Around a month ago, I wrote a piece on Marcelo Bielsa and his two year tenure as a domestic manager with Athletic Bilbao. Within that I touched upon the positives that occurred during his time with the Chilean National Team and the 2-3 games Marseille had already played. If you didn’t read the article, I can sum it up as this: I had no idea whether Bielsa would be cut out for managing a domestic side, posting rather underwhelming shot differential numbers despite having above average talent with Athletic, especially in 2011-12 (though their runs in both the Europa League and the Copa Del Rey were a feather in his cap). As much as I respect the eccentricity of himself as a manager, it was a legit question to ask, whether the man was cut out for domestic managing.
It hasn’t been the smoothest of transitions either. There have been rumblings about Bielsa only sticking around for one season, highlighted by him saying numerous times in a press conference recently that there’s an opt out clause in his two year contract. That wasn’t even his first run in as the manager of Olympic Marseille, as he criticised the club president Vincent Labrune over a lack of heads up during the summer transfer window, including the signing of touted CB prospect Doria.
Brushing that part aside (it’s admittedly not so easy to do), it’s been an otherwise fantastic start for Olympic Marseille, who find themselves as the sole leaders in Ligue 1. Since their week 2 defeat to Montpellier, Marseille have won five games in a row, scoring 16 goals and only conceding three in the process. André-Pierre Gignac is averaging over 1 non penalty goals per 90, which would rank him among the very best forwards in world football. They have two of the most promising young players in Ligue 1 in midfielder Gianelli Imbula and left back Benjamin Mendy. Hell, they’ve even converted a natural left sided midfielder in Dimitri Payet into a Mathieu Valbuena-like clone, averaging 3.57 key passes per 90.
All this does come with a grain of salt, however. Their five game winning streak has come against some below average opposition, with Reims’ 11th place finish being the highest any of the five French clubs finished last season. Their conversion rate over the last five games is 50%. You don’t need to have a large understanding of statistics to know that the law of averages dictates that won’t be the norm forever.
But the fact that their shot differential numbers are holding up to the degree that they have does suggest there’s some form of repeatable consistency. Marseille were actually quite good when it came to Total Shot Ratio (a decent indicator of season success and is a repeatable metric), ranking fourth behind Monaco, Lille, and PSG. This season they’ve upped their TSR to a >.600 share, which is considerably higher than the .571 posted Marseille posted last season. They however were quite unlucky when it came to PDO (SV% + SH%). PDO is a rough estimate of luck, so if teams are comfortably above 1000, chances are they’re being helped with some kind of luck. The reverse is true if it’s under 1000.
Marseille according to PDO had the fourth worst luck in Ligue 1 at 966. This season, it’s at 1178. The one thing to look out for though with PDO is that in relation to the NHL where this stat is uber popular with analytical writers and statisticians (less so for the more staunch old school talking head), there’s probably a greater influence of skill involved in football (teams along the likes of PSG can have high PDO numbers year after year), which is why expected goal models have been gaining loads of steam in the football sabermetric world.
The neat thing about this Marseille side going past the numbers is how easily the team can transition formations depending on the situation and opponent. They’ve previously experimented with playing Brice Dja Djédjé as a RM before switching flanks and doing the same with Benjamin Mendy. Their 4-2-3-1 formation that’s been used very recently often and quickly changes back to a three at the back formation, sometimes with 5 midfielders, other times with four. In their 1-0 victory versus Guingamp earlier this season, they played a 3-4-3 formation that allowed Gignac to drift a lot as a RW, which deviated from the 3-4-2-1 that was played in the first half where Ayew and Thauvin played more centrally as CAM’s instead of wingers.
It’s been a great story to see the revival of one of France’s historic clubs. The inevitable question to ask after all that is whether this whole thing is sustainable, and in a word: no. Sustaining a 1178 PDO over a large stretch of the season will be close to impossible to do. Matter of fact, just sustaining a conversion% of close to 50% over the rest of the season is practically impossible by itself. You don’t want to use “the schedule has been soft” as a crutch because there’s soft schedules spots for every team at the level of a Marseille or a Bordeaux or a Lille, but this is a hot streak that will likely run its course in the near future.
Nonetheless, this is a quality Marseille side that should be able to compete for a CL spot and could quite possibly contend for automatic qualification to next year’s CL with Monaco’s dramatic fall from grace. According to Simon Gleave, the head of analysis at Infostrada Sports, Marseille’s SCoRe (Seasonal Comparative Results) is +5 compared to where it was last season. Meanwhile Monaco are -7.
Gignac will eventually cool off (unless he’s really serious about posting a NPG rate that rivals Sergio Aguero and Luis Suarez) but even then, he’s got a great chance in producing the best NPG per 90 rate he’s ever done at the age of 29, a great thing to see from a striker who endured some rough times before his rebound in the last two seasons. The team has exciting young talent and even if he stays for only one season, they have a coach who so far has transitioned well into the style of play Ligue 1 exhibits.
Being able to avoid the landmines that European football brings has its advantages, and Liverpool proved a lot can be done with only having to deal with domestic football. (Just don’t let your captain slip in the most important game of the season. You’ll thank me later for it).