It was almost impossible to ignore the 2014-15 iteration of Olympique Marseille for a number of reasons. Whether it was manager Marcelo Bielsa telling the press not even two months into the job that he had an opt out clause after one season in his two year contract, whether it was the attractive, vibrant football that made them a hipster’s dream, or whether it was the epic collapse that took them from Ligue 1 title contender (they led the league from Sept. 21 to Jan. 11) to fourth place and the Europa League, Marseille could not be ignored.
That last part was perhaps the biggest death knell for the club. Losing the third and final CL spot to Monaco meant losing even more players than expected during the summer transfer window. It was known throughout the season that midfielder Andre Ayew and striker Andre-Pierre Gignac were leaving the club in the summer because Marseille couldn’t afford their wages.
(It should be noted that Ligue 1 clubs in general, outside of PSG and to a much lesser extent Monaco, don’t have much in the way of money, so dealing with wages is always difficult.)
But finishing in the Europa League spot triggered a drop in wages for Dimitri Payet, which led to his move to West Ham. Midfielder Gianelli Imbula, a crown jewel for Marseille, became Porto’s record signing. It’s tough to say whether Imbula would’ve stayed had Marseille guaranteed themselves CL football next season but not being in the CL couldn’t have helped OM’s chances at keeping the burgeoning talent.
Rod Fanni and Jeremy Morel had their contracts expire, with the former leaving for rivals Lyon and the latter heading for Qatar. Fanni and Morel were the makeshift center back pairing for Marseille last season when Nicolas Nkoulou missed the majority of the winter with a knee injury. The duo was pretty horrific in Nkoulou’s absence but they were at least there to soak up the minutes at CB, a position in which Marseille are still ridiculously thin. (It didn’t help that Bielsa banished Doria to the point of sending him back on loan to Sao Paulo midway through the season.)
Losing both Imbula and Payet in one summer window has been extremely rough for the French club. Payet was arguably one of the three best players in Ligue 1 last season, as Bielsa converted him into a centrally-based dynamo attacking midfielder. He led Ligue 1 in assists and chances created by a huge margin while ranking third in Weighted Chances Created Plus (soccer’s spinoff of Weighted Runs Created Plus). He was the hub of Marseille’s vibrant attack, an attack that in the previous two seasons lay very dormant.
|Year||Expected Goals For||Goals For|
|2013-14 (Payet’s first of two seasons with OM)||46.4||53|
At their peak last season, Marseille played attacking football as effervescent as any team in Europe sans Barcelona. A combination of quick tempo passing and high pressing instilled by everyone’s favorite wild man Bielsa played right into the hands of a creative genius like Payet.
But Imbula’s departure will be more felt across more of the pitch than Payet’s. His dribbling was a key part of initiating attacks for Marseille, especially when they wanted to set up possession in the final third. His stamina helped maintain whatever semblance the club had defensively, and his impact was felt despite the fact that he rarely ever shot the ball (1.4 shots per 90 this season).
The exodus of Ayew/Fanni/Gignac/Imbula/Morel/Payet signals a new era for Marseille. Marseille were solid last season even with their disappointing fourth place finish in Ligue 1 and the six departing players helped play a major part in this (both good and bad). Marseille ranked second in Expected Goal Ratio, fourth in Shots on Target Ratio and fourth in Team Rating. Gignac revived his career to the point where he was actually recalled to the French squad (something that as recently as two seasons ago would’ve been insane to imagine happening). Gignac finished eighth in wCC+ while posting the fifth best non penalty goal rate in Ligue 1 for players that played at least 500 minutes.
If there’s one positive to be said about Marseille currently, it’s that the age dynamic of the clubs’ players currently is positive relative to where they are in the French football hierarchy. Simon Gleave did great work on the age curve in football and how Manchester City were facing problems with their aging squad. Here’s Marseille’s age matrix for their current players with the prime years area shaded in red.
The majority of the current squad is very young with an average age of 23.5 years old, around where young stars transition into their prime years. This comes with better potential for getting decent transfer fees for the players, something that is very beneficial for Marseille considering their money crunch and Ligue 1 as a whole.
It will be interesting to see how Marseille incorporate all the wingers they have. As it stands right now, Abdelaziz Barrada seems like the most natural replacement for Payet in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Marseille leaned heavily on during the season. Perhaps Florian Thauvin will be shifted more centrally like Payet was last season. For the amount of stick that Thauvin got last season for his performance (some of which was deserved), he’s still an immensely talented winger and perhaps not having to deal with the responsibilities that come with being a Bielsa winger can free him up to be the attacking force many envisioned he would be.
Another option could be recreating what Saint Etienne did last season, when they shifted into formations that didn’t feature a modern #10. ASSE and Marseille don’t play similar football, actually quite from it, but the skeletons in terms of the formation setup ASSE used last season could be in the cards for Marseille. A 4-3-3 could work if OM find one more central midfielder in the transfer market. Perhaps a 3-4-3 is an option, as that would play into Bielsa’s wheelhouse with the three in the back setup and would allow nearly all of the wingers to play at the same time, allowing OM to not sacrifice attacking talent.
Regardless of the formation that Marseille will play with next season, the incoming batch of talent will be hard pressed to recreate the magic that the attacking players had last season:
|2014-15 wCC+ of Outgoing attacking players||2014-15 wCC+ of incoming attacking players|
|Andre Ayew: 76.4||Bouna Sarr: 107.4|
|Dimitri Payet: 155.3||Lucas Ocampos: 95.2|
|Andre-Pierre Gignac: 121.8||Georges-Kévin Nkoudou: 52.5|
|wCC+ Sum Outgoing: 353.5||wCC+ Sum Incoming: 255.1|
It’s a decent assumption to make that Marseille’s attack won’t be as prolific as it was last season, even with the wingers brought in. Michu Batshuayi was very good last season and will presumably be OM’s leading striker for the upcoming season, but a lot of his minutes came while as a sub, which can inflate a strikers’ numbers to a certain degree. There’s a good chance he’ll regress a fair bit from the wCC+ of 128.8 he registered last season.
A regression in the attack could mean bad news for Marseille because the defense last season was nothing to write home about. Marseille gave up the eighth most shots in Ligue 1 last season while ranking an unimpressive eighth in both goals conceded and expected goals conceded. Those numbers aren’t what you would expect from a CL contender. Some of that was due to the lack of talent that the club had defensively, but it also was due to Bielsa’s stubbornness in man-marking pressing.
The greatest example of this was during the second rendition of Le Classique between PSG and Marseille. OM pressed and pressed, leaving holes everywhere for PSG to exploit and at the end when Marseille needed to create the equalizer, they were too spent to do anything. The same thing happened versus Caen and the dreadful 3-5 loss to Lorient which all but sealed Monaco’s place in the top three.
What’s potentially scary for Marseille is that if they follow the same path that Bielsa’s Athletic Club did, it could potentially get even worse for them defensively for the upcoming season. Athletic in 2011-12 (Bielsa’s first of two seasons) ranked 10th in goals conceded and though they ranked third last in shots conceded per game, at least the opponents’ shot selection was diversified enough to not cause serious damage. That Athletic side, if you’ll recall, made a dramatic run to the Europa League Final that season.
Fast forward to the next season and Athletic got a lot worse defensively. The Basque side gave up the fourth most goals in La Liga while ranking last in penalty area shots conceded and third-to-last in shots conceded in the six-yard box.
Marseille before Bielsa were already slowly been trending towards becoming a worse defense and Bielsa helped exacerbate the decline:
|Year||Expected Goals Against||Goals Conceded|
A silver lining for Marseille here is that as of now, Nicolas Nkoulou is still currently with the club and CB Karim Rekik signed from Manchester City as well. Add Baptise Aloe and a CB core of Aloe/Doria/Nkoulou/Rekik could actually be a sizable upgrade over what Marseille had to work with last season.
It’s very hard to see OM competing for the top three in Ligue 1 with the added fixture list that’s come with the Europa League for a club with a very small squad. In addition, Lyon have kept Alexandre Lacazette and added a capable striker in Claudio Beauvue, Monaco replaced Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Geoffrey Kondogbia with Fares Bahouli/Ivan Cavaleiro/Stephan El Shaarawy/Adama Traore, and it’s very hard to see how both of these teams will get worse unless injuries deplete their squads. Marseille are in the same bracket that Saint Etienne and Bordeaux inhabit: CL hopefuls that need a couple of lucky breaks to break into the top three.
A top six finish and a decent run in the Europa League should be attainable goals for Marseille next season. Despite the exodus of talent from the club, there’s still a healthy amount of youth that should keep OM within the top six and possibly return to the Europa League again for a second straight season. Ligue 1 desperately needs its clubs to do better in that competition and Marseille could do it if they sacrifice their league standing a bit.
It’s an interesting time to be a Marseille supporter, and with Marcelo Bielsa as manager, you’re at least guaranteed that if the season turns out to be a total disaster, it’ll be of the spectacular variety.