After an incredible run of 8 wins on the trot, Bielsa’s men seem to have stubbed their toes with two losses in their last three Ligue 1 games. Aakriti Mehrotra documents the need for a Plan B for the current league leaders.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side has taken Europe by surprise. Not that it was ever a question if the Argentine ‘could’ make the Phoceens an effective unit in France, a nation where football recently has become dominated by clubs who spend to win, but the club’s success came too quickly.
Their season started with a draw to Bastia and was a game where two new managers in the league were pitted against each other. Claude Makelele’s side hosted Marcelo Bielsa’s. Expectedly, Bielsa set his team with three players at the back: Stephane Sparagna, N. N’Koulou and Jeremy Morel formed the defensive back-line with full backs Dja Djedje and Benajamin Mendy forward in a more attacking position. Ginaelli Imbula, the very strong defensive midfielder was Marseille’s one man midfield, shielding the defence and providing impetus to the attack. Romain Allesandrini, Dimitri Payet and Florian Thauvin lined up right behind Andre-Pierre Gignac in the attack. A familiar 3-3-3-1 worked effectively for large parts of the game and 90 minutes of high drama ended with both teams getting a point apiece.
The next game was a 2-0 loss to Montpellier and Bielsa tried a different formation with four men at the back; two full backs focused more on their defensive duties with Imbula receiving some support in the midfield as the experienced Romao lined up alongside him.
These experimental teams helped Bielsa find his perfect one, a XI that won eight games on the trot. Set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the back line comprised the four familiar names. The midfield was the duo of Imbula and Romao. The three men behind lone striker Gignac were Andre Ayew, Florian Thauvin and Dimitri Payet. Between Payet and Thauvin, the position of the right flank and the zola zone (or the Number 10 spot) was assigned.
This team and largely this formation (altered to 3-3-3-1 occasionally with Romao acting like the third centre back) won eight games consecutively. Everything seemed to be going perfectly. Last season, the player who was dubbed as a ‘flop’, Dimitri Payet, has really turned up for Bielsa and has delivered consistently. Gignac, who was always a goal-scoring threat, but was somewhat a 15 goals a season kind of striker, has become more prolific than anyone would have imagined in August and already has 10 goals to his name (In all probabilities, the Frenchman won’t continue at the Velodrome next season as the Marseille management has sadly, already conceded defeat in getting him to extend his contract that ends next summer). The good form of both of these players has forced France coach Didier Deschamps to call them up to the national team. Thauvin, who was always an exciting talent and did well even last season after his somewhat controversial move, also looks more mature and more consistent now. Imbula has probably been Marseille’s most impressive player and has been the focal point in Bielsa’s new-look side. The defense looks much sharper than last season. Benjamin Mendy is another youngster who has done exceedingly well for most parts this season. N’Koulou and Mandanda have surprised the most with their terrific form.
This team looks like the perfect balance between attack and defence; quick attacking transitions, and possession. But for four matches now, Marseille seem to be struggling. These four matches comprise two losses to Lyon and PSG and a narrow victory over Lens in the league; and another loss to Rennes in the domestic cup.
Marseille’s attacking approach has been very impressive and a sheer joy to watch. The chemistry between Ayew, Payet, Thauvin and Gignac is mesmerizing and there seems to be almost a telepathic connection between these players. Some goals have seen an incredible build up. There seem to be clear instructions from the management to have a high tempo attack in the first 20 minutes. Opponents often go into a defensive mindset after the Phoceens get their first goal and often get punished with them putting two or three more goals in the back of the net, like against Nice.
However, interestingly, Marseille can’t seem to get back into a game after going a goal down and they struggle immensely if they don’t strike in the first half an hour or so. They are also unable to win the game if their goal is cancelled out and seem to find the going even tougher if the opponent strikes in the first half.
Against Lyon, they failed to find an opening initially and gradually their attack started fading and becoming wasteful. Lyon put on an impressive defensive performance which cannot be put out of the equation but it is safe to say that the fact that they couldn’t find an initial opening was instrumental in them not finding an opening all game. Once Gourcuff, who impressed throughout, scored in the 65th minute, it was all but confirmed that Lyon will get the three points.
Their last game in the league was against PSG and the visitors were again victims of this same theory. This is arguably France’s biggest league match, between two clubs that can’t stand each other, in totally different circumstances than one would have envisioned at the start of the season. Marseille started very brightly and Gignac almost scored in the opening five minutes with a great header.
But as was expected, PSG contained the initial threat and slowly got themselves back into the game. Moura scored in the 38th minute and expectedly (again), Marseille couldn’t find themselves back in the game. There were opportunities, but the visitors just didn’t capitalize on them. Imbula’s shocking sending off ended the game and Cavani scored late in the second half to seal the game PSG’s way.
Only against Bastia on the opening day and against Caen and Lens, have they defied this trend and taken something away from the matches after the opponent scored first (Bastia) and after their strikes were cancelled out by the opposition (Caen and Lens). But even against Lens at Stade Vélodrome, the desperation shown in the second half was glaring. They completed 6 out of 19 crosses in the first half, about 1 in 3; and 0 out of 10 crosses in the second half.
Against Rennes (in the cup), Batshuayi’s early goal was cancelled by Anders Agnes Konradsen at the hour mark and thereafter, Marseille couldn’t score despite many wasteful efforts. Philipp Hosiner scored for Rennes right at the death to ensure that his team progresses in the cup competition, unlike the league leaders.
The second half is turning out to be a big problem for Marseille and their French opponents are beginning to figure out how to get something out of the game. Bielsa’s men seem to lose out on attacking momentum after the interval and it almost looks like two different teams are playing the two halfs. Their emphatic form in the opening games has ensured they still remain on top of the table despite losing to PSG and Lyon recently. Bielsa might be as stubborn as someone can get in some departments (reluctance to play the talented Doria to prove a point to the board is an example of this). But we know that El Loco can change styles, formations etc to ensure his team win games. Marseille need that effective Plan B and if they don’t find it soon, they might be put out of the race for the Championship.
Written by Aakriti Mehrotra