People of the United Kingdom love their soap operas, with millions tuning in to watch their favourite characters deal with a whole host of – usually difficult and despairing – issues. Down in the south of France, Ligue 1 has its own never-ending source of entertainment in the guise of Olympique de Marseille.
After Didier Deschamps left at the end of the 2011/12 season, there was still success, but a period of crippling instability was about to begin.
A Champions League campaign that saw them lose all six games following a second place finish in the league under Elie Baup, brought about his own downfall – his luck deserted him and he was replaced by Sporting Director Jose Anigo.
Marcelo Bielsa was seen as the ray of light – the man to lift Marseille back to their rightful place at the top of Ligue 1. Take away all the antics and the madness and his methods failed to change anything.
After a wonderful start, the Bielsa effect took over and the second half of the season was a car crash. Truth be told, the waters were never calm from the day he arrived. President Vincent Labrune had failed to land anyone on the Argentine’s approved list of signings and then when the results turned, the pressure on all involved greatly increased.
Two seasons of what they would class as underachievement led to huge problems this summer. Bielsa stuck around without signing a new contract, but the squad he had tried to mould was ripped apart.
Andre-Pierre Gignac and André Ayew left on free transfers, Swansea fans must be wondering what Marseille were thinking of, letting the talented Ghanaian leave for nothing after years of service – but they just couldn’t afford to keep him on the wages he rightly deserved.
Florian Thauvin – after failing to repay any of the €13 million OM spent on the teenager – left for Newcastle United. Gianelli Imbula was surprisingly sold to FC Porto in a deal that Marseille had to make to balance the books before the DNCG (organisation that monitors and polices the finances of the French clubs) took action.
West Ham United capitalised on this and snatched OM’s best player from last season, Dimitri Payet, and Premier League fans are seeing just how effective the French attacker can be.
It’s clear to see the quality that Bielsa had in his squad, but his job was made much harder when the best players were sold on. Fans still expected them to better their fourth place finish from last season.
The weight of expectation, blinding the realism of the situation, is something that the ferocious OM fans often fail to come to terms with.
This summer Labrune yielded to Bielsa’s wishes. Players from the approved list were signed and the rebuilding process had begun. Opening the season against SM Caen at the intimating Stade Velodrome should have been the ideal start.
Andy Delort hadn’t read that week’s script. Firing in an unstoppable shot from distance, the Caen striker, scoring on his debut, grabbed the headlines – but only for a matter of minutes.
On his way to the post-match press conference, Bielsa handed Labrune his letter of resignation and then proceeded to tell the world he was leaving the club with immediate effect.
In a club where there is rarely a dull moment, this was a cliffhanger that Eastenders would have been proud to conjure.
OM’s savoir was gone as quickly as he arrived and the team that he had approved would have to carry on without him. Bielsa blamed Labrune and OM’s backhanded way of trying to make a change to his new contract – but “El Loco” leaves far from blameless.
As far as timing is concerned, it couldn’t have been much worse.
Former Olympiakos boss, and Real Madrid legend, Michel, was appointed as his successor and it all looked hopeful when they trounced Troyes 6-0 at the Velodrome in his first game. However, scratching beneath the surface, the away side had been dire, expectations should have been tempered – but that’s not the OM way.
You could almost predict the result that followed. Lacking heart, desire and any sort of a gameplan, OM lost 2-0 away at Guingamp – who were sitting in the bottom end of the table at the time. It was a copy of the defeats to both Caen and Reims.
No longer could Marseille win games away from home by just being one of France’s biggest clubs – that may still work at home, but in a squad lacking star power, there needs to be sustenance to their play.
With Michel’s feet now firmly under the table, there are signs of hope. Winning 3-0 away at Groningen in the Europa League – with a much changed side – showed that the squad does have ability. Marseille’s strong tradition in Europe should give them the impotence to push forward and take it seriously – it may be the only way back to the Champions League.
However, Sunday’s draw against Lyon, although a great result, showed that the bigger teams are still a step ahead. Lyon dominated for large spells for the game. They could have been 2-0 up if Alexandre Lacazette had converted a chance, unmarked from 15 yards.
Marseille fans had provided a hostile atmosphere, welcoming Mathieu Valbuena back to the Velodrome the only way they know how. Hanging an effigy from the stands, booing his every touch and then bombarding him with missiles when he tried to take a corner.
Eventually it became too much and when bottles and flares were thrown onto the pitch, referee Rudy Buquet had to take the players off the field for 20 minutes.
After the restart, Lyon looked a little shell-shocked and OM played the brighter football. Sparked by the introduction of Georges-Kevin Nkoudou – the winger looked the ask questions of the Lyon defence and he won the corner that led to Karim Rekik’s equaliser.
Like the Troyes result, there are positives to take, but Michel needs to find consistency and with Marseille, that is never an easy task. There is a sense that the tide is turning, but the next shock storyline is always just around the corner.
Labrune has already admitted that players like Michy Batshuayi, Karim Rekik and Romain Alessandrini will be sold for the right price. Talents such as Lucas Silva and Remy Cabella are only on loan and signed on free transfers, the duo of Alou Diaby and Lassana Diarra can’t be seen as long-term.
Marseille are being patched up with plasters and bandages, it could help keep things together in the short-term, but sooner or later the club needs a plan to build itself back up.
When the biggest club in France, with perhaps one of the greatest stadiums in Europe is reduced to a club that will foster players or sell only for a profit, you have to question the ability of the people making the decisions.
At least there is one that Marseille will always make sure of…it’s never boring.
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