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By Leo Linden
We’ll start with a trip to France, where everyone’s expected champion sits in third, two spots behind a rival who has jumped out to a flying start at the halfway point of the season.
As France’s winter break comes to its conclusion, Olympique de Marseille — OM for short — are surprisingly sitting in the top spot in the Ligue 1 table. While many wrote the French league off from day one, assuming PSG – who cruised to last season’s title by nine points – would again run away from the pack.
Marseille’s impressive first half has been galvanized by their two main attacking threats — both French — in center forward Andre-Pierre Gignac and attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet. Gignac’s finishing prowess has led him to 12 goals – almost equal to his total of 16 from last year – which is second in France behind only Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette, who had a whopping 17 tallies in the first half.
Part of the reason Gignac has been so successful is the set-up play behind him, especially from Payet. The 27-year-old playmaker has a league-high eight assists and has lashed in five goals of his own. After his 11 million Euro move from Lille at the start of the 2013-14 season, Payet began his career at Marseille rather averagely, scoring eight goals and assisting on four more last term. But he’s taken a huge step forward this year.
With a year of playing together under their belts, the pair have meshed well and become one of the top attacking combos in France. Gignac has started all 19 games for OM, and Payet has joined him in the starting lineup 17 times. With this kind of consistent attacking partnership, a team should expect to score goals galore, and Marseille have done that, with 38 tallies on the season, two behind Lyon for tops in the league.
For as impressive as their attack has been, Marseille’s defense has been just as good. Through 19 games, they have allowed just 17 goals, tied for third-fewest in the league. This is largely because of the talent OM features on the backline and between the sticks.
Cameroon international Nicolas N’Koulou has been an absolute rock at the heart of defense, starting all but two games. He has kept opponents at bay, with team-highs in clearances and interceptions per game, while also knocking in two goals and completing a team-high 91 percent of his passes. Usually joining him in the center of defense is either Rod Fanni or Jeremy Morel, two players on the wrong side of 30 who have both been excellent compliments for N’Koulou.
Behind the back four, Marseille have a true shot stopper. Long-time goalkeeper Steve Mandanda has developed into one of the best in France since his sale from Le Havre to OM in 2007. Mandanda, who was born in what was then known as Zaire, has 19 caps for the French national team, and has been unlucky not to be able to display his skills at the international level after the emergence of Hugo Lloris.
Aside from the biggest names, OM also have a host of role players contributing to their title challenge. Patrolling the left wing is Ghanaian Andre Ayew, who Americans should remember from the the last two World Cups (he assisted Asamoah Gyan’s winner in the knockout stages in 2010, then scored the goal that had the Americans nervous before John Anthony Brooks’s header in the 2014 opener).
Amongst those role players are a few young French stars who have been key players for OM this year. Ayew’s compliment on the right, Florian Tauvin, has four goals and as many assists all at the tender age of 21. Twenty-year-old Benjamin Mendy is getting the run of play at left back, providing three assists for the men up top and proving to be an excellent crosser and passer. Finally, sitting at maybe the most important role on the pitch, defensive midfield, Giannelli Imbula distributes the ball and organizes the team with ease (89.5 percent passing) despite turning 22 in December. Both Thauvin and Imbula have started every game for OM, and Mendy has only missed a single start. And, lest we forget, the aforementioned N’Koulou is still 24.
The final piece of the puzzle for any top squad is the manager, and Marseille have one of the best bosses around. A native of Argentina, Marcelo Bielsa has brought his seemingly radical tactics to OM. Bielsa employs a high-pressing style with a high team work rate that emphasizes forcing turnovers. While chaotic at times, his press can often cause turnovers in dangerous areas of the pitch, as well as making it hard for a team to get settled on the ball.
The top-notch coach has used these tactics at just about every team he has managed — most notably the Chilean and Argentine national teams — to high degrees of success. Offensively, his teams are not afraid to push players forward and play an open game that favors scoring goals. His teams are also very confident in possession; Marseille are second in Ligue 1 in total passing accuracy, only trailing their rivals from the capital. Bielsa is pulling all the right strings right now and needs to continue to do so for Marseille to stay at the top of the table.
The first half of the season, which included an eight game winning streak, was a kind one to OM. They have proven that they have the ability to compete at the very top level in France once again. Their youth will certainly help them moving forward, as fatigue should be less of an issue than it would for most teams.
Most importantly, Marseille aren’t reliant on a single individual. They are a team who, together, are greater than the individuals. Should they want to win the league for the first time since 2010, they are going to need to keep clicking as a team, and, maybe most importantly, get results against Lyon and PSG, teams who they lost to in the first half but are challenging Marseille for the title.
Fortunately, they play host to their challengers in the second half, facing both at the Stade Velodrome in the span of three match days in late March and early April. These fixtures will go a long way in determining the Ligue 1 champions. The fact that they are in Marseille will favor OM as it tries to win its 11th French title, which would push the team past Saint-Etienne and alone into first place in the all-time French title list.