Brash Bielsa making his mark at Marseille – and there's no shortage of drama
When Marseille won their last Ligue 1 championship in 2010, arch rivals Paris Saint-Germain finished a massive 31 points behind the winners.
The season wasn't a total disaster for PSG – they were victorious in the Coupe de France – but despite this, there was no sign of them closing the gap on their southern rivals.
That changed a year later when the club's Qatari owners arrived and spent millions in the hope of making the Parisiens an unstoppable force at home and abroad. Their plan has worked pretty effectively – PSG have won back-to-back titles in the last two years.
On the continent, their recent victory over Barcelona was a massive result for the club, and it's arguable that Laurent Blanc will be judged on how far the team progresses in the Champions League rather than domestically this season.
After winning the title five seasons ago, Marseille fell away in the league and Didier Deschamps left in 2012 after the team finished 10th. The club had failed to make a challenge once again, although there was still clearly plenty of ability in the squad. That season they reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League and won their third consecutive Coupe de France.
The title win in 2010 had been their first in 18 years. In the five-year period from 1988-1993, Marseille won four league championships and the Champions League. Under the presidency of Bernard Tapie, the French side signed the likes of Eric Cantona, Chris Waddle, Jean-Pierre Papin and Marcel Desailly. The glory years were beyond supporters' wildest dreams, but what ensued was a nightmare.
Tapie was involved in financial irregularities, and a match-fixing scandal labelled l'affaire VA-OM. The club suffered relegation to the second tier of French football, with Basile Boli's European Cup-winning goal in Munich against Milan by then a distant memory.
Last season they ended the campaign in sixth, but the appointment of astute tactician Marcelo Bielsa in the summer has seen a surprising turnaround. Marseille drew and lost their opening two matches under the Argentine before winning a club record eight games in a row.
On the pitch, Bielsa's players conform to a methodology of closing down the opposition in numbers without possession, and then attacking quickly in a vertical manner once they've regained the ball. When performed correctly it can look unstoppable, but when individual mistakes are made the collapse can be catastrophic.
For Bielsa, the philosophy is the most important thing. The formation and players are adaptable depending on the opposition; his defence, for example, varying according to the number of strikers his team come up against. A team with two strikers often face a back three, as Bielsa likes to have one spare centre-back.
The unorthodox 3-3-3-1 remains the most used system, while the team went unchanged for six successive matches until defeat against Lyon. They have scored 27 goals this term; at this stage last year it was just 16.
It's not just the collective that has improved, however, with individuals benefitting from the fresh approach. Striker Andre-Pierre Gignac has 10 goals in 12 appearances, and combines physical strength and mobility to perfectly fit Bielsa's setup.
The versatile Andre Ayew has a tremendous work-rate, and it's his pressing that becomes the catalyst for the rest of the side to follow by example. Florian Thauvin emphasises the need to counter-attack at pace, as he dribbles the ball upfield and shoots from distance, while holding midfielder Giannelli Imbula's performances have attracted the attention of Chelsea.
Arguments, lies and scuffles
It's the sustainability of Marseille's resurgence that's the biggest issue, as eventually the intensity of Bielsa's pursuit of perfection takes its toll.
The dressing room could be described as being in organised chaos, with the coach unafraid to impose his views. Morgan Amalfitano was the first to clash with the manager in training, and as a result the session was cancelled. He has since left for West Ham on loan after Bielsa accused him of committing a "serious and inexplicable mistake". "We continue to understand his situation but anybody would have seen what he did as an act of defiance against authority and taken identical measures," explained the uncompromising disciplinarian.
It's not simply a case of Bielsa picking his battles either. The Argentine called an unplanned press conference in the middle of September where he spoke for an hour and called Marseille chairman Vincent Labrune a "liar". The manager insists that he didn't want any of the players signed in the summer and that promises had not been fulfilled.
Then, last week a fight broke out between Gignac and defender Brice Dja Djedje. Whereas the majority of clubs would play down the disagreement or deny that the event even took place, the former Athletic Bilbao manager confessed: "It's very common for there to be differences between two players at clubs. I never punish players. I believe in compassion more than a punishment."
Princes of Paris?
With no European football for Marseille, it could be argued that they failed their first examination of any significance against Lyon – although there were certainly mitigating circumstances that saw them fall to a 1-0 defeat at the Stade Gerland.
There was little between the two sides in the first half, and Bielsa had to regroup when Dja Djedje left the match through injury. After the break it was all Marseille, as Benjamin Mendy hit the post and Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes had to make a brilliant save with his feet from Ayew. A goal by the revitalised Yoann Gourcuff changed the game in Lyon's favour, but Marseille had more than one decent penalty call turned down.
Bielsa is extremely popular with the fans and players at present, but should results start to falter then that could quickly change.
They currently have a four-point lead over second-placed PSG, and this season's first Classique will be a true test of Marseille's title credentials. Zlatan Ibrahimovich is nearing a return for the team from the capital and could play some part in the contest at the Parc des Princes.
There has been little rotation from Bielsa to date, although the suspensions of Ayew and Jeremy Morel mean he will be forced into a rethink. His willingness to give young defenders Baptiste Aloe and Gael Andonian their league debuts against Lens was a sign of his faith in youth and a message to the board that he wishes to strengthen in January.
Bielsa has largely used a small group of players, but it's how he manages the rest of the squad that will determine Marseille's chances of claiming the title.