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Liam Bekker takes a close look at Marseille’s combative young centre-back, Stephane Sparagna.
The completion of renovations to Stade Vélodrome, coupled with an unsustainable market strategy, meant Olympique de Marseille started the season in a precarious financial position. The extent of their financial shortcomings was such that a mass flogging of the club’s prized players was necessary to meet the requirements of the French financial regulator, DNCG.
With no fewer than twelve players departing and the club’s financial position still on a knife’s edge, Marseille were forced to adopt a new approach going forward based around the purchase and promotion of promising young talent. One player who has benefitted from this new low-cost-high-reward philosophy is 20-year old defender, Stéphane Sparagna.
Born on the 17th February 1995, Stéphane Sparagna is a home-grown product of Marseille and has been on the club’s books since 2002. He broke into l’OM’s first team against Bastia at the start of last season when he was handed his competitive debut by then-manager Marcelo Bielsa. He made just three further appearances for the first team during the campaign but continued to develop at an impressive rate with the reserve side.
At the conclusion of the season, Sparagna was selected to captain the France U20 squad at the annual Toulon Tournament. The centre-back scored from a free-kick in the opening game against the USA before netting what ultimately proved to be the winning goal in the final against Morocco, in the process leading France to their first triumph in the tournament since 2007.
Following his success in Toulon, Sparagna has seen his opportunities with the first team increase. During the pre-season he started and played the full match in Marseille’s victory over Juventus in the Robert Louis-Dreyfus Trophy and has since gone on to make his debut for the club in the Europa League, all the while continuing to feature in Ligue 1.
Sparagna plays as a centre-back by trade but has proven his versatility in the past by impressing as a defensive midfielder for Marseille’s reserves. The young Frenchman’s style of play is a throwback to the 90’s when no nonsense tackles received applause instead of bookings. His uncompromising handling of opposition attackers is complimented well by an adept sense of anticipation and positioning, the style of which has seen him compared to the likes of Thiago Silva and Sergio Ramos.
At 1.86m he is similar in physical stature to the acclaimed duo and provides a similarly real threat from set-pieces. Much like with Ramos, this goal threat is two-fold as Sparagna is strong both in the air and with the ball at his feet. This ability was best illustrated in Toulon where Sparagna netted a free-kick from 20-yards out against the USA in the opening match. He then scored again in the final, this time heading home from a Romain Habran corner.
Sparagna is also blessed with a natural athleticism. The young Olympian has a good turn of pace and his level of stamina allows him to cover a great distance during a match. In an era of strict systems and formations the value of scramble defence is often overlooked but Sparagna’s fitness and work rate make him a master of recovery, enabling him to effect last-ditch tackles with an incredible degree of control.
As is reflected by his captaining of the France U20 side in Toulon, Sparagna possesses great leadership skills despite his tender age. A hallmark of a good defender is the ability to take command over the defensive line and organize it as the game dictates. Sparagna has shown consistently this season that he is able to do just that with the willingness to direct players much the senior of him. This influence coupled with strong communication skills reflect on a player who is a natural-born leader.
However, despite his mental strength and control in the challenge, Sparagna has developed a penchant for racking up bookings. To date, the combative centre-back has racked up five yellow cards across all competitions for Marseille this season and was recently sent off on his debut for the France U21 side. Given his style of play, though, one has to accept that bookings are a natural by-product of an effective enforcer. Quite simply, it comes with the territory.
A final question mark is raised over Sparagna’s durability. Though blessed with natural fitness and stamina, the 20-year old has shown signs that he may be injury-prone. He has already suffered a number of injuries in his fledgling career and his integration into the first team was delayed for an extended period as a result of a serious meniscus injury to his right knee.
The second half of 2015 has been an important time in the career Stéphane Sparagna. The young Frenchman previously found himself behind Baptiste Aloé and Gaël Andonian in the pecking order but, following the loaning out of his fellow youngsters this season, it has become clear that the Marseille hierarchy have a lot of faith and expectation in Sparagna. Though his game time has increased from last season, Sparagna still finds his starting berths limited by the presence of Karim Rekik and Rolando. However, Marseille have struggled immensely with the duo in defence and the new signings have shown little to suggest that they are able turn it around any time soon.
In Sparagna, Marseille already have a home-grown solution and with the backing of fans and former players alike it is only a matter of time before he makes a permanent starting position his own. With Steve Mandanda and Lassana Diarra showing the only signs of leadership within the squad, it is also a real possibility that Sparagna will one day take the armband at his beloved Marseille.
Sparagna is also set to become a mainstay in the France U21 squad but a call-up to the senior national team is still some way off. Once he has developed himself as a regular starter for Marseille, however, there is no doubt that Sparagna will join the likes of Mamadou Sakho, Raphaël Varane and Kurt Zouma in France’s exciting young defence.
Written by Liam Bekker