The Frank McCourt era at Marseille was not supposed to be like this. The American’s purchase of the club, combined with the arrivals of Rudi Garcia as manager and Andoni Zubizarreta as sporting director were all signs of true ambition. McCourt does not possess the bottomless wealth of the Qataris who run PSG, but he had big plans for France’s best-supported club. His model was success in the now; there was no suggestion the club would adopt Monaco’s buy-low-to-sell-high philosophy or show Lyon’s patience with academy players.
Marseille bought veteran, decorated players – Luiz Gustavo, Adil Rami, Dimitri Payet, Steve Mandanda, Kevin Strootman – as they focussed on the present, not some idealised future. However, nearly two years on, things have soured. Their 3-2 loss at Nantes on Wednesday evening was their sixth defeat in Ligue 1 this season; they only lost five league matches last season and even that wasn’t enough to earn a return to the Champions League, a stated aim of McCourt’s project.
The problems plaguing this side are many, but the one that stands out most clearly is the number of goals they are conceding: 25 after just 16 league games. Only 16th-place Dijon and the bottom two sides, Amiens and Guingamp, have let in more goals in Ligue 1 so far this season. Marseille have also struggled in the Europa League, where they conceded 13 goals in five matches as they were knocked out with a game to spare. Lazio and in-form Eintracht Frankfurt proved capable opponents in the group but, given Marseille’s fine run to the final last season, their tally of one point from five matches represents a near-total capitulation this time around.
Marseille have missed centre-back Rolando during his lengthy injury layoff and Rami’s fitness issues have also played their part. The defence was again the biggest issue at Nantes. On another night Marseille might have earned a point, but they were cut to ribbons on the wings, with Lucas Lima thriving in an advanced role on the left and Gabriel Boschilia similarly impressing on the opposite flank. There were individual mistakes, with Rami and youngster Boubacar Kamara both culpable for the winning goal, but, for all his fine work in the past, Garcia also deserves a share of the criticism.
Marseille suffered heavy defeats to PSG, Montpellier and Lazio a month ago and Garcia, frustrated at how his attack-minded full-backs, Bouna Sarr and Jordan Amavi, failed to track back, decided to adopt a back three from that point on, a system he deployed again in Nantes on Wednesday. A back three has many benefits – and Montpellier, Strasbourg and Nice have made great strides this season in using that shape – but it requires a great deal of mobility and positional nous from the two-centre backs not deployed centrally. Rami is a decent defender, but to call him static would be an understatement; Kamara on the left is an intriguing talent, but still a teenager and can hardly be expected to grasp the intricacies of a system he has barely played. And the players Garcia has chosen for the wide roles, Bouna Sarr and Lucas Ocampos, are converted wingers rather than natural attack-minded full-backs.
Sarr has impressed at times this season as a right-back in a back four, but that is when he is protected by a midfield three and a winger in front of him. Hiroki Sakai and Jordan Amavi are both more natural fits in those wide roles but both have been little-used in this system despite having been important players last season.
There have been other issues dogging Marseille. There was the summer’s quixotic pursuit of Mario Balotelli (which now looks as if the club dodged a bullet) and the failure of any of the three summer signings to really settle; Duje Caleta-Car, who was added to bring depth to the defence, has been particularly underwhelming. Steve Mandanda and his deputy, Yoann Pelé, are not getting any younger, something which particularly stings in light of the good form Marseille’s former backup keeper, Édouard Mendy, is showing at Reims.
Despite their recent stumbles, Marseille are still in the race for the top three. They have plenty of time to recover, if only Garcia would start showing more common sense when picking his team. A return to a midfield three and a back four, and more opportunities for Morgan Sanson, should bring back the defensive solidity they need. Each of the teams above them has their own foibles and Garcia has a variety of attacking weapons at his disposal – in fact, only PSG have scored more goals in the league. The summer was not kind to Marseille but the tools are there for a better winter if only the manager could end his own season of discontent.
Ligue 1 talking points
• Having dropped points their first points away to Bordeaux on Sunday, PSG are now winless in two as a stoic Strasbourg emerged with a draw from a boisterous evening at Stade de la Meinau. Just like last season, the hosts led; PSG fan Kenny Lala’s penalty forced the half-time introduction of Kylian Mbappé. With Neymar injured, the Frenchman took charge, drawing a reckless challenge from Lala. Edinson Cavani crashed home the resulting penalty. Adrien Thomasson thought he had won the game for for Strasbourg but his strike was belatedly ruled out for an offside. PSG have not won at the Meinau since Strasbourg returned to Ligue 1 in 2017. Their ferocious support could again be key for the survival.
• After promising much, Bordeaux were heading for another transitional season as Gus Poyet was sacked for publicly berating his board over transfers. However, now that coach Éric Bedouet and general manager Ricardo Gomes have settled into their unorthodox partnership, Les Girondins are improving. A flagging Europa League campaign has been salvaged, while a deserved point against PSG at the weekend followed an credible draw at Parc OL. Their win over St Étienne on Wednesday was their latest impressive display. With François Kamano ably assuming Malcom’s mantle and new Brazilian international defender Pablo in the form of his life, their fresh-faced American owners have much to build on. A place in Europe could again be theirs.
• Rennes sacked Sabri Lamouchi on Monday after a 4-1 home loss to Strasbourg. The defeat was disastrous but the decision may prove rash. It seems that Lamouchi is a victim of his own success. A place in the top eight remains in reach for this youthful, inexperienced team, who are unsurprisingly struggling with a draining Europa League schedule. The success they enjoyed last season – when they finished fifth – deserved more respect and they can still qualify for the knockout stages of the Europa League. With the table so tight, another top-six finish remains possible for this talented team. Despite their 2-0 win at Lyon on We, the Rennes’ hierarchy may come to regret their decision with their club again, in some respect, back to square one