Why Marseille will not succeed under the leadership of Vincent Labrune
Four years are usually judged – in the political world at least – as a good barometer to whether an individual has been successful or not in his role. Take any democratically elected leader in the world, and if he or she has been relatively successful, they would be rewarded with re-election.
And those nations or entities without term limits would almost usually become complacent and comfortable in their role, most likely damaging the organisation that they were entrusted to lead in the first place. (I’m looking at you Sepp).
But a lot closer to home is Vincent Labrune, who in June completed four years as president of Olympique de Marseille. Four years into his role, his work leading the biggest club in French football remains heavily scrutinised. And unfortunately for the Orléans native, he remains a hugely divisive figure at Stade Velodrome.
His Marseille career began in 2008, appointed to the supervisory board by the late Robert Louis-Dreyfus. Labrune, a seasoned TV executive was tasked with managing RLD’s interests and working to examine the functions of the president – then Pape Diouf. After Diouf was ousted in 2009 to make way for Jean Claude Dassier, Labrune was then nominated as the chairman of the board before his big break in 2011.
As Marseille, champions of France under Dassier’s reign were firmly in the ascendancy – (PSG were nothing but a project back then, and Monaco were in Ligue 2) – Dassier was moved on as Margarita Louis Dreyfus sought to assert herself as club owner having taken over after her husband’s untimely passing. Her surprise communique issued on June 9, 2011 was at the time dismissed as nothing more than in-house organisational change. Nothing to be worried about.
Looking back, little did anyone know that Marseille would embark on four years in relative wilderness. Far from the European elite, and struggling to make a significant impact to rival the likes of nouveau-riche Paris Saint-Germain. And the man tasked by MLD to lead the club on her behalf would begin a tumultuous and difficult reign.
Officially, the reason was put to ‘new challenges’ faced by OM. The renovation of Stade Velodrome meant a heavy loss from OM’s matchday income which would last three seasons. Furthermore, impending financial fair play as well as the club harbouring several big-salaried players ranging from Lucho Gonzalez to Andre-Pierre Gignac meant Marseille had to tighten the purse-strings.
In short, it seemed MLD was not happy at Marseille’s financial splurging of previous seasons. And to counter it, she brought in a man who was a close confidant, a trusted lieutenant to led her club. Labrune was now firmly in the driving seat on the Canebiere.
The first two years for Labrune was relatively peaceful compared to the mess that OM are in now. Despite in-fighting between sports director Jose Anigo and then-OM coach Didier Deschamps, results on the pitch were mixed. The lows of finishing 10th in Ligue 1 were remedied by a surprise run to the Champions League last eight and finishing second in Ligue 1 the season after.
With Deschamps, a heavily respected and influential figure gone to coach the national team in 2012, Labrune had free will to start ‘Project Downsizing’. A number of key players were sold – often for less than their market value. Even the incoming coach was a budget option. The unheralded Elie Baup was trusted with the management of the first team. As it turned out, he somehow managed a shock second place with players signed on the cheap.
As Marseille gained Champions League qualification again, Labrune changed tack. Labelling his new project as ‘Dortmund’ mirroring that of Jurgen Klopp’s successful revolution. Being inspired is one thing, attempting to copy outright is something different. While Marseille were meant to be prudent financially, OM splurged once more – €40m on talented but unheralded players before the club imploded in Europe.
Labrune’s inability to lead the club effectively was exposed in the second half of the 2013-14 season. With Baup sacked and Anigo in temporary charge, he was left without a manager, a competitive squad and without hope as the calls for change grew as Marseille faltered to missing out on Europe altogether for the first time in a decade.
His shocking ineptitude was further laid out for the world to see in the Marcelo Bielsa debacle. Much was made about the Argentine’s first collision with his president in 2014 after failing to retrieve a single player he wanted. After continuing to clash repeatedly, he resigned in anger on the first day of the Ligue 1 season on August 8, 2015 citing irreconcilable differences with the management.
For the fifth time in four years, Marseille were on the lookout for a new coach. In those four years, a solitary title was gained under Didier Deschamps – the 2012 Coupe de la Ligue. Marseille have been nowhere near the top since, domestically or in Europe.
It is a major indictment for a club of this size with its support to continuously punch below its weight. And much of that is due to management inefficiencies and a lack of direction. But the real problem with Vincent Labrune was laid bare in the last few weeks after a series of missteps in the transfer window, culminating in an eyebrow raising interview with L’Equipe magazine this week.
Labrune has moved on from his failed Dortmund project, after selling the likes of Dimitri Payet, Florian Thauvin and Giannelli Imbula this summer. None wanted to leave. In effect, only one was required to be sold to balance the books. However, as it transpires, cash flows and balance sheets, not competitiveness, are the order of the day.
A shocking 35 player movements, with 21 departures were recorded. Those with big salaries were finally rid of despite their pleas (in the case of Andre-Pierre Gignac). Marseille made €58m, and a major surplus in the accounts. On the field, most signings were either free or on loan. The likes of Lassana Diarra and Abou Diaby were bought for free with their value well diminished. Mauricio Isla, Remy Cabella and Paolo de Ceglie were loaned with no guarantee that they will remain.
And Labrune’s answer? Well, he called it ‘modern football’. If you can’t beat them, loan from them and ensure survival that way. Olympique de Marseille – a club with the ninth highest average attendance in Europe, and were previously 16th richest in the world in 2012, is being effectively turned into a B-team.
In a wide-ranging interview to L’Equipe this September, he lamented the Premier League’s ‘NBA-isation’, and their financial riches. He confirmed that Marseille would need to face the reality that they are unable to match the financial behemoths across the Channel. Unlike Lyon, who have come up with an intriguing organic way to remain competitive, Marseille have appeared to have resorted to hanging on the coattails of the bigger clubs.
As highlighted by the loan signing of Lucas Silva from Real Madrid, Labrune confirmed that Marseille’s priority was to sign exciting players not used by bigger clubs who need game-time, and that OM would be a hospitable home for them to make their name. However, Silva has refuted that ahead of the game with Lyon by saying his intention is to swiftly return to the Bernabeu come June. On that front, Marseille need to also identify an adequate replacement next summer.
His second priority was to sign young players that can be sold for big money later on. He admitted that this was the case for Thauvin, Imbula and Mario Lemina this summer, conceding that Marseille was only a stepping stone in their careers given that they were able to garner triple their salary after showcasing their talents in France. What a saint, but in what world is Marseille a stepping stone for Newcastle, Porto or Swansea? (in the case of Andre Ayew).
Moreover, Labrune has sought to sell out the club with an uneasy relationship with Doyen Sports, the third-party organisation in football with their links to FC Porto, Valencia and Atletico Madrid. The arrival of Michel as coach was rumoured to have been put forward by the organisation, who have also helped Marseille to connect to these big players in the hope of taking players in the future.
It is a sad state of affairs for Marseille, who not only are met with a president that sees players as bankable assets, but also an owner who is unwilling to spend for the club’s interests. That is, an owner worth €6.4 billion. There have also been continued reports that the club may be up for sale in the future, if a buyer can be found. It seems that all the current management can think about is to ensure Marseille remain in the black, regardless of where it is in the league standings.
The infuriating rhetoric has continued this week. The dust has barely settled from the numerous departures this summer, but Labrune has already confirmed that he hopes to sell the likes of Benjamin Mendy, Karim Rekik, Lucas Ocampos or Michy Batshuayi within a year or two, and hopefully for big money. That is not what you want to hear from an ambitious club.
Marseille seem to be lurching from disaster to disaster, with no end in sight to the club’s unfortunate cycle. The fans or players do not deserve this. And OM, famous for its fervent atmospheres and support deserve a club that continuously hits the heights. Sadly, under the direction of Vincent Labrune and the current board, it is unlikely going to happen anytime soon.
What is his answer to this? Simple. “It’s modern football.”
Ahead of a gruelling schedule early on in the season, encompassing 7 games in little over three weeks Marseille are simply hoping for the best after what can be considered as a false start to the campaign. The hierarchy and fans are hoping for a good recovery to boost their season with the ultimate aim of returning to the Champions League and the riches it promises.
What happens after though is a mystery, and there’s absolutely no guarantee that OM will be pushing for the top given their routine recent history of dropping the ball when things start getting serious.
“At Marseille, there simply is no project.” As so eloquently put by Didier Drogba earlier this summer. There’s nothing.