Marseille in Trouble: Turbulent Times Ahead for OM

OM Velodrome

Marseille are a club on the descent. It was a turbulent season in which the club parted ways with two coaches, finished in its worst league position in 15 years and suffered numerous hits to its global image through an investigation into shady transfer deals, coupled with crowd trouble in a number of games in the 2015-16 campaign.

Suffice to say, the last 12 months have been among the worst on record for l’OM, particularly in recent memory. Through uninspiring performances on the field and a lack of commanding management off it, it is no surprise that fans have been left scratching their heads at just how such a situation could have manifested. Particularly given the fact that the future looked bright last summer under the guidance of Marcelo Bielsa.

As things transpired, Bielsa’s era did little to mask the problem at OM. It might even have exacerbated it a little. For Marseille have been lumbered with a disinterested owner for years now, with the issue becoming a full-blown problem in the 2015-16 campaign. Bielsa’s arrival was a significant financial exercise for OM given his personal and professional demands. The expected returns did not show – a fourth-place finish in 2014-15 meaning OM would not enjoy the lucrative Champions League revenue last season.

However, it would be extremely unfair to point to the failure of achieving UCL qualification as the source of OM’s financial problems. After all, when Marseille last qualified, after coming second in 2012-13, the infamous ‘Project Dortmund’ saw the best part of £30 million squandered largely on unproven youth talent, who were then sold on within two years with the club not qualifying for the Champions League since.

Instead, Marseille have suffered from extreme mismanagement. President Vincent Labrune has made significant errors in all sectors. From contract renewals to transfers to organisation, the Orleans native has failed in more or less every sector of his job. The trouble is, the president has been judge-jury-executioner in all matters of the club, in spite of experience. Marseille have been without a sporting director since Jose Anigo’s departure in 2014. Labrune has overseen a rapid shrinking of the club’s organisation, meaning he has complete control over the running of the club, save for one very clear mandate from the owner Margarita Louis Dreyfus: cut costs.

Louis-Dreyfus, the widow of former Adidas CEO Robert, the owner of the club from 1996-2009, has lost all interest in the side. There have been years of speculation about whether she would sell. Her apathy in providing OM with the finances to at least remain competitive have forced the club to be ‘self-sustainable’. Labrune in turn, was charged with the task of cutting overheads across all sectors of the club, as well as making it attractive for a buyer.

Therefore, Marseille have had no choice but to heavily reduce the wage bill, by allowing stars such as Andre Ayew and Andre-Pierre Gignac to leave on free transfers. Furthermore, failure to qualify for the Champions League in the last three seasons has meant OM have run up a deficit of between €20-40 million. To ensure it meets the league’s financial watchdog’s regulations, the club has also been forced to sell ‘bankable’ stars. In 2015 it was Dimitri Payet and Florian Thauvin. This year, it is expected that Michy Batshuayi and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou will be the latest departures.

Louis-Dreyfus announced in mid-April that the club is finally up for sale, although a completed transaction is not expected for months. In the meantime, OM’s disastrous season has seen income forecasts missed. The Velodrome saw its lowest average attendance since the turn of the millennium (save for the years of stadium construction). The failure to even win a spot in the Europa League thanks to a 13th place finish means the level of austerity is set to increase next season while a buyer is found.

Regional media have reported a budget deficit of up to €40 million that needs to be resolved ahead of June 23, the date that the club will present its end-of-season accounts to the league. Indeed, with Michy Batshuayi valued at €40 million, and attracting interest from Tottenham and West Ham, it is a no-brainer that his future lies away from Marseille. The futures of several other players are also in doubt, with Benjamin Mendy, Karim Rekik and Nkoudou all rumoured to be the subject of interest from clubs abroad.

Throw into the mix the number of players who have returned to their parent clubs on loan (Fletcher, Thauvin, Isla etc.), and those whose contracts have ended (Mandanda, N’Koulou, Romao), and one wonders whether Marseille will be able to field a competitive team next season.

The ‘low-cost’ aura that is enveloping the club has seriously frustrated fans who demand greater respect from the management with regards to the club’s honour. At a time when PSG transform into a European behemoth, and Lyon and Monaco (for all of their own issues) continuously qualify for the Champions League, it rankles to see Marseille that far down the table as a result of useless officials and an owner who wants nothing to do with the club anymore.

Labrune’s own ineptitude has aggravated the problem at hand. His short-sightedness & failure to plan has accelerated Marseille’s descent from the top. Last season, the president confirmed OM’s intention to be some sort of a feeder club to Europe’s elite and that the club could do no better in the current financial climate. Last year’s firesale and loan frenzy stand as shining examples of actions of a man clearly not fit for the job.

The bottom line is there is no way out, barring a massive turnaround of events. Marseille can only hope for new investment similar to the Qataris at PSG. It also needs it soon, or risk falling further behind in the chasing pack in France.

With key players such as Batshuayi to be sold soon, Marseille have just under two months to find a first-team coach and half a playing squad before it can even begin to dream again.

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