Comparisons to Jose Mourinho were always inevitable for André Villas-Boas. A young handsome Portuguese coach groomed by Bobby Robson, formerly part of Mourinho’s backroom staff, and shooting to fame by taking Porto to a treble. Roman Abramovich played along and brought him to Chelsea, where it became clear that Villas-Boas was not Mourinho.
Part of the problem was that Villas-Boas was entering a different dressing room to the one that Mourinho did. An ageing core of players who had already won a lot and seen off more accomplished managers than the thirty-three year old didn’t take to their new boss, who possessed little of the charm of Mourinho, described as “borderline aspergers” by Ian McGarry. Those ageing players didn’t gel well with Villas-Boas on the pitch either – his preference for a high line undermined by captain John Terry losing his pace as he hit his thirties and Petr Cech not being the type of goalkeeper rushing out to sweep. He was supposed to overhaul a squad that many deemed to have become too powerful, yet the only senior players brought in for him were Juan Mata and Raul Meireles. Sacked before the season finished, his successor Roberto Di Matteo guiding Chelsea to their first European Cup victory did little to repair his reputation.
Middling stints at Tottenham Hotspur and Zenit Saint Petersburg followed before he joined the flood of names making big money in China at Shanghai SIPG. Announcements that he would be competing in the 2018 Dakar Rally made it easy to assume that he had fallen out of love with football and we wouldn’t be seeing much more of him.
What then, is he doing at one of the biggest, most passionate clubs in France?
Early on in Villas-Boas’ career, his teams played attacking football and looked to impose themselves on the opposition, pressing high up the pitch in a 4-3-3 formation with a high defensive line. “The philosophy is playing good football for the fans,” he said during his Chelsea tenure. “Good football to try to win games.”
As it became clear that the tide was turning against him at Chelsea though, Villas-Boas became more pragmatic: “Our No 6 [at Porto] sometimes became a more attacking midfielder and we tried to do that here. We decided it doesn’t work here, so that’s one of the things I have adapted. You lose a little bit of balance in the Premier League if you play that way. Transitions here are much more direct, making the importance of the No 6 to stay in position most decisive.”
Gradually, Chelsea began to have less of the ball and sat deeper, Villas-Boas saying after a match against Manchester City: “We set out today on a medium block. They were feeling too much attraction to press their short build-up, and in the first ten minutes we suffered a lot. I think we adjusted that, I think the players felt they had to adjust, so they lowered the lines a little bit.” After his Chelsea experience, he also started to use a 4-2-3-1 more often, deploying two holding midfielders instead of one.
A few years later, former Zenit player Boris Chukhlov was deriding Villas-Boas’ style as boring: “A team full of star names is going out onto the pitch, however, the tactics are too cautious. The side is showing anti-football, which basically boils down to giving the ball as quickly as possible to Hulk or Danny.”
While the high line returned at Tottenham, it still had mixed success. Statistics showed that Spurs had the second highest defensive line in the Premier League, yet were only ranked seventh in pressing metrics. This suggests there was a significant gap between what Villas-Boas expected of his players off the ball and the actual effort they put in. William Gallas basically confirms this: “When he arrived at Tottenham, the players didn’t adhere to his sessions. They didn’t make the effort. We sensed that the manager was a bit lost. Me, I was the captain and I had a meeting with him. I said to him ‘Coach, you must impose yourself. You are the manager, you have won titles, while the majority of the players here have won nothing. By imposing yourself, the players will follow you.'”
Benoît Assou-Ekotto was less forgiving: “I would say he’s a coach too sure of himself and very con [being kind this could be interpreted as stupid, less kind, dickheadish]. The guy goes to Chelsea, he thinks he invented hot water but it didn’t take. He then comes to Tottenham and I found him very hypocritical. A lot of stuff in texts, like: ‘Hi how are you doing? I like cars, you too, blablabla…’. I said to him ‘Nobody understands your training. You do a match with three goals, ok, but explain to us the why from the how. Nobody likes your sessions. Listen to me, the group is going to give up on you.’ I left September 1st for QPR and he was sacked three months after.”
Tottenham weren’t exactly known for their strong mentality prior to Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival so Villas-Boas’ failure to impose himself on that particular set of players shouldn’t exactly be held as a black mark against him, but Gallas paints a picture of a man with a fear of conflict that can render him obtuse and hinder his training methods, questioning whether the Portuguese “has broad enough shoulders to be manager of Marseille”.
Part of Marseille’s problem is their formation. Setting up in a 4-3-3, the striker is often left alone to chase after multiple defenders, meaning that when he goes to press one the other will be left in space. As a result, it frequently isn’t difficult for the opposition to find a free man and play out. With Marseille playing a high line, giving the opposition defenders time and space to pick out long balls over the top is a fairly suicidal tactic.
To support the striker and stop the opposition from being able to play out so easily, one of the centre midfielders will frequently push up alongside him, forming a 4-4-2 defensive shape. This helps to make it harder for the opposition to play out, however it does leave gaps in the midfield to be exploited.
More recently it is instead one of the wingers that will move up alongside the striker to press the centre-back, while curving their run to block the pass out to the full-back. This has been a more effective strategy than having a midfielder push up as not only does it leave less gaps through the centre, but it works to trap the centre-back into playing in one side of the field as the pass wide is blocked.
From opposition goal kicks, Marseille’s press looks better organised than in open play. The striker will get close to a centre-back, the winger nearest him will get tight to the full-back and the midfielders behind them will get close to their opposite number. On the other flank, the winger and the centre midfielder will take up more zonal roles: the winger will position himself between the centre-back and the full-back, able to pressure either while blocking off the pass between them, and the midfielder behind him will stay close to a midfielder but also be in a position to press the full-back if the winger moves up to close down the centre-back.
This mostly man-orientated press allows Marseille to stay close to all the goalkeeper’s short passing options. Rather than risk passing short, most teams will simply hit it long, which tends to be fairly easy for Marseille’s backline to deal with. If they do try going short though, Marseille are in position to immediately get on top of them and deny them passing options, making it very difficult for them to avoid giving the ball away, as shown in Sanson’s goal against Bordeaux.
This same man-orientated press is used in open play but tends to be less effective. The wingers will stick wide close to the full-backs and the midfielders will get close to the opposition midfielders. This means that passes into those opposition full-backs and midfielders are difficult to pull off without a Marseille player coming in and stealing the ball away, however the opposition can manipulate their positions to drag Marseille players away from each other and play passes into the forwards through the gaps that open up between them. Combine this with Marseille having problems pressuring the opposition centre-backs when someone doesn’t move up in support of the striker and you have centre-backs with the time and space to pick out passes having easy through balls into attack opening up in front of them.
The holding midfielder, usually Boubacar Kamara, essentially acts as a sweeper behind the midfield, but he often has too much to cover to do this effectively. If the midfielders get dragged away, passes into players either side of him often open up and if he does make the choice to gamble by shifting across to mark one, then a pass into the feet of the striker opens up in his absence.
It isn’t just a problem of system though. Dmitri Payet has shed the flab he picked up in London, but at 32, while he manages short bursts, he can’t be expected to press consistently over a full 90 minutes. As well as his athletic limitations, Payet isn’t great defensively from a technical standpoint – his legs a bit too stubby to be able to reach out and poke the ball away when making a tackle. Due to the risks of giving the ball away so close to their own goal, most defenders will simply look to move the ball on if the opposition comes too close to them so all Payet has to do is get near them, however if they do have the confidence to take him on there’s a good chance they will dribble past him.
Nemanja Radonjic is a remarkably similar player to Payet, which includes his weaknesses as well as his strengths. At 23 years old, Radonjic has less of an excuse for not putting in a defensive shift, but nevertheless both him and Payet are very inconsistent in their defensive duties. Sometimes they will go chasing intensely after players and track back close to their backline, whereas sometimes they will barely muster a jog back as the opposition burst down their flank.
With Sanson chosen as the more attacking centre midfielder, local lad Maxime Lopez is often left playing a more restricted role in central midfield. As a naturally more attacking player, this can leave Lopez looking out of his depth defensively. It’s not uncommon to see Lopez leaving an easy pass open to a man behind him or not tracking back quick enough. It’s likely for this reason that Valentin Rongier has mostly been to preferred to him in midfield this season.
Kamara does a good job of cleaning up behind the midfield but if he’s required to fill in at centre-back, this role is left to Kevin Strootman. The Dutchman has the skillset to play this position, but he simply doesn’t have the legs anymore, struggling to cover the necessary ground.
Villas-Boas’ man-orientated system does make it so that players who maybe aren’t up to scratch defensively get put into lots of one-on-ones, leaving them more exposed than they might be in a more zonal system, however this system is also simpler to implement. Given this is a young squad, it probably makes more sense to send players out with the main defensive task of sticking tight to their opposite number rather than overcomplicating things.
Marseille’s counter-pressing has similar strengths and weaknesses to the rest of their pressing. They work hard to quickly surround the ball when they lose it and doggedly chase after the man on the ball.
They again use a man-orientated system, getting tight to all the surrounding players to cut off the easy short passes. This focus on cutting off the short passes can often leave gaps for the opposition to play a longer pass out though, enabling them to break Marseille’s counter-press.
If they manage to win the ball back in the opposition half, they can get Sanson, Payet, Radonjic and Dario Benedetto all breaking quickly at the opposition, giving them the opportunity at a more direct attack than their usual more patient build-up.
As their pressing can be hit-and-miss, it’s a good thing that Marseille’s backline is more solid.
Although the frontmen often struggle to put pressure on the man in possession, Marseille’s back four maintain a high line. They often don’t even appear ready for a long ball in behind them, standing square on rather than side on to quickly turn and sprint. Despite this, they rarely get caught out by any direct balls over the top.
Partly this is because all of Marseille’s backline are fairly quick and so have the pace to turn and race back, however they are also very well-drilled. Whenever an opposition attacker looks to make a run in behind, they will drop off to stop him from gaining a yard on them. This can leave their offside trap a mess, as some players go to follow their runners while others hold their positions.
Staying narrow, all of the four are in good positions to drop off and cover any ball over the top, with the four working well as a unit.
When one of them needs to push up to stop an attacker receiving the ball into feet, this narrowness means the gap left is usually manageable.
Kamara is also happy to drop into the backline to plug the gap if his defensive teammates get dragged forward.
Former Marseille coach Gérard Gili said that Jordan Amavi “isn’t a defender… He doesn’t have the movements of a defender… He is uncomfortable in duels and impulsive in his attacks.” Although there is some truth to this, it is a little harsh. He’s poor in one-on-ones and rarely able to stop crosses, partially due to the way he tries to enter into challenges. As a defender, his job is to protect the goal but he’s usually more interested in winning the ball, so, rather than positioning himself to deny his opponent space down the line, he’s rushing straight in, making it easy for them to sidestep his challenge.
He does possess some defensive instincts though. His pace allows him to recover very quickly but he also reacts quickly – many attacking full-backs neglect to track back until it’s already too late, but Amavi will race back into position as soon as it looks like Marseille are going to lose the ball. He’s also strong, meaning that while he struggles technically in one-on-ones, he can often simply barge his opponent off the ball.
On the opposite flank, Bouna Sarr has the basics of defending down much better than Amavi. He also has incredibly quick footwork, enabling him to change direction in the blink of an eye so that even if a winger does trick him, they will struggle to win any space.
If Sarr is pushed forward into attack, Hiroki Sakai takes his place at right-back. The Japanese is a good defender but has a tendency to stand square-on in one-on-ones. This is an unorthodox method, however he is rarely punished for it: opponents do simply try to knock it into the space behind and run around him, but he is excellent at using his body to block off their runs, putting himself between them and the ball so he can collect it first. As he deals well with the main negative of a square-on body shape, he can use it to his advantage, able to easily turn in either direction to stop a player cutting inside or going down the outside.
As Adil Rami was sacked in the summer for lying about being injured so he could appear on a French game show (no, I’m not making that up), Marseille brought in Alvaro Gonzalez on loan from Villarreal. The Spaniard is a good, solid defender, however he can have a tendency to be overly aggressive, rushing out to make an unnecessary tackle or charging into a header only to misjudge the flight of the ball.
Duje Caleta-Car is the better of the pairing. He’s quick enough so that the high line doesn’t trouble him and, at 6ft 4, he’s rarely troubled in the air, yet he’s also bulky for a Ligue 1 centre-back, giving him more leeway to bully opposing forwards with his size. Despite possessing this larger frame, he doesn’t rely on it. His game is based around his positioning and he can be incredibly patient when waiting to put a foot in, usually waiting for the opponent to come to him rather than risk being caught out making a challenge. He will dive into a tackle if there is a risk of a breakaway though, and he has few qualms about tactical fouling.
Behind them, Steve Mandanda remains sprightly despite his advancing years. His reflexes and athleticism put most goalkeepers ten years his junior to shame, while he dominates his box, comfortable coming out to claim crosses without much chance of him flapping at the ball or getting pushed around. Importantly for Marseille’s high line, he’s also happy to sprint out and sweep up behind them if they are caught out.
As well as being solid defenders, all of Marseille’s backline are decent with the ball. Mandanda isn’t going to be playing as a playmaker from his six yard box anytime soon, but he is comfortable enough with the ball at his feet to relieve pressure on his teammates.
Alvaro and Culeta-Car are both good passers and willing to carry the ball forward into midfield, while both Amavi and Sarr bomb forward down the wings. Neither’s crossing is good but Sarr can scare defenders with his pace and get to the byline while Amavi is good with both feet, capable of bursting into attack inside or outside. Even Sakai, who has a rather modest view of himself, is good enough technically to work the ball forward with passing combinations to get high and wide.
Despite possessing good individuals, Marseille aren’t particularly good at playing out from the back. Kamara is capable of picking out pinpoint long passes and will carry the ball forward when playing as a centre-back, but generally he plays all his passes short and first-time as a midfielder, rather than thinking about turning out and playing forward.
He will often drop back between the centre-backs, allowing them to spread wide to find better passing angles and offering cover if they charge forward with the ball. This can leave the midfield empty though, with the defenders having no one to pass to.
Rongier is excellent at keeping hold of the ball under pressure and a lovely clean passer while, as a naturally more attacking player, Lopez is good in tight spaces and has an eye for a through ball. Generally receiving the ball with their back to play and alone at the base of the midfield, they have a tough time turning out and passing into attack, especially without a great deal of movement in attack.
The full-backs’ positioning can often make it difficult to play forward too, positioned high to stretch the opposition but as a result often in positions where they can’t easily receive the ball from those behind them. This makes it easy for the opposition to trap the Marseille centre-backs or midfielders without many passing options.
It’s not unusual to see Payet coming all the way back to pick up the ball deep in midfield and work the ball forward himself, however this takes him out of the attack where he is the one most likely to actually be able to create a scoring chance.
More often than not, Marseille’s build-up is simply passing from side to side along the backline and slowly moving up the pitch as the opposition retreat into their half. It at least gets them into the opposition half, however they don’t break through the lines, instead having to break down eleven men camped in their half.
With the centre typically blocked, the ball will go out wide to the full-back and they will aim to combine with the winger and work the ball into attacking positions. Sometimes this might just be a pass down the line to chase, with the wingers using their pace to get to the byline, however the better moves come from them forming passing triangles.
On the left the winger tends to stay wide, while Amavi will position himself deeper through the inside channel (the half-space) with Sanson ahead of him. On the right, the full-back will stay wide, while the right winger tucks inside into the inside channel, and the other central midfielder holds back behind him alongside Kamara and Amavi.
Very similar players, Payet and Radonjic will frequently switch sides, giving them opportunities to both hug the touchline and tuck inside. Tucking in off the right allows them to pick up the ball in dangerous areas and combine quickly with their teammates, whereas sticking to the left touchline gives them space to control the ball and run at defenders, whip in a cross or shoot.
As the full-back moves out to close the winger down, Sanson will often make a run in behind him to pick up the ball on the left.
If the winger cuts inside to dribble through the middle, Amavi will then make a run down the left to overlap and offer an option for a cross.
Aside from these moves down the wings, Marseille don’t have a great deal of clear combinations. Instead, they seem reliant on the individual skills of their players.
Payet is clearly the most important. He’s capable of dribbling past multiple defenders, serving a chance on a silver platter for a teammate or simply going for it himself. He might score a screamer or make a mockery of some defenders before carefully placing his shot. Payet is the difference between Marseille winning or drawing.
Although obviously not of the same quality as Payet, Radonjic can dribble past defenders and has an eye for goal. His passing is nowhere close to the standard of Payet, however he regularly slides through balls to his teammates with the outside of his foot.
Like Rongier and Lopez, Morgan Sanson is resistant to pressing, keeping the ball stuck to him as he rides challenges. He is more direct than his midfield teammates though, often looking to turn and immediately run at defenders, making him the most obvious choice for the more attacking midfield role. His passing is mixed, however he times his runs in behind well and the way he turns as he receives the ball means he’s always ready to play forward and attack.
Dario Benedetto has the finishing ability to end Marseille’s moves with a low shot into the corner, however he is also useful in the build-up. Despite only being 5ft 9, he’s surprisingly good in the air, giving the centre-backs the option of hitting long balls forward for him to head or chest down for his teammates – particularly useful given Marseille’s build-up can often get stuck in defence. He can also come short and link play with a little flick to the winger or midfielder running behind, or make space for his teammates with his runs.
Son of former Marseille player Bruno, Valère Germain is the back-up. Not as good technically as Benedetto, he doesn’t pose the same goal threat, yet he does link the play decently. He make wider runs than Benedetto, happier to run the channels, and while this makes it easier for Marseille to work the ball forward, it can leave them without options in the box when it comes to actually converting the chances.
Marseille struggle to play forward, usually resorting to going wide, and once they do get it in attack they don’t really have many consistent ways of working the ball into the box, relying on a moment of magic or some neat passing between their technical players.
Marseille’s results are probably better than their performances this season. Considering this is a young squad, that’s no bad thing, however if they are going to move forward and challenge Paris Saint-Germain, Villas-Boas will need to improve a lot.
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