Marseille Lifeless as Season Descends into Mediocrity

Michel OM

Olympique de Marseille is a club that demands success – in any form. It doesn’t matter whether the playing staff or set-up actually is capable of delivering on such a demand, it is simply expected to give your best over the course of a season, to generate a campaign worthy of the club’s prestige.

To live up to such lofty standards this season has been more of a problem than ever, given the nightmare that unfolded in August, and the struggles since. In a difficult campaign, OM’s frailties have been well documented, well discussed. It seemed implausible that success would come this campaign.

Nevertheless, somehow over the course of the season, Marseille, under the direction of former Real Madrid captain and Olympiakos boss Michel, steadied the ship. Rather than being spectacular, they were, at least, sailing in the right direction.

After some early teething issues in Michel’s reign that included a seven-game run without a win, it seemed that OM could finally put the Marcelo Bielsa nightmare behind them. Under Michel, the players began to click, formations came together – regularity was ensured. Remy Cabella was coming into form. Rolando, much criticised when he arrived, was preferred to the young & immature Karim Rekik. More importantly, Michy Batshuayi – the club’s only first-team striker, was scoring frequently.

A strong November – six wins, one draw, one defeat – climbing back up the table, and on course for Europa League qualification, had launched ‘Olympique Michel’s’ season. If OM could grind out wins away to Nantes, Lille & Saint-Etienne, imagine what could have been achieved with actual resources: new players? investment? and perhaps a coach that could complete pre-season? Optimism – never far away from Marseille, though can quickly evaporate – was increasing. 2016 promised much.

80-odd days into the calendar year, it turned out to be not just a false start, but a clear calamity.

The Ligue 1 season, quite like in the Premier League, has been unpredictable, save for the obvious title chase by Paris Saint-Germain. In a season where Champions League qualification was expected to be at its fiercest yet, not one team – save for Monaco’s recent surge – had taken control of the race. Opponents were falling over themselves left right and centre.

By late February, no fewer than 10 teams were in clear contention for at least third place – including Marseille. Such riches on the table had the potential to right so many wrongs in the squad. In the current financial context of the club, achieving top three was a requirement to maintain current expenditure levels. After such a pitiful start in Ligue 1, it was a chance too good to pass up.

However, for OM, the level required for such a prize has proven too difficult to reach. For a team chasing Champions League qualification, one defeat in four months is admirable. Four wins in four months is not. Unbeaten away from home for five months is incredible. Two paltry home wins in six is pathetic.

Yet, that is the situation l’OM find themselves in. Bogged down by a remarkable number of draws – the fifteenth coming away at Lorient this weekend, the most of any Marseille side in French football history – have seen optimistic hopes turned into extreme pessimism and dejection in mere WEEKS. Before Lyon’s defeat of champions PSG, OM were just five points off the podium with 13 games to go – impossible it was not.

The fixture list was also rather favourable. Games against relegation-threatened Toulouse (18th) GFC Ajaccio (19th) and Lorient (13th) could have paved the way for ignition. Three games that have harvested paltry 1-1 draws. On Michel’s part, the Spanish technician claims not to know what the problem is.

“There are a lot of things that happened this season that is not normal. But we have had to deal with all these situations,” Michel told the press before the draw with Lorient.

“First there’s a youthful workforce. Results come with experience. (There’s also a) lack of confidence, which is how we got these results. When we reached a very good level, we had a dozen out injured. The number of injured players has cut our legs. Also, the lack of results at home has increased the expectations surrounding the team, these expectations were not as high at the start.”

Marseille might have had a worse campaign had it not been for the heroics of goalkeeper Steve Mandanda. The OM captain was touted for a January move, but he – and he alone – has been responsible for the club keeping its head above relegation, with numerous world-class stops.

The club has experimented tactical changes – 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 variations in the last few weeks, but all have resulted in the same 1-1 scoreline that has been recorded in 11 of the club’s last 15 games. If Michel doesn’t know what the underlying problem is, perhaps we can give him an idea.

Marseille are far too predictable in their play, with Michel lacking the tactical insight to set up his team differently in matches. Opponents find it easier to play against OM – where a positive result, say for the likes of Gazelec, Angers or Guingamp, could provide the same morale-boosting, season-defining result, though much more in reach than games against other top sides such as Lyon or PSG.

Being too rigid in their match approach is one thing, concentration and weak mentality is another. OM have not scored two goals in a league match for two months. Being unable to close out a game has been a major issue. If opponents score first, the team keeps going until the death – where draws against Saint-Etienne & Lille have been gained. It works, sometimes.

However on too many occasions, if OM score first, it results in complacency and a lack of defensive will. The late draws against Gazelec, Lyon, Nice & Athletic Bilbao are testament to that, adding to the unique frustration enveloping the team. Part of the blame lies with the players, but part lies on the coach too. If a coach is unable – seven months into his reign – to set up his side correctly, and ensure maximum effort, then ultimately, he is responsible.

Off the field, Michel remains stoic. At pre-match press conferences, the former Olympiakos boss lists the same reasons to justify the team’s form – be it Bielsa (he is still living under the Argentine’s shadow), young players, or injury. Nothing seems to have been done. 11 draws in 15 games is a remarkable figure and one that has seen OM’s season collapse entirely.

Despite the additions of Steven Fletcher (who, despite my earlier judgement, has been playing well) and Florian Thauvin, Marseille have passed up a superb chance to steal a march on other opponents’ indifferent form and ensure a platform to build on for 2016-17.

If the consequences of the results are not felt now, they will be in the summer. With as many as seven loan players plus Mandanda and Nicolas N’Koulou set to leave for free, and Michy Batshuayi and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou being eyed up by Premier League sides, Marseille are – putting it nicely – absolutely screwed.

A lack of investment and desire from owner Margarita Louis Dreyfus means another austere season is set to return. And that will not please the masses, who have voted with their feet – fleeing the Stade Velodrome in their thousands. Average attendances are down 15-20,000 from last year, costing Marseille even more money. You expect nothing less from a side that rank eighteenth of twenty teams based on home form. Two wins – the first two of Michel’s reign – the only league wins in the famous stadium all season.

As such, the fans – myself included – are indignant. It is a vicious cycle OM find themselves in. No Champions League football, no investment. No investment, no new (and good) players. No players, no top league finish. Rinse. Repeat.

Michel may have proven a cheap & attractive option in the summer, but it is generally accepted that his position is untenable. Unable to bring out the best in his players, and implementing some pretty wacky tactics in recent weeks – he has been exposed. In Greece, it may be easy to win titles, not so when you’re on the other side of the hegemon.

“There are lots of questions that are difficult to respond to in a press conference because maybe I’ll say things which will make you think I’m going to quit my responsibilities,” continued Michel after the Lorient game.

“That’s not the case. I think it’s time the players learned the history of the club. After Waris’ goal, our performance was shameful. Everyone’s looking at the coach and the fact that we’ve had a lot of draws, but everybody’s got to face up to their own responsibilities. Me too.”

His incompetence was exposed last weekend against Toulouse. In desperation, Michel sacrificed Rolando, a CB, for Romain Alessandrini to bolster the attack. With Lassana Diarra already injured, that left Marseille with no midfield.

While OM had eventually scored through Fletcher, it left the side exposed considerably in the latter stages of the second half. Such tactical irresponsibility had led captain Mandanda to demand a change, letting the manager know through a substitute warming up nearby. I’ve personally never seen anything like it in football.

The league may be over in terms of the destination of the title, and Marseille’s own season objectives, but there remains one glimmer of hope – the Coupe de France, where OM are on course to reach their first final in nine years, victory would be their first in 27 years. Winning that, in a possible showpiece against PSG, may salvage some pride for a beaten and bruised OM, far away from the European elite & shrinking further into mediocrity by every passing week.

However, like our tale began, success is required, each season, no matter what. It could very well still end in a fairy tale, or it could get pretty ugly, pretty fast.

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