Marseille yet to hit on all cylinders
Coach Didier Deschamps led Marseille to its first trophy since 1993 last season
Deschamps' relationship with Marseille sports director Jose Anigo is strained
Club owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus feels the team hasn't lived up to expectations
When Didier Deschamps was appointed as Marseille coach 18 months ago, the club had not won a trophy since winning the Champions League in 1993, back when Deschamps himself was captain. He soon ended the drought: Marseille, known in France as OM, the acronym of its full name Olympique de Marseille, won the French league last season and this week, in beating Spartak Moscow 3-0 away from home, reached the Champions League knockout stage for the first time since 1993.
Not that the latest result has caused huge celebrations at France's best-supported club. Sports minister Roselyne Bachelot may have phoned Jean-Claude Dassier, the club president, to offer her congratulations, but before the Spartak match, club owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, widow of Robert Louis-Dreyfus, upped the pressure by warning players against failure. "We invested massively during the summer to strengthen the team but the performances have yet to live up to expectations," she told Journal du Dimanche. Deschamps shrugged off the criticism, but it was typical OM to have a potential boardroom fissure in the buildup to its biggest game of the season.
Of more concern to OM fans, though, is Deschamps' fractious relationship with sports director Jose Anigo, also a former OM player and coach. The pair fell out over a ham-handed summer recruitment strategy in which OM failed to sign Deschamps' No. 1 target, Luis Fabiano (he was also linked with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Roque Santa Cruz and David Trezeguet) and, against the coach's wishes, sold last season's top scorer, Mamadou Niang, to Fenerbahce. OM had already told winger Hatem Ben Arfa to find a new club but once Niang had departed, asked him to stay: Ben Arfa was furious and went on strike to force through his loan move to Newcastle.
That left OM two attackers down so, on the final day of the transfer window, it spent a combined €30 million ($39 million) on Andre-Pierre Gignac from Toulouse and Loic Remy from Nice. Both men are seen as Anigo purchases. Former OM striker Jean-Pierre Papin has criticized Gignac's poor return of one goal from his first 12 appearances, telling Canal Plus: "He should be working harder and making more of an impact."
Deschamps has made excuses for Gignac, saying the striker is a bit overweight, still tired from the World Cup and has some niggling injuries, which on reflection, could also be read as arguments against buying him. Remy, on the other hand, has impressed and his speed, versatility (he can play wide or in the middle) and eye for goal brought his first competitive goal for France in a Euro 2012 win over Romania.
"Jose is the history of OM and Didier is an exceptional coach," Dassier told So Foot of the strained relationship of the two men beneath him. "They have their differences and to say they're on the same wavelength is a lie, but the secret is to find a balance. Didier still wants to win something this year, which is fine, as I do too."
OM has every chance, not least because this league lacks a dominant side like Lyon in the 2000s. Without finding anything like its best form, OM went into this weekend's Ligue 1 game against Montpellier (it won 4-0) in fifth place and, with a game in hand, only two points behind Lille, the division's sixth different leader. This time last season, OM was in seventh and four points off the top. It only took the lead in Week 31.
Deschamps is touchy that his former teammate, and current France coach, Laurent Blanc has a reputation for playing more beautiful football -- "we have always had the same philosophy, though it might not always be as obvious with my teams," he told SI.com -- but against Spartak, he might just have discovered a winning system. For the first time, he played Lucho Gonzalez as one of the two holding midfielders, with Mathieu Valbuena, normally a winger, just behind lone forward Brandao. Remy and the exciting Ghanaian winger Andre Ayew, one of the team's best players this season, were on the flanks. Valbuena and Brandao scored and the team looked fluid and dangerous going forward.
This should be an exciting period in OM history but the fragility of the management structure cannot allow for too much long-term planning. Deschamps told a news conference on Thursday that he won't want any January signings "knowing the finances of the club" but if he changes his mind, it could herald another internecine battle.
Deschamps rejected an offer to speak to Liverpool last summer -- "I was flattered but I had already given my commitment to OM," he told a press conference -- but you sense that if any more trouble flares with Anigo, Louis-Dreyfus or Dassier, he may find it easier to leave at the end of this season. By then, there's a good chance he'll have led OM to another domestic title as well.