‘No more false promises and doubtful explanations. Time for concrete results’ read a Marseille supporters group banner during Rennes’ visit to the Velodrome in September. Fan frustration had been growing for some time since new owner, American Frank McCourt, acquired the club. He had boldly suggested he could be willing to spend 50 million euros on a single player, which now seems less of statement of intent than it did then, but the prospect of OM competing with PSG in the transfer market, while being outlandish to begin with, hasn’t come close to realisation.
While money has been spent, interestingly roughly 50 million euros total this summer, Marseille were embarrassed by Rennes that evening after being dismantled by Monaco 6-1 the week before as manager Rudi Garcia’s initially defensive tactics went into overdrive and a surprisingly porous 541 setup, used to good effect in taking a 0-0 from Paris in his first game, made Marseille look like a second tier Ligue 1 side both in attitude and ability. Garcia, at this point, was under genuine pressure. He was questioned over his position at press conferences while the numerous and vociferous OM supporters groups added their voice to the many in the media asking questions.
Cringe-worthy title aside, the Mccourt instigated “Champions Project” at the Velodrome has added extra expectation to the pressure that already exists on the South coast. The Velodrome can be one of the fiercest venues in Europe but it can also become something of a black hole. The support that often provides such a compelling atmosphere for visits of PSG and Lyon can diminish in number in ferocity should the side under-perform or be involved in a less than stellar Europa League tie for example. Supporters even resorted to displaying pictures of goats (similarly disparaging to be called a donkey in the UK) and playing the Benny Hill theme from the stands as OM slumped to a disastrous 13th placed finished two seasons back.
Despite the often suffocating atmosphere at the Velodrome, Garcia, a Ligue 1 winner with Lille in 2011, deserves significant praise for the about face he has engendered since. Having reportedly been not far from the exit door after failing to affect much of a real change in the often turgid and uninspiring style until that point, qualifying for Europe aside, he has managed to mould an fluid, exciting outfit in the 6 months since Wahbi Khazri humiliated Marseille.
While funds weren’t spent in the quantities fans demanded, they were spend fairly astutely. An 8 million Euro fee paid for Luis Gustavo now appears, despite venturing into his 30s, to be one of the wisest signings the club have ever made as Gustavo has been a combative, commanding and orchestrating presence since his arrival; running the midfield, picking passes and even adding goal, he truly could be become a Marseille great. Adil Rami’s international experience has proved crucial to a defence that has long been a problem area and arguably still is although he and Ronaldo have grown into what is now a fairly stoic partnership.
Valere Germain has finally started to produce the volume of goals that was expected of him after a pair of clinical seasons at Nice and Monaco, the 8 million paid for him now seems more than worthwhile. Steve Mandanda, criminally underused at Selhurst Park, has resumed his leadership role and mantel as one of the league best keepers without much trouble while the 12 million euros paid to secure Florian Thauvin’s permanent return now seems like something of s steal, his effervescent displays that have produced 15 goals and 10 assists in the league alone in 17/18 mean his price tag now likely exceeds 5 or 6 times that which OM paid during the off season.
There have been missteps too however, the largest fee paid this summer, 14 million euros for Kostas Mitroglou from Benfica, was a risk - one that has not been justified as he now sits firmly behind Germain in the cue for the lone striker role and largely on the bench after some truly shocking missed chances. Meanwhile the age and reputation of the arrivals has lead Marseille to feel like a budget PSG or a retirement home for former internationals now past 30. For Patrice Evra, sacked after kicking an OM fan before the Europa League game in Vitoria, this is especially true.
Meanwhile a best 11 also took time to emerge, Garcia seemed indecisive between 433, 4231 and even 442 as well as whether to play Captain Dimitri Payet on the left or as a number 10 but Gustavo’s domination of the midfield and Morgan Sanson’s form as an attacking midfielder seem to have settled the subject. Garcia also has had to reject claims of a rift with Sporting Director Andoni Zubizarreta, the former Roma coach insisting simply that “With Andoni and the president, we exchange and we debate for the good of OM. It's all that drives us."
Nevertheless OM’s recent attacking displays, the cohesion they are finally start to show and their relative defensive solidarity makes the Champions Project less laughable than it once was as OM genuinely have a shot at silverware this season in the Coupe de France or perhaps the Europa League. Since that home defeat to Rennes they have lost just once domestically to Lyon across 27 games, while encouraging recent results include a commanding 3-0 payback at Rennes, 2-2 draws with Monaco and PSG - both games they should have won, ending a resurgent Bordeaux’s run of four wins under Gus Poyet and dispensing with a strong Braga side in the first leg of their EL tie 3-0.
On form, OM arguably now Ligue 1’s premier attraction but their newly discovered fluidity and confidence will be truly examined as they travel to Paris for Le Classique in Ligue 1 this Sunday and again the following Wednesday for a Coupe de France quarter final. Having deserved to beat Paris in the first game at the Velodrome, an injury Edinson Cavani free kick rescued PSG after Neymar was sent off, positive results in the next week would finally be undeniable proof that Rudi Garcia, at least, is achieving concrete results as demanded.
Image: Rosi Barreto