Inside Europe: Perennial basket case Marseille on the mend

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Updated: December 16, 2019

Welcome to Sportsplay’s weekly column on European football. During the club season, Anthony Lopopolo will uncover the biggest stories in the continent’s top leagues.

Trips to the Stade Velodrome were usually unpleasant. Marseille had fallen on hard times on and off the pitch, and a general air of malaise permeated the stands. Fans railed against ownership and management, hanging threatening banners to protest the way club was being run. They hung an effigy of a former player, threw fireworks and flares, and clashed with police. Club officials were even questioned by authorities in 2014 as part of a wider match-fixing probe.

The Velodrome has been an angry place for the better part of a decade. But that’s changing.

It’s amazing what results can achieve. Marseille are second in Ligue 1 after 18 matches and playing with verve and courage. Supporters are responding to manager Andre Villas-Boas’ relentless football, and his team has fed off their energy.

They have lost just once at home – in the season opener against Reims – and have tightened up at the back. The players are quick to second balls and eager to break up passes. Effort goes a long way at the Velodrome – the city lionizes its working-class roots – but it’s not just aimless running. They play with a purpose. In a recent win over Brest, Marseille took 34 shots, the most they’ve attempted in a single match in more than half a decade.

It’s a pleasant surprise after so many seasons of stale, unattractive football. No one knew what Villas-Boas would bring to the club – he spent a year out of the game to try his hand at rally racing – but he’s somehow found a working formula with a limited budget and a hodgepodge of players. Duje Caleta-Car, Nemanja Radonjic, and Jordan Amavi were all considered busts soon after they arrived in 2018, but each of them has contributed to Marseille’s current run of form. Villas-Boas has even motivated mercurial talent Dimitri Payet.

“I’ve never seen him defend so much!” Amavi said.

The whole team defends “like dogs,” midfielder Morgan Sanson added. They’ve all bought into Villas-Boas’ system, not because they’ve been asked nicely but because they’ve seen the results. Villas-Boas has tweaked as he’s gone on and communicated his changes in fluent French. (Who knew he could speak French?) That sense of understanding and togetherness is what separates this team from Marseille’s previous failures.

Jean Catuffe / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Take the match against Angers. Villas-Boas knew his opponent thrived on the counterattack, so he asked his players to concede possession. Angers didn’t know what to do with the ball, and Marseille won 2-0.

“I must congratulate Marseille and their coach, because I thought they’d approach it differently,” Angers manager Stephane Moulin said afterward. “They had other means of beating us, but the result proved them right. They defended very well, all together, and they focused on that.

“They surprised me, because to give up on playing, with the quality they have, is quite something. It’s not a criticism. It’s very good to be able to convince such players not to keep the ball.”

The key to Marseille’s success is their ability to press high and recover balls in compromising situations. Valentin Rongier, a last-minute signing from Nantes, has excelled as the leader of Marseille’s hunting pack. Even Valere Germain, affectionately known as a striker who doesn’t score goals, has proven to be useful, covering all sorts of ground in pursuit of the ball.

Villas-Boas’ style of play is hardly revolutionary – pressing is a staple of the game’s elite – but he’s given this club the organization it has long been missing.

Marseille lost their way after the death of benevolent patriarch Robert Louis-Dreyfus in 2009. They won Ligue 1 in 2010 and the Coupe de la Ligue in 2012, but that was the beginning of the end. Robert’s widow, Margarita, was in over her head as Marseille’s stand-in owner. The club cycled through several aging stars and made some highly questionable signings – Steven Fletcher looked completely out of place on loan at Marseille in 2016 – and finished as low as 13th place in the Ligue 1 standings. Money was tight, the academy was dry, and the football sucked. It reached rock bottom when Marseille lost to a bunch of amateurs in January.

The managers didn’t help. Marcelo Bielsa resigned minutes after the first match of the 2015-16 season, and Rudi Garcia made enemies in the stands with his negative approach.

There were periods of respite – Marseille made the Europa League final in 2018 – but it never lasted. American businessman Frank McCourt, who took ownership of the club in 2016, tried to fast-track Marseille’s return by signing established names like Payet, Adil Rami, Steve Mandanda, and Mario Balotelli. Payet and Mandanda are only now regaining their form. Rami and Balotelli are long gone.

McCourt’s “OM Champions Project” has somewhat been salvaged by Villas-Boas. It’s because of the Portuguese and his methods that nights at the Velodrome aren’t so glum anymore.

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