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Analysis: Why Marseille have reason to be hopeful under Bielsa’s tactics

Widely adored, tactically astute and an inspiration to hopefuls. Marcelo Bielsa has become the ‘ambassador’ of attention to detail in football. Aakriti Mehrotra analyses the Argentinian boss and what his appointment means for his new club Marsellie.

Olympique de Marseille had a very underwhelming season last time out. They finished the league in sixth position and without European football to offer in the next edition. It was almost strange that their sub-par campaign was well, so sub-par. They started the season extremely well, with six wins on the trot. They finished the season decently; their last six results read WWWWLD. It was the bad run in the middle, which constituted alternative losses and wins on too many occasions that eventually cost a good Marseille team, a European berth.

Marseille are in a league that possesses two big-money spending clubs. But at the beginning of the season, the club was tipped by many to be a dark horse for the title, or finish in the top 3. Unfortunately, the French club disappointed and gave their fans very little to cheer about. Marseille were widely praised for their signings during the summer transfer window. The likes of Payet, Thauvin, Imbula and Khalifa were all expected to have a big impact and help drive the club towards a potential title. The huge disappointment was Dimitri Payet, who was brought in from Lille, the exciting winger, who is criminally unknown to European football lovers (Carlo Ancelotti wanted to bring in Payet ahead of Fernando Torres in that particular transfer window). However, Payet failed to deliver for his new team as OM fans had expected him to. He managed eight goals and six assists in 36 league games, which is not a particularly bad feat, but when compared to the 12 goals and 13 assists in 38 league matches in the previous season, it can be understood why Marseille fans were so disappointed.

Bielsa Marsellie (1)

Andre Ayew and Andre Pierre Gignac were the two players who performed really well for the French club though and were the positives. Thauvin did well, as the youngster experienced his first season at a top club. Mathieu Valbuena was surprisingly not as effective for Baup or Anigo like they would have hoped. He did well in the former part of the campaign but became very inconsistent in the new year.

The defence was Marseille’s glaring weakness. The performances from the back were not convincing and much more was expected from Nkoulou, Diawara and Morel. Even though statistics show that the club conceded 40 goals, which is not such a bad figure per se, the back-line was not solid for most parts and 4-1 losses to lowly Valenciennes (who got relegated to Ligue 2 at the end of the season) illustrate this point.

At the end of the season, and after the team went through the entire campaign under two managers, the mood was understandably depressing. A Champions League campaign which ended in embarrassment as the Mediterranean side failed to pick up a single point (a first, for a former champion), no domestic cups and a bad finish in the league, it is understandable why fans wanted interim manager Anigo’s head. The Sporting Director of the club had stepped in as the interim coach after Baup’s sacking and was subjected to some very cruel words by the fans. Outside the club’s training facility, there was a graffiti drawn by a fan which read ‘Why Adri and not Jose?’, which basically claimed why Anigo was not dead instead of his son Adrien, who was killed in a suspected gang-related shooting in 2013. The mood of the city and the locals so passionate about their football was this sinister and depressing. But no more. 

El Loco has arrived

The Phoceens fans have been very enthusiastic about Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival. Suddenly, the glitches of last season are forgotten and everyone is hoping the magical Argentine can give the fans something to cheer about this season, the first one in 10 years where the club is without European football. Expectations are already high. In fact, with news of Bielsa’s imminent signature started doing rounds, the Provence side already started playing better. When the Argentine watched on from the stands as Marseille beat Montpellier in April, the media began discussing ‘the Bielsa effect’ (much to the annoyance of Anigo)

Fans are excited. The ‘Make Us Dream’ feeling is all around the Mediterranean club and for the first time in a while, the Marseille faithful looked forward to the pre-season this much. Bielsa has become holier for the fans after a successful pre-season that includes a 4-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen and a 2-1 win over Benfica.

MORE READING | Athletic Bilbao Tactics: Post-Bielsa Era

The Bielsa effect has been on the transfer front as well. The club has bought Romain Alessandrini (from Rennes) and Belgian star Michy Batshuayi (from Standard Liege). These two additions have reinforced the club’s attack. There hasn’t been a mass exodus. Mathieu Valbuena has left for Dynamo Moscow, Jordan Ayew has moved to Lorient and last season’s flop signing Saber Khalifa has joined Club Africain on loan.

Marclo Bielsa, nicknamed ‘El Loco’ is not called mad without reason. The line between right and wrong is very thin and it’s the same with mad and genius. The Argentine is known for his attention to detail- he has a vast library of match videos, he uses statistics, he responds to every question in his press conference and even checks pitch dimensions with a tape. Genius? At Athletic Bilbao, he ensured water was put on the pitch in patches, so as to curb Barcelona’s smooth and effective tiki-taka game. Mad?

Bielsa is a master tactician. The work he did with Chile is commended till date. Both defence and attack are worked on intricately and separately, and it is visible during the course of the match. He uses an approach which looks to cut the time taken in transition between his separate approaches in defence and attack- an idea that Pep Guardiola took from him (Guardiola called him “the best manager in the world” – 2012) and implemented at Barcelona.

The Argentine prefers a 3-3-1-3/3-6-1 or 3-3-3-1 formation. The 4 defensive players comprise the three defenders and the defensive midfielder and the 6 attacking players comprise the two wing backs and the attackers. Basically, the idea is to hold a very high defensive line, and try and play the game as much in the opponent’s half as you can. He has worked with this with Chile, Athletic Bilbao and we saw him use the latter in the warm-ups as well. The two full backs move further into the second third of the pitch and operate alongside the central midfielder. They also help the wingers or the wide forwards and also move upwards, creating much trouble for the opposite full back. He is known to employ the ‘un enganche y tres punta’ (one playmaker and three forwards) system. However, these forwards don’t necessarily have to be strikers. Wide forwards, wingers and attacking midfielders have been seen as playing further up-front and complimenting the main striker for the team.

He loves the use of crosses and one expects the likes of Ayew and Payet to be asked to cross the ball more than they did last season. The attacking midfielder has an essential role in Bielsa’s system. Thauvin did well for himself last season but this campaign is the one where he needs to make a name for himself. There are a lot of rumors about clubs like Chelsea and Arsenal launching bids for one of the hottest young prospects in French football. But the player himself should look to stay as he can prove to be a key member in Bielsa’s plans for OM’s redemption season. The Argentine asks his No.10 to continuously move forward and move into the box to deal with the incoming crosses and bury any chances which are being created by the rest of the team and assume the role of the second striker. The player should look to beat defenders with speed and dribbles. He should most importantly, move in and out of the area which is being overloaded to create space for the other attackers. The heart of the pitch constitutes three players and is the heartbeat of Bielsa’s philosophy (this include the full-backs). These players start attacks, help the defenders deal with the opposition and keep the momentum of the game going. Technically, they are the most important part of Bielsa’s system of cutting the time between defence and attack. The chemistry and the swift passing between the team will be a treat to watch in Marseille, if Bielsa can get what he had at Bilbao and Chile going at the French club.

He has often played players out of position (eg: Oscar de Marcos and Javi Martinez at Bilbao) and in the warm-ups, he employed midfielders Alaixys Romao and Mario Lemina as centre backs, and the two looked quite impressive.

However, the best part about Bielsa’s strategy is that he recognizes the importance of the swift movement off the ball and fast passing to catch opponents in vulnerable positions, but gives enough importance in retaining possession. Combine effective “tiki-taka” and counter-attacking football. Wouldn’t you have something absolutely lethal?

The other good thing about him is that he is flexible with his approach. It is not certain that he will use this 3-3-1-3 approach against sides like PSG. The Argentine moulds his tactics according to the opposition and as said before, he is very detailed with the research about his opposition. When the 3-3-1-3 model didn’t work with Bilbao, Bielsa changed to a 4-3-3 familiar system.

Of course, his managerial career has not been perfect so far. One major disappointment has been Argentina’s dismal 2002 World Cup campaign. Despite arriving as one of the favourites, Argentina failed to qualify from the group stage. One of the reasons cited for it has been fatigue players carried into the tournament which rendered them unable in fulfilling the extremely physical demands of the Bielsa system.

Though Marsellie fans are right in being so enthusiastic about his arrival, the 59 year old can’t expect a ‘bedding-in’ period at the club as patience is a word which hardly means anything to the Phoceens. A finish outside the top 4 will be considered a disappointment, given there are no European distractions. The club should try and make life (a little) difficult for big-spending arch rivals PSG and ensure that the upcoming season is not a one-horse or a two-horse race, involving only teams who spend to win. If history is anything to go by, Bielsa’s new team will fare well in his tenure and more importantly, the foundations for the future will be built in the time-being.

Written by Aakriti Mehrotra. Follow her on Twitter @Aakriti1

You can read all our ‘Specials’. And articles under our ‘Rest of the World’ blog as well. 

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