Yet another one of my seemingly wayward predictions judging on early season form, perhaps I should have swapped Montpellier and Marseille around when I handed over my tips! L’OM fans are used to enduring slow starts to the season but this one must be trying their patience. Despite a pre-season brimming with optimism, in their first four games they have drawn three and lost one leaving them 16th place in the table with what was expected to be one of the most solid backlines in Ligue 1 this year shipping goals and an attack that still looks toothless at times. So where is it all going wrong at Stade Vélodrome?
The most immediate problem is that Les Phocéens are conceding goals at an alarming rate. Seven goals in four games is not Championnat material in fact, Valenciennes find themselves bottom of the league and have only conceded five. Despite having lost two games by this point last year when they were 10th after four rounds, they had also won one match and let in one less goal whilst scoring the same amount. Interestingly there are parallels with the same point of the 2007/2008 season where Albert Emon left Marseille in 19th place at the end of September before Eric Gerets arrived to lead the club to a third place finish and a famous away victory over Liverpool in the Champions League.
On paper Marseille’s defence should be a formidable unit however, with defensive midfielder Stéphane Mbia occupying one of the centre-back roles until his injury despite Souleymane Diawara and Nicolas N’Koulou’s availability, the back four has not looked settled. New addition Jérémy Morel, Diawara and N’Koulou all played regularly last season and César Azpilicueta is not a new arrival despite his prolonged absence through injury so the backline should not be leaking this many goals. That said; the new-look group has barely had a chance to line up together so far and for them to iron out these issues it will take time that is quickly running out given their rivals’ form.
Despite the fact that the goals have been coming so far this season with six currently, going forward the side does not look as imperious as it has done in the past and the recent 0-0 home draw with Saint-Étienne underlined l’OM’s woes. Loïc Rémy and Mathieu Valbuena have been the shining lights in Marseille’s slow start to the season, scoring and providing goals regularly and earning call-ups to Laurent Blanc’s recent France squad in the process. However, the pair of them will not be able to carry the side through the whole season and the club’s recent treatment of André-Pierre Gignac painfully illustrates how little faith there is in the other striking options.
Manager Didier Deschamps recently admitted to understanding the striker’s difficult position given the club’s actions. Speaking to L’Equipe he said: “His pride has been hurt and I can understand that. The best solution would have been to sign a new forward and keep Gignac, but it was impossible economically. I have not lost trust in him. We have invested a lot in him and it is now up to him to prove that he can be outstanding.”
Bought for €16million last summer, the striker failed to deliver in his first season scoring only eight goals in over 30 games and now after being shipped to Italy for fat camp and then dispatched to England to unsuccessfully push through a move to Fulham, the club have grudgingly had to welcome the player back into the fold. Gignac’s claims that “I will bust my ass” to get back in the side are admirable given the treatment he has received, but that considerable derrière will take more than a little elbow grease to shift. Also despite the stalemate against Saint-Étienne a few weeks ago, l’OM have scored two goals in every other game so far and this suggests that the problems lie elsewhere.
The aspect of Marseille’s play that has most angered Deschamps so far this year is their mentality. He has consistently bemoaned the side’s complacency and lack of concentration and this was no more obvious than after the Auxerre game when l’OM had let a two goal lead slip in the second half.
Speaking after the game he said: “It’s infuriating. We were 2-0 up away from home; you have to hold on to a lead like that. At half-time, I told the lads to stay focused and determined, especially in the first 15 minutes of the second half. I repeated this two or three times! We should have stayed in the dressing room.”
It seems that the side need to accept that they have to work as a team for the entire 90 minutes to emerge victorious and not to expect to win games because of their ‘pre-season title favourites’ tag. A number of first team players went missing in the second half of that match and despite a few positive showings from a handful of players so far this season, the side must up their concentration levels and apply themselves fully for 90 minutes.
Perhaps it is this label of being ‘pre-season favourites’ and the expectations that come with it that are weighing on the players minds after they choked under the same pressure last season. Deschamps obviously thought he’d addressed this problem during the summer but there is still an air of uncertainty when the players step out on the pitch. Vocal players on the side are quiet and not assuming responsibility, and although they are welcoming a number of new players and an injured one back into the fold, characters such as Alou Diarra, Lucho González and Morel have all captained previous sides and should be leaders on the pitch. Yes the team needs to gel but if you look at Lille and Paris Saint-Germain especially, they have welcomed a number of new players into their respective sides yet the quality of the players has already started to shine through despite a couple of disappointing and incoherent displays early on.
The former France captain has admitted that these performances have caused him a lot of anxiety and that he considered making some late changes to the squad and feels that the club’s season has yet to really get underway. He told L’Equipe: “We had two very restless days at the end of the summer transfer window. Everyone lost a lot of energy and we have ended up back where we started.”
Some fans opinions differ from Deschamps’ though and they feel that the team’s problems lie in their tactical approach and not the players’ mindsets. The l’OM faithful have been vociferous in their disappointment that the midfield isn’t linking up with attack or defence regularly enough during matches and many of the complaints hinge on the fact that the team appears to lose shape during the games. Diarra in particular has been singled out for criticism because of his forays forward which leave big openings in the centre of the park, splitting the team in half.
The surprising vulnerability displayed by Marseille so far has affected their home performances and although this can perhaps be attributed to the absence of many of their fans at the Vélodrome this year due to renovations, it does not excuse limp and passionless performances like the ASSE one last month. A tough season has now become even tougher for l’OM given that the expected challenges from PSG, Lille and Lyon have materialised earlier than anticipated. The recent international break will have allowed Deschamps to take stock of the situation and remedy these problems you would imagine, but Rennes are not easy opponents as many (apart from Montpellier!) in Ligue 1 will testify. With the pressure now building, are Marseille still title favourites?