Ligue 1’s most exciting fixture opening weekend featured Jorge Sampaoli’s Marseille in a come-from-behind 3-2 victory at Montpellier, and this weekend they had an equally exciting, if less successful, 2-2 draw at Bordeaux. Though Sampaoli took over managing Marseille at the end of last February, the opening games of this season suggest a revised tactical plan for Les Phocéens.
Sampaoli arrived in the midst of a crisis, with previous manager Andre Villas-Boas in open conflict with director of football, Pablo Longoria, and ultra groups breaking into the club’s training facilities in riotous protest. Deeply influenced by former Marseille (and current Leeds United) manager, Marcelo Bielsa, Sampaoli implemented an attacking style, shifting the team from a back four to a fluid 3-4-3 system.
Having steadied the ship, the off-season allowed Marseille to secure permanent deals for key loanees (American Konrad de la Fuente and Brazilian Gerson) and also bring in new players, most notably former Arsenal midfielder Matteo Guendouzi and defender William Saliba.
In the opening two games of the new season, however, Sampaoli seems to be taking a page from the playbook of another Bielsa fan: Pep Guardiola. At least in these opening games, Sampaoli has deployed Boubacar Kamara in a role similar to the one performed by João Cancelo at Manchester City. Against Montpellier, he started at right back in a 4-3-3; but rather than pushing up the flank to support the attack when Marseille were in possession, he would tuck in alongside Papa Gueye as a second holding midfielder in a de facto 3-2-2-3.
In this weekend’s outing against Bordeaux, Kamara appeared to start in the midfield of a 3-4-3, with Guendouzi and Gerson lining up as wing backs; but they both tended to return to the middle, and Kamara again shifted between midfield and right back. Of course, Sampaoli’s flexible 3-4-3 would often enough come to resemble something like Guardiola’s 3-2-2-3, or the midfield square that Brendan Rodgers employed at Liverpool. But the shifting role of Kamara seems particularly indebted to Guardiola’s Man City.
Though more likely an enforced decision, Marseille has also been mimicking Guardiola’s “striker-less” set-up. In the absence of Arkadius Milik, sidelined with a knee injury that also kept him out of the Euros, Sampaoli has chosen to start games with playmaker Dimitri Payet as a false nine, not unlike Guardiola’s similar deployment of Kevin DeBruyne or Phil Foden up top.
In both games so far, striker Dario Benedetto has been introduced for a midfielder around the hour mark, allowing Payet to return to a more natural midfield role. That change seemed important in turning the tide against Montpellier, who had gone ahead against the run of play in the first half; but wasn’t enough against Bordeaux, who had equalized in the early stages of the second half after going two down in the first. Even so, Sampaoli’s continued decision to start Payet in a central attacking role seems similarly indebted to Guardiola, and it will be interesting to see whether the pattern continues when Milik returns.
But while Sampaoli’s current formation owes much to Guardiola’s City, they have retained a directness of attack more in keeping with Bielsa’s Leeds. He seems to have incorporated these aspects of Guardiola’s positional approach without the same absolute commitment to possession. While Marseille have averaged 64% possession in their opening games, they are a much more vertical side than City, as five goals scored (and four conceded) might suggest.
With former Lille manager Christoph Gaultier’s Nice (next Sunday) and Monaco (Sept. 12th) in their next three matches, Marseille should, at the very least, continue to entertain neutrals.
Total Football Analysis on Sampaoli’s Marseille last season
Coaches’ Voice overview on his career
Breaking the Lines on Sampaoli’s two years in Brazil
Defending with the Ball on his 2014 World Cup Chile side