who had been a cromulent left back for Marseille after two lost years at Aston Villa, has seen his defensive contribution erode this season. (Florian Thauvin was also successfully repatriated after a bad time in England, but the shooting winger’s been injured all season.) At 29, Kevin Strootman is a defensive midfielder who recirculates possession sideways more than he defends. He has been on the pitch for most of this league campaign because Marseille can’t afford to replace him.

    Slight reinforcements arrived in the summer transfer window. Valentin Rongier, a 25-year-old midfielder signed from Nantes, makes a lot of sense in this system. He pairs a decent amount of progressive passing with elite tackles and, like Sanson, a ton of pressuring. The two of them make for a pair of effective — if not tremendously creative — midfielders in Marseille’s central three.

    Darío Ismael Benedetto, signed from Boca Juniors on a four-year contract, is a striker who converts chances and does very little else. Signing a striker was necessary insofar as Clinton N’Jie and Mario Balotelli left in the summer, but Benedetto will turn 30 before this season ends. 

    Isolating Benedetto is somewhat unfair because much of Marseille’s squad is old. Defenders Boubacar Kamara and Duje Caleta-Car and winger Nemanja Radonjic are the only regular contributors under 25. Marseille is counting on a few (thus far) ageless wonders to prop up what is, in effect, a team of adequate players at or nearing the end of their peak years. That’s fine for now, but a long-term risk. 

    If you’re going to be an old team, it helps to have an ageless wonder as your goalkeeper. Steve Mandanda, who returned to the club following a lost season in the Premier League (are you sensing a pattern or market inefficiency yet?), continues to be an asset at 34. He’s saved nearly five more goals than the average goalkeeper would when facing the same set of shots. He’s also been a decent contributor as Marseille builds out from the back. 

    A word of caution about supposedly ageless goalkeepers: They get injured and their backups, like the atrocious 37-year-old Yohann Pélé, are proof that Mandanda is an exception and not the norm. 

    Olympique Marseille won its first game back from France’s winter break, which prompted some outlets to note that they’re just four points back from PSG. Let’s be clear: there is no title race in France. Marseille have been second in the table despite having having the fifth-best expected goal difference. (It helps that rivals Lyon, fourth in expected goal difference before the winter break, are dysfunctional enough to remain in the bottom half.) Still, Marseille has banked some points and is performing like a contender for the Champions League spots. For a large club with limited resources, getting that cash infusion would be a win. Like some of his players, André Villas-Boas is now a little old and something of a reclamation project. Together, they’re writing an interesting new chapter. 

    Article by David Rudin