Columnist, Football

James Eastham: In the footsteps of Marcelo Bielsa

Midway through Marseille’s recent 2-1 win over St Etienne, the French TV commentator, perplexed, asked what many people at home must have been thinking.

“How on earth has Marcelo Bielsa managed to improve this Marseille team so dramatically using exactly the same players as last season?”

At the time of writing, Bielsa’s new-look Marseille are top of the Ligue 1 table with 22pts from nine matches.
Except, as the commentator pointed out, it’s not a new-look side at all.

Bielsa’s preferred starting line-up during Marseille’s stunning run of seven straight victories from late August to October – see a full rundown of wins at the foot of the page – was: Mandanda; Dja Djedje, Nkoulou, Morel, Mendy; Romao, Imbula; Thauvin, Payet, Ayew; Gignac.

Every single one of those players was a Marseille player last season. And nearly every single one has improved under Bielsa.

The change in style and attitude has been swift and dramatic. Instead of sitting back, Marseille now press high up the pitch. Instead of being happy to win by a single goal, Marseille are now a “winning machine” – as Patrice Garande, manager of one of their recent victims, Caen, put it – that wants to steamroller the opposition out of existence. In every game, all over the pitch, l’OM play with remarkable intensity and energy.

In another recent match, at Reims, Marseille led 2-0 at half-time. Old Marseille would have eased off. But when the touchline interviewer grabbed Dimitri Payet and asked what the aim for the second-half was, Marseille’s playmaker revealed a ruthlessness seasoned Payet-watchers will have barely recognised. He said: “To score more goals.”

And that’s what they did. At one point in the second-half, Marseille had seven players in the opposition penalty area. They won 5-0.

So all eyes are on Marseille right now. But if you can divert your gaze from the pitch, there’s an interesting sub-question to be explored.

That question is: what does it say about French coaching that Bielsa has improved the team so dramatically in a matter of weeks?

Sometimes a change of manager raises everyone’s standards at a club. But this is different. This strikes at the heart of a problem all too apparent to close followers of Ligue 1 for too long. What Bielsa has done is ask his players to give everything they have, and attack.

In other words, he’s introduced two elements habitually missing from Ligue 1 matches. Too often Ligue 1 teams play within themselves. This will be obvious to anybody that regularly watches top-flight French matches.

Tune in and your chances of seeing bold, brave football are slim. Games follow a well-worn pattern. In the opening 30 minutes, few risks are taken. The rhythm is slow. Retaining your shape is the priority. Goalkeepers have little to do.

Marseille have been sensational under Bielsa's tutelage
Marseille have been sensational under Bielsa’s tutelage

Things open up – a bit – in the second-half. Teams work (a bit) harder to get men into the final third. But there are few attacking overloads, few intense or dramatic attacking exchanges. Teams rarely “se lacher”, as the French say – have a real go.

Little wonder there are fewer goals in Ligue 1 than other major European leagues. The average goal-per-game counts this season so far are: Premier League (2.82), Liga (2.57), Bundesliga (2.54) and Serie A (2.46).

In Ligue 1, it’s 2.32. It’s been like this as long as we can remember. But the stats alone don’t tell the full story – watch the games and you’ll get an even clearer picture of the soporific fare that gets served up.

Who’s responsible for this culture? These things trickle down from the top, so the FFF (French Football Federation) and LFP (French Professional League) have to take some blame.

But on a day-to-day, grassroots level, the fault lies collectively with Ligue 1’s highly-paid coaches. En masse, they favour defensive, cautious, safety-first football. It’s sad, given France’s historically important position as one of the game’s great innovators, that there’s nothing innovative about the coaching in France these days.

Every Ligue 1 manager knows how to set up his team to be difficult to beat. But many lack the will or ability to take on the more difficult challenge of thinking up ways to play inventive, entertaining football. Clever attacking ideas? Lung-bursting attempts to play the opposition off the pitch?  An authentic commitment to fluent, attacking football? Not in France.

We know not everyone can be a Bielsa. The man’s a trailblazer.

All we’re asking is for Ligue 1 coaches to follow the Argentinian’s example. Encourage attacking football. Liberate rather than restrict your players.

Incite your midfielders to move beyond your strikers. Attack in sixes and sevens rather than twos and threes. Embrace some of the ideas the best Spanish and German sides have showcased over the past decade.

You never know – you might enjoy it. Your players will.

Bielsa is showing us how exciting and entertaining French football can be. We’ve got a taste for it, and we want more.

Will many of his Ligue 1 contemporaries follow his lead? Doubt it – but we’d love them to prove us wrong.

Marseille’s magnificent seven victories

Aug 23    Guingamp 0-1 Marseille
Aug 29    Marseille 4-0 Nice
Sep 14        Evian 1-3 Marseille
Sep 20    Marseille 3-0 Rennes
Sep 23        Reims 0-5 Marseille
Sep 28    Marseille 2-1 St Etienne
Oct 4        Caen 1-2 Marseille

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