The are two ways of looking at the 2017–18 season for Marseille. On the one hand, Marseille got all the way to the Europa League final, their first continental cup final since the 2004 UEFA Cup. They played some of the best football the Stade Veledrome has seen this decade, Florian Thauvin had by far the best season of his career and became a certified star. Dimitri Payet continued to defy conventional aging curves by having another great season at age 29, and a lot of the veteran talent in place had enough in the tank to help as credible supporting pieces. A lot of good things happened for Marseille last season, and you could build a credible argument that they were one of the three best teams in Ligue 1.
But, despite all of those good things, Marseille's main goal of qualifying for the Champions League did not come to fruition as they finished 4th, and that brought their transfer policy over the past couple of seasons to a greater focus. Whereas Monaco and Lyon have focused more on sustainability by acquiring young talents or having academy players come through the system and start for the first team, Marseille focused more on experience and allocating resources towards players in their late twenties and early thirties with the likes of Payet, Luiz Gustavo, Kostas Mitroglou, and Kevin Strootman.
We’re seeing the downside of going heavy on older players, as Marseille have not approached the level of performance that they showed for major parts of last season. Marseille were top three within Ligue 1 last season in both shot differential and expected goal differential, whereas through 16 games this season, Marseille are fourth in expected goal difference per game at 0.19 with a shot differential per game of 3.13. Those are okay numbers, but for a team trying to compete for Champions League positions, they're on the lower end of the spectrum. The defense has declined a little bit with regards to shot suppression and quality, though it’s still at a manageable level if the attack was humming along like it was last season, but instead there's been a clear drop off in performance going forward.
Another way to visualize the decline of Marseille is to look at the distribution of expected goals through time intervals in a match, to see how they’ve performed as the match has gone on. A hallmark for Marseille last season was their ability to control the game, keep the opponent at arms length, and then apply the pressure late on and turn small leads into something even more decisive. What’s happened this season has been the opposite trend: as the game gets closer to its conclusion, Marseille lose their control and things become much more topsy-turvy.
What made Marseille such a favorite for hipsters last season was their ability to maintain the delicate balance of taking a high volume of shots while maintaining healthy shot locations, all the while they would pump crosses into the box at a higher than league average level, which was really hard to do. They would play aesthetically pleasing football in a manner that was common for clubs managed by Rudi Garcia when they’re at their best: constantly supporting the man on the ball in short spaces before springing into life and putting pressure on the opponents near the penalty box. It was a methodical style of play that fit well with the squad makeup that Marseille had. Even when crossing the ball, there was sophistication into how they went about it, like in this play from Marseille's 3-0 victory versus Rennes last season. Lucas Ocampos's run into the heart of the penalty box is a nice diversion which allows Morgan Sanson to saunter in unopposed for a free shot on goal.
The collective team brilliance that Marseille had for major parts of last season in attack hasn't been there nearly as much through 16 games. There are larger gaps between the player on the ball and his teammates, as teams have been doing a better job in making it harder to access passing lanes. As a result, the likes of Florian Thauvin and Dimitri Payet have seen their play decline noticeably from an expected goals standpoint. There have been switches in formations to try and combat the issues, but they haven't really worked out. In their 3-1 victory against Amiens in late November when they tried a back three/five, the combination play showed flashes of what it was last year but without the final execution. Marseille made a big bet over the summer by effectively switching Andre Zambo Anguissa for Kevin Strootman. It was one that fit their philosophy of getting an established veteran player with a little bit of name cache, especially given Strootman's experience under Garcia at Roma. Selling Zambo Anguissa at the price he went for, in isolation, was a defensible move. Even though I thought Zambo Anguissa was very good and played a larger role than people realized in Marseille's success, it's understandable that Marseille sold high on him. It was an undeniable risk to place as many eggs as Marseille did in the Strootman basket. As a club, you better be damn sure whenever you're spending ample resources (wages and transfer fee) on a player at that age bracket. Maybe things can turn around, but to this point, Strootman has not provided close to the same value that Zambo Anguissa brought to the table last season. For the amount of money that Marseille have spent over the past few transfer windows, it's pretty odd that little of that cash has gone to replenishing the goalkeeper situation that's been in desperate need of improvement. For all the good things that Steve Mandanda has done during his time at Marseille, there's evidence to suggest that a replacement is needed. Both last season and in this season, Mandanda has been below average in Goal Saved Above Average % (difference between actual-expected save percentage). This season, Mandanda ranks 21st among all Ligue 1 keepers in GSAA% at -6.9%. Yohann Pele, Marseille's backup, ranks 27th with a GSAA% at -19.8%. Having multiple goalkeepers who are performing significantly below average in shot stopping is a recipe for leaking goals at a higher rate.
It probably was unrealistic to expect Marseille to produce at quite the same level that they did last season, especially in attack as they were a sub-elite attack domestically. Considering the age profile for a number of the players on the squad and how much they were being relied on, there was always the chance that things weren’t going to be as smooth as they did previously. With employing a squad that puts a heavy trust on older players, you’re susceptible to having players decline 5-10% from season to season. Have enough players decline in performance and you have similar issues that Marseille are dealing with currently.
The good news for Marseille is that the standard for getting into the top three this season looks to be at a lower level than what it was last season, when Ligue 1 had four very good teams (PSG, Monaco, Lyon, Marseille) and the other 16 teams weren’t anything much to write about. That hasn’t been the case this season as Lyon have vacillated between inspiring/uninspiring, and Monaco are still in the relegation zone through nearly half the season. In some ways, 2018–19 in Ligue 1 has resembled what the 2015–16 season was when it took a long time before Lyon eventually upped their standard of play to something that resembled a prototypical Champions League level side. As much as the likes of Montpellier, Lille, and St Etienne have impressed, you’d rather try and catch those clubs for the top three spots than Monaco/Lyon when they’re their usual selves.
Even in the event that Marseille turn things around and qualify for the Champions League at the end of the season, there should be a deeper look at the way they operate in the transfer market. It's clear that Marseille have chosen the identity of being a club that looks for immediate impact over long term sustainability since the ownership takeover in 2016. For a club that doesn't have unlimited or close to unlimited finances, it doesn't seem smart to tie your hopes on a high number of players either exiting their primes or at the latter stages of their prime years, because you'll be on the hook with their contracts. This isn't to say that what Monaco and Lyon do in betting their hopes on young talents are full proof plans with no downside potential, but rather that strategy comes with more surplus value than what Marseille have been doing.
It's not been a good season for Marseille. They were embarrassed in the Europa League group stages, and their domestic form has suffered greatly as well. They went from being one of the more exciting teams in Europe to something much more ordinary. The only saving grace is that Ligue 1 is in such a jumbled place with Monaco's implosion, so there's still enough time to salvage the season. Marseille are what happens when you bet the farm on veteran talents, and that bet doesn't come to fruition.