Olympique Marseille are the first of my “Teams to Watch” in the European Leagues this season. Marseille have a fairly youthful squad but with some vital experience throughout with the likes of Steve Mandanda and Mathieu Valbuena. They have a superb following, probably the best fans in France, who will be desperate for their team to improve on their 6th place finish last time out. Les Phocéens will be playing in front of 67,000 fans at the newly renovated Stade Velodrome (if negotiations over rent with the authorities are successful). Let’s not kid ourselves however, the real reason for any success at Marseille will be because of the appointment of Marcelo Bielsa.
Bielsa, the son of a fairly well-off Argentine family of politicians and lawyers, he applied his families principles of hard-work and study to football. As a teenager he used to subscribe to football magazines that came with video copies of football matches that he analysed for hours and stored. You could say he is the most influential “student of the game” still working today, the Stephen Hawking of football. His obsessive, unorthodox nature has earned him the nickname El Loco and once claimed that over he Christmas to New Year break he planned to undertake two hours of phyisical activity and fourteen hours of watching football videos per day, presumably leaving the remaining eight hours to the more trivial and unimportant tasks of eating and sleeping. His aggressive, high-intensity, high pressing style of football has been copied by many coaches, including some of the best in the world, known as Bielsistas. The coaches that follow Bielsa’s ways most closely and successfully include Jorge Sampaoli of Chile, Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham (who played under Bielsa during El Loco‘s time as Argentina manager) and not least Pep Guardiola, who described Bielsa as “the best coach in the world” in a press conference when Bielsa was in charge at Athletic Bilbao.
Bielsa’s tactics are what earn him his nickname of El Loco. He first caught the eye of European football fans during the 2010 World Cup, setting up Chile in a 3-3-1-3 formation. This paired with aggressive pressing and high intensity passing captured the imagination of football fans worldwide. So far in pre-season with Marseille he has been using something not so dissimilar, employing a 5-1-3-1-cum-3-3-3-1 formation in three of Marseille’s four pre-season friendlies so far. He did use a more common 4-2-3-1 in their 5-0 thrashing of Holland’s Willem II however this offers a similarly shaped front four in terms of the first two pressing lines and I think was only used as Willem are the only team they faced to field only one centre forward. Having three central defenders marking one striker is regarded as a waste of resources that could be used higher up the pitch so I expect L’OM to use four-at-the-back this season when facing teams playing one striker. Andre-Pierre Gignac has been his first-choice centre-forward so far and Mario Lemina was interestingly being used as a ball playing centre back before Nicolas Nkoulou returned from his holiday after his World Cup campaign with Cameroon. Below is what I expect Marseille’s starting XI to be this season with the current players they have:
This squad on paper is nowhere near some of the elite European sides, and behind that of PSG, Monaco and maybe even Lyon and Lille. However if they follow Bielsa’s style and work at the intensity he demands, this team can be successful. They have already shown this in their four pre-season friendlies. Impressive wins 4-1 versus Bayer Leverkusen, 2-1 versus Benfica, and 5-0 versus Willem II followed by a slightly disappointing 1-1 draw against Bari has stood them in good stead for the season opener away at Bastia on 9th August. The equalising goal in that Bari game was quintessentially Bielsa:
1)As the ball starts to reach the CB, the OM payers realise he is somewhat isolated and one man runs towards the man on the ball, whilst deeper players push up.
2)The centre forward, Batshuayi then takes up a strategic position blocking off the pass across goal, whilst also being close enough to the GK and DM to make the man on the ball unsure who to pass to.
3)The ball is played to the deep midfielder who is immediately under pressure, and is forced to make a dodgy pass to the GK which is picked up by Batshuayi who scores.
So, What can they achieve this season?
Their overall success this season will depend on two periods of the season:
Firstly, the adaptation time. It took Athletic Bilbao some time to adapt to Bielsa’s ways and only received two points from their first five matches in his first season there, 2011/12. After this initial teething period they went on a sensational run losing only one match from September 24th 2011 to January 22nd 2012.
The second key point of the season will be when the players inevitably become exhausted from the high intensity style of football and injuries occur, having a negative impact on results. In the 2011/12 season this came in March, where from March 11th to March 31st Athletic picked up only one point from a possible fifteen. Reducing the time and severity of these two periods of the season will be vital. Athletic finished 10th that season but if they, for example, took eight points from their first fifteen, and a further eight from fifteen in the period from 11th March to 31st March, they would have finished in third position.
Marseille will definitely be helped by the fact that they do not have to play in any form of European competition this season as the way the Bilbao players tired late of that season was definitely due to them reaching the Europa League and Copa Del Rey finals. Also, only three Marseille players played at the World Cup compared to ten from their bitter rivals PSG. This helps as the players have had more time to recover and more players have had more pre-season time to get back into full fitness and adapt to the new system they will be playing.
Will they topple PSG and Monaco? Probably not PSG with their deep squad and Qatari financial backing. However, I do think a James Rodriguez-less AS Monaco, with Falcao’s future still in doubt could be a team that Marseille will be setting their sights on finishing above. I think L’OM’s target will be the top 3 UEFA Champions League qualifying spots however getting into the top 2 to get automatic Champions League football could be achievable. No matter what their results are, Marseille will be one of the teams I will be sure to watch as often as possible, and they should be one of yours too.
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