“Stable” and “efficient” are not words that describe Marseille’s recent history. The club has gone through a succession of short-lived managerial appointments and false dawns, the collapse of the “Champions Project” (an off-key PSG tribute act) and various near misses with tangible success. When André Villas-Boas arrived at the club in the summer, it looked as if Marseille were in for more of the same, but they are now second in Ligue 1 and, at last, are quietly improving. Stability may have finally arrived.
A generation of young, gifted players is quietly being pushed to the fore under the former Chelsea and Tottenham and coach. Boubacar Kamara is gleefully grasping the responsibility as the side’s defensive leader. The 20-year-old usually plays as a centre-back but he is also proving himself adept at the base of midfield – a position he is expected to make his own eventually. Duje Caleta-Car, the 23-year-old Croatian centre-back, has added consistency to his game this season. Lucas Perrin, the 21-year-old French defender, has impressed in his four league starts this season, hastening Kamara’s move into midfield.
Perhaps the biggest success for Villas-Boas has been the development of Valentin Rongier, a last-minute €15m summer signing for Nantes. Rongier is a technical midfielder who grew up at Nantes, progressing from their academy to captain the side, but his form had begun to stagnate. He had a shaky start at Marseille, but the 24-year-old is now the club’s most important midfielder. He reads the game well, boasts a superb range of passing and has the ability to slowly take control of a midfield tussle. On top of that, he is improving every week. He was outstanding once more this weekend in Marseille’s 2-1 win over Brest at the Vélodrome.
The success of Rongier and his young teammates has marginalised the lingering “Champions Project” mentality. Kevin Strootman, the cumbersome and ineffective Dutch international, is no longer guaranteed a place in the team, even though he was hailed as a marquee signing by Rudi Garcia in the summer of 2018. Mario Balotelli had some success last season – he scored in his first five league games at the Vélodrome – but his services were not retained. And Dimitri Payet, who arrived “home” from West Ham in January 2017 to lead the charge for Marseille, is now a more peripheral figure – aside from his game-winning display against Lyon.
Marseille were muted in the transfer window this summer, but their new additions – including Darío Benedetto, who scored in both legs of the Copa Libertadores final last year for Boca Juniors, and Álvaro González, an unassumingly sharp centre-back who joined from Villarreal – have been quietly effective in the way they have complemented the younger players coming through (aside from a handful of Benedetto screamers).
Admittedly, Marseille’s lack of transfer activity was largely forced upon the club by a shortage of funds and an absence of big-money summer suitors for Morgan Sanson and Florian Thauvin. Although, to the credit of Villas-Boas, he has improved the team without Thauvin, who is absent due to an ankle injury.
As well as developing a smattering of younger players, Villas-Boas has also cajoled Steve Mandanda into his best form since he returned from Crystal Palace two years ago, with the goalkeeper earning an international call-up from Didier Deschamps at the age of 34. The manager has also brought good performances from Japanese full-back Hiroki Sakai.
Under previous coaches, egos of individuals hawkishly grabbed the attention, but Villas-Boas has moulded a genuine collective ethos in a team that is, for once, at least the sum of its parts. His team may be unspectacular, but it is efficient. Valère Germain praised the manager for protecting his players after a defeat, and Payet was keen to point out how much happier the squad is now compared to when Garcia was in charge. Villas-Boas is even managing to get a tune from full-back Jordan Amavi (who was, until very recently, routinely catastrophic) and Nemanja Radonjic. The Serbia winger seemed overawed when he arrived from Red Star Belgrade last season, but has contributed two stunning goals off the bench in Marseille’s last two matches.
When Villas-Boas took charge, the appointment initially screamed quintessential Marseille: a washed-up, highly paid big name who had given up football management to drive racing cars. However, he is beginning to offer the kind of stability, security and efficiency that has rarely been seen at the Vélodrome.
Surprisingly, for a club whose history includes Bernard Tapie, Marcelo Bielsa and fan groups who chastise their team by playing the Benny Hill theme from the stands, Villas-Boas is becoming the quiet, effective, even boring, coach they have long avoided. There is still some work to do but, for now, Europe’s most hard-to-please club is finally becoming quietly content.
Ligue 1 talking points
• Torrential Monégasque rain washed away PSG’s trip to a resurgent Monaco on Sunday night and with it escaped the answer to an intriguing question. For the first time since Mauro Icardi arrived at the club in September, all four of PSG’s premier forwards were fit and available for selection. Thomas Tuchel insisted he was “convinced it was not possible” to pick Ángel Di María, Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Icardi in the same team. Given that this list omits Edinson Cavani, the club’s all-time top goalscorer, as well as Julian Draxler and Pablo Sarabia, there may be “hard decisions for some guys” later in the season.
Neymar, supposedly not fully fit, was dropped for the trip to the Bernabéu this week and Di María, in revelatory form of late, was reportedly going to be excluded at Monaco. Healthy competition is a good thing, but it is difficult to repeatedly bench any of these players. Neymar may choose to leave next summer; Kylian Mbappé may be further attracted to Real Madrid. Icardi is their most reliable source of goals, and Di María is their creator-in-chief. Tuchel rightly points to the need for tactical balance, but he risks unbalancing his squad off the pitch if he does not handle this rotation delicately.
• French football has had better European weeks. Five Ligue 1 clubs played in midweek and none of them won. St-Étienne joined Rennes and Lille in exiting the Europa League, while Lyon’s 2-0 defeat to Zenit means they need to beat RB Leipzig to reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Ligue 1’s greatest strength – its prolific production of young talents – has become a weakness in Europe. This summer Rennes were stripped of (among others) Ismaïla Sarr, while Lille lost Nicolas Pépé, and Lyon said goodbye to Nabil Fékir and Tanguy Ndombele. Clubs cannot refuse mammoth offers for their emerging talents but, having forged their way into the top six, they then suddenly find themselves in transition. Next season’s impressive new TV deal will help, but Ligue 1 is still working on moving beyond its “league of talents” tagline.