Le50 2016: Stéphane Sparagna – Olympique de Marseille
Stephane Sparagna is one of the few players Marseille are pinning their hopes on in the next few seasons. In light of a tough financial environment, and lack of decent players available at the back, Sparagna has long been earmarked as one of the new crop of interesting young players to be formed out of La Commanderie. And ask any French football enthusiast – that is rare.
Under the new direction that OM were heading into under Marcelo Bielsa, youth became ‘in vogue’. Players like 19-year-old Sparagna and his colleagues – full of potential but short on hope – had been overlooked by countless OM managers beforehand. In the summer of 2014, things changed.
Georges Prost, the former Marseille director for youth recruitment had labelled Sparagna as a ‘real competitor’, and a capable defender who displays ‘controlled aggression’ and precision on the field. All it took was the conviction of the famous Argentine coach to light the fire and begin Sparagna’s elevation at Marseille. It wasn’t just pre-season friendlies and exposure to the first team that Bielsa had gave Sparagna; it was a Ligue 1 debut in the first game of the 2014-15 season.
That trust was the beginning in a new injection of life for the youth centre. While others such as Baptiste Aloe and Bilal Boutobba were given runouts here and there, Sparagna was earmarked as a future leader. He certainly displayed his defensive prowess in those early exchanges in pre-season, hence his ascension.
While Bielsa settled eventually on a 3-3-3-1 formation built on experience and tenacity, Sparagna was not forgotten. It is a testament to a player’s ability and promise that a well-regarded coach keeps you in mind, so much so, he kept tabs on the player’s progress in the reserve side throughout the campaign. While the young defender did not feature heavily in the season, he made the matchday squad for virtually half of the entire league season, another step up given OM’s struggles with another young defender at the time – Doria.
Sparagna is a stubborn defender with great positional awareness. He has qualities that make him stand out from his peers, such as his comfort as a ball-playing centre-back. He has benefitted much from Bielsa’s tuition, working with the then-coach to limit errors in his game, namely lack of concentration and at times unnecessary fouls through youthful exuberance.
The 2015-16 season then promised much for Sparagna. So much so that Bielsa made the short journey from Marseille to Toulon to watch his young defensive protégé in the Toulon Tournament as captain of the France team. He must have enjoyed what he saw, despite the fact that the tournament had cut significantly into his summer holidays. But Bielsa knows a good thing when he sees one. Under the watchful eyes of his club coach, a commanding Sparagna helped France win the tournament as captain.
Bielsa had gone, and you can excuse Sparagna for feeling that he is stagnating a little, having not played as much as he hoped after his breakthrough. Limited to the bench despite some woeful defensive performances from Marseille, he has been unable to convince Michel to give him the same trust he enjoyed with his predecessor.
Nevertheless, Sparagna, still only 21, has a massive future ahead of him, if he can continue to build on the last two seasons, even in times of difficulty with the lack of game-time. Marseille is no easy place for a young player, but Sparagna has bucked that trend once already. He has the skills to do it again.