Marseille’s ‘Champions Project’ has become something of a Ligue 1 punchline since Frank McCourt’s takeover last year. The American’s attempt to emulate the club’s Parisian rivals has become little more than a budget PSG. Nevertheless, at first glance their squad appears competitive in Ligue 1 but for much of the past year Rudi Garcia’s iteration of OM have struggled for cohesion and excitement while displays are often abject. However, before Sunday’s game at Lyon the ‘Champions Project’ had begun to synthesise the brand of football that the Stade Vélodrome has long demanded; 12 games undefeated and level with Monaco and OL in second. But the frustrating 2-0 loss last night highlighted the long road that yet lays before them and the contrasting trajectories of the two men who have been ordained to lead them back to French football’s summit.
“If he does not want to play football anymore, we will not force him, we will wait, but since he is not working, he will not be paid.” It’s summer 2013 and Lille Deputy Director General Frédéric Paquet is understandably angry. The €3.5m paid for the signature of Bastia’s breakout teenage winger Florian Thauvin 6 months earlier seems to have not been enough. After returning to the Corsican club on loan, 10 goals in 31 Ligue 1 games as well as the league’s Young Pllayer of the Year award caught the eye of Marseille.
Amid a flurry of rumours that OM would attempt to poach the player, LOSC’s increasingly infuriated president Michel Seydoux deemed that Thauvin was ‘untransferable’. This turned out to be false. In a bid to force a move, the 19-year-old refused to train, much to the ire of his new, and very brief, employers. Eventually a €15m deal was reached between the clubs without Thauvin ever playing for Les Dogues.
A haughty self-satisfied attitude, even smugness and petulance have long been associated with the Frenchman. Particularly in England, where he is famous for some weak, anonymous Newcastle performances and incurring Alan Shearer’s wrath on Match of the Day for arriving at St James’ in a tuxedo; Thauvin’s tongue firmly in cheek. Thauvin’s increasingly poor Premier League form swiftly returned him to Ligue 1 and a loan with Marseille where the former sulking, sneering teenager has since transformed into one of the league’s best forwards, carrying an intermittent and disjointed Marseille side for much of that time as the ‘Champions Project’ struggled to coalesce.
While his return to OM did not start well, sent off 10 minutes into his second debut while poor performances persisted for the remainder of the year, his slow maturation since has been pivotal to his burgeoning assuredness as a footballer. 15 goals and 9 assists made last season comfortably his most productive yetm while a graceful ability to glide past defenders, ghost in from his flank and shoot as well as pick passes few others wouldn’t see nor execute made him central to everything OM did well.
Crucially the swagger that makes Thauvin such a glorious, and now effective, player to watch remained as his cocky persona started to dissipate. “When you are a football player, you must do your work and remain discreet, be exemplary.” Thauvin said in May, “Today I try to be exemplary to the maximum, to behave as a great professional.” Shearer would barely recognise him. Thauvin now admits his Newcastle move was ‘too early’ and explains; “At 22, you leave your country, you discover a new culture, a new language, a new league, the food isn’t the same. It’s complicated, but they’re things that help you grow up”.
While Thauvin remoulds expectations, Dimitri Payet’s are scarcely threatened. Payet threw his own tantrum in order to return “home” to OM but the form which saw him tear apart the Premier League with West Ham for a spell and become the poster boy for the Euro 2016 hosts has remained far beyond his reach since. Despite his installation as captain and the obvious quality that remains, the Reunion native’s influence is often feeble and a large portion of his displays fall between absent and mere adequacy. Payet’s capture was designed as a statement and a turning point for the club but it so far has proved to be neither.
Marseille’s recent resurgence has seen Garcia’s side turn prolific in front of goal, become fluid in forward areas and finally play as a unit rather than simply a collection of talented players wearing the same colour shirt. But the credit here falls with Thauvin, the outstanding Luis Gustavo and Adil Rami’s stoic defensive displays, as well as Garcia’s slow evolution of the team, rather than Payet.
The loss to fellow podium chasers Lyon on Sunday evening however underlined these issues and how much Garcia still has to do. A catastrophic piece of keeping from Steve Mandanda, dropping Nabil Fékir’s sixth minute free kick into his net and a Mariano Diaz header early in the second half proved enough for OL to ease to the points. Payet, despite showing some finesse, failed to exert any control on the game, Rami is yet to find an adequate partner in Rolando or Aymen Abdennour while Thauvin, despite again proving himself as OM’s most dangerous outlet proved that, at this level, he can’t always produce the sublime without Payet, or anyone else, as a viable partner.
Marseille teammate Rod Fanni argued that Thauvin failed in England as he thought himself ‘superior’ but now Thauvin’s arrogance has been replaced by a maturity and a consistency that has ascended him to talisman status at OM, seen him repeatedly outshine Payet, return to Didier Deschamps France squad and, this week, earmarked as a potential successor to compatriots Antoine Griezmann in Madrid or Franck Ribery in Bavaria.
The troublemaker in the tux has usurped expectations to forge what could be a world class career but pivotally for Atletico, Bayern and even Les Bleus this summer it is Florian Thauvin’s talent that is now ‘superior’ rather than his ego. On the other hand, now into his 30s, Dimitri Payet may be little more than the effervescent Thauvin’s sidepiece as his career, and with it the Champions Project’s renewed promise, threatens to fizzle out.
by Adam White