clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Can Marseille and Marcelo Bielsa adapt to each other?

Denis Doyle

Olympique de Marseille's appointment of Marcelo Bielsa this summer was a gamble, though it was a gamble that made some measure of sense. Club president Vincent Labrune wanted a "revolution" at the French club, and the crazy Argentine was certainly going to provide that.

Sure, they can't match the spending power of Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco, but Labrune was hoping El Loco's magic could bring the spark back to the south coast club. Last year he spoke favourably of Borussia Dortmund, and revealed a desire for his club to mimic the German side's recent triumphs over the better-funded Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. With his strict, modern footballing philosophy based on high-pressing and direct passing, Labrune presumably envisions Bielsa as Marseille's answer to Jürgen Klopp.

Bielsa arrived in Marseille in May, a year after his contract with Athletic Bilbao expired. In the first of his two seasons at the San Mamés, he guided Bilbao to an unspectacular 10th place in La Liga, but their continental performances won them many admirers. Los Leones saw off Manchester United, Schalke and Sporting Lisbon en route to the Europa League final, and though they were eventually beaten by Atlético Madrid, Bielsa had cemented his status as one of the most innovative, exciting coaches in football; the inspiration behind other successful, high-profile coaches like Jorge Sampaoli and Tata Martino.

Bilbao failed to match their impressive run in Bielsa's second season, though with midfield star Javi Martínez sold to Bayern Munich, and key striker Fernando Llorente isolated after announcing he was to depart at the end of his contract, a dip in form was to be expected. They finished 12th in the league, and Bielsa departed when his contract expired.

After a year away from the game, Marseille offered the Argentine an opportunity he couldn't refuse.

"I don't think I'm a revolutionary," he modestly declared in his introductory press conference. But it hasn't taken long for the notoriously meticulous coach to start ruffling feathers. His training sessions are both physically and mentally demanding, emphasising both precise positioning and endless movement, with and without the ball. They're indicative of Bielsa's broader footballing philosophy. "I like attacking and having as much of the ball as possible," the Argentine rather simplistically added.

When at their best, Bielsa's teams look unstoppable, tearing through opponents with brutal force. He may well like his sides to have the ball as much as possible, but Barcelona-esque domination of possession is not the Bielsa way. His players have to win the ball back quickly, and play it forward even quicker. And if they don't like his bizarre methods, he doesn't really seem to care.

When in charge of the Argentine national team in the 1990s, he sensed resistance. His solution was surprisingly democratic -- or so it seemed. Bielsa decided to take a vote on whether his team would prefer playing with a standard back four, or his famous 3-3-1-3. According to the BBC's Tim Vickery, he flicked through the votes, which were almost unanimously in favour of the back four, and said "this shows which model has your preference. I would like to announce, then, that we are going to be playing with a back three. Bye."

Suffice to say, diplomacy isn't his strong point. In fact, he's already fallen out with one member of the Marseille squad, Morgan Amalfitano. The attacker -- who spent last season on loan at West Bromwich Albion -- wasn't a part of Bielsa's plans, and was suspended from training pending a move elsewhere. Ignoring the coach's wishes, Amalfitano insisted he participate. The training session was promptly abandoned altogether, with Bielsa ominously describing the Frenchman as having committed "a serious and inexplicable mistake."

On the field, things haven't gone any smoother. The club's 3-3 draw with Bastia in their opening league match of the season showed some attacking promise, but their subsequent embarrassing 2-0 defeat at the hands of Montpellier was nothing short of embarrassing; not least on the day of the Stade Vélodrome's grand reopening after renovations for the 2016 European Championships.

The defeat could have been excused if the performance had shown promise or excitement, but there was neither. Bielsa had reverted to something more resembling a back four after the opening draw on Corsica, but his side looked no better at the back. Alarmingly, it wasn't individual errors that enabled Montpellier to cruise to victory, but a complete absence of team cohesion. Twice Montpellier caught the Marseille defence too narrow, not really seeming to know if they were playing a back three or four. Twice they scored.

Going forward, things were scarcely any better, with Marseille's front trio looking isolated throughout the entire first half. Without any movement up top, L'OM's holding midfield duo of Gianelli Imbula and Alaixys Romao lacked passing options through Montpellier's disciplined midfield five, and attacking moves often broke down with hopeful punts forward. In the second half things slightly improved, but chances remained few and far between.

After the bad start, reports of conflict between Bielsa and president Labrune are already beginning to emerge. Some suggest Bielsa is unhappy with the club's transfer policy, with the new signings Romain Alessandrini and Michy Batshuayi not sanctioned by the coach. In his opening press conference, the Argentine acknowledged that the decision to sell playmaker Mathieu Valbuena -- described by Bielsa as "the best Frenchman at the World Cup" -- and the long-serving Souleymane Diawara was not made by him.

If the opening couple of games are anything to go by, Marseille need to fix things and fast. In the likes of André Ayew and Florian Thauvin, L'OM undoubtedly have talent up top, and given time, Bielsa will iron out the positional problems. But the focus now is on reinforcing a shaky defence before the transfer window shuts in September. Young Ivorian Brice Dja Djédjé struggled badly against Montpellier, and was substituted after an hour. Signing a new central defender or two must be a top priority.

Bielsa, who is said to have watched every single one of Marseille's matches from last season numerous times, will no doubt learn from his side's shaky start to life in Ligue 1. As his players become more accustomed to their methods, they will no doubt improve. But should Marseille as a club fail to heed the warnings of their first couple of matches and strengthen before September, they may well find their revolution is over before it has even begun.