Marseille: A tale of false dawns, financial woes and future stars

Six months into the start of his term at Marseille, new manager Marcelo Bielsa was a happy man.

The famed Argentine tactician had been brought in to steady the ship at the newly renovated Stade Vélodrome following the disastrous campaign of Élie Baup the season before. Sporting director José Anigo had taken over the helm after Baup was sacked in December but could only guide the club to a 6th place finish in the 2013-14 campaign – a placing that saw them miss out on European football altogether last season. Anigo’s role was temporary though, and the Frenchman stepped down in May to make room for the incoming Bielsa.

Getting l’OM back to the top was to be no easy task, and the magnitude of the struggle which lay before Bielsa grew ever more daunting following the shock departure of Mathieu Valbuena to Dynamo Moscow. But by January, against all odds, Marseille were on top of the Ligue 1 standings and had at their disposal the league’s leading goalscorer in the form of André-Pierre Gignac. Things were looking up.

Six months later and it is hard to imagine that Marcelo Bielsa is still a happy man.

As things would have it, the early promise of glory proved to be no more than a false dawn. Marseille’s title challenge faded as spectacularly as it had begun with the pretenders to the crown winning only 8 matches between the half way mark and the end of the season. A 4th place finish was all Bielsa and his men had to show for a season that had promised so much.

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The disappointment of a mid-season collapse is proving to be the least of Marseille’s worries, however, as the expansion to the aforementioned Stade Vélodrome and a trend of reckless spending over the last few seasons have put the club in a position of financial instability – the result of which could prove to be potentially catasrophic.

According to respected French football expert Jeremy Smith, every club has to go before financial regulator DNCG to present their budget and give assurances as to their functioning for the upcoming season. Marseille’s financial shortcomings are such that to avoid falling foul of the DNCG the club needs to raise funds by the 30th of June. Raising funds means letting players leave – and they are leaving in their masses.

The aforementioned Gignac and attacking partner André Ayew, two of the clubs highest earners, were of the first to leave the club. Gignac inexplicably traded the shores of France, and indeed of Europe for the path less travelled by joining Tigres in Mexico, while Ayew himself made a surprising move to Swansea in the Premier League. Their respective departures cleared a large part of the wage bill but leave behind a massive void in the attacking depth and quality of the squad. Between them the duo scored 31 of Marseille’s 76 goals in Ligue 1 last season. To make matters worse, both players left on a free meaning no funds are available from their departures for reinvestment. The duo aren’t the only ones either as Jérémy Morel also decided on taking up a contract elsewhere, the veteran defender joining bitter rivals Lyon.

Indeed, Marseille’s financial position is such that previously untouchable players within the squad are now fair game. Senior players like goalkeeper of the year Steve Mandanda and star defender Nicolas N’Koulou are both available ‘at the right price’ while the likes of Giannelli Imbula and Dimitri Payet (who was Ligue 1′ top assist maker) already have one foot out the door. The identity of the squad has been ripped apart from its core and there are no signs of letting up. There is even suggestion that Bielsa himself won’t be at Marseille come the 7th of August when the Ligue 1 season kicks off.

What is clear though, is that regardless of who is in charge, Olympique de Marseille are faced with a massive rebuilding job, and they have very little funds with which to do it. There will be no like-for-like replacements for the departing stars and no marquee signings to appease the disgruntled fanbase. Instead, it appears that the future of Marseille lies in the hands of the youth and in smart, low cost investment in the market.

When you consider the talent of the youth at Marseille’s disposal, however, it’s not all that bad. The likes of Benjamin Mendy (20), Michy Batshuayi (21) and Florian Thauvin (22) were key figures for Marseille last season and will form the new core of the squad moving forward.

Batshuayi, who is a fully capped Belgian international, is more than ready to lead the attack for Marseille. The former Standard Liège frontman came into his own in 2015 with a string of impressive performances, contributing 9 goals to the teams cause – an impressive tally considering he was used mostly as a ‘super sub.’

Thauvin on the other hand came in for criticism following a string of underwhelming performances last season but the French youth international remains one of the nation’s brightest talents. With the creative impact of Ayew and (potentially) Payet now missing from the squad, Thauvin will have a big responsibility placed on his shoulders should he remain at the club. Such responsibility could prove to be more of a blessing than a burden, however, as giving the former Bastia star a more important role affords him the opportunity to live up to his 15m price-tag.

Benjamin Mendy may prove to be the most important of the lot. The youngster is one of the most exciting players in world football at the moment and was nominated for the European Golden Boy award. With the potential to be a future captain, Mendy’s leadership and ability will (once more) be key in Marseille’s defence next season.

It is also worth noting highly rated defender Stéphane Sparagna, who recently captained France to victory in the Toulon Tournament. The 20-year old is ready to make the step up after making his debut last season and could have a big role to play in Marseille’s defensive line. Waiting in the ranks is also Gaël Andonian and Bill Tuiloma (both 20) who are already full internationals with Armenia and New Zealand respectively.

Naturally, the abovementioned prospects and the senior players who choose to remain will need a supporting cast. That is where the smart, low cost investment comes in. In their present predicament the only realistic way forward for Marseille is to scout and sign promising young players – the kind without exhorbitant price-tags and inflated wage demands. The recent signing of 20-year old Georges-Kévin N’Koudou for just 1.5m from Nantes is the perfect example of this policy. Low price. High potential.

It is no surprise then that the bulk of players linked to Marseille are youngsters who would either be available on the cheap – such as Andrei Panyukov of Dynamo Moscow – or on short-term deals – such as Man City’s Karim Rekik. Lucas Ocampos, who had a successful spell on loan at the Vélodrome last season has also been linked with a return and would once again add a dynamic contribution to Marseille’s attack.

There is undoubtedly a long road ahead and initial disappointment is a given – even achieving top 5 finish again appears to be a reach. But, as Lyon showed last season, with the right investment and a constructive effort to develop youngsters, successfully overcoming such financial adversity is possible. It might not appear that way now, but despite the uncertainty of the present the future of Marseille is bright.

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