Marseille’s title challenge in Ligue 1 has ended before it started

It wasn’t so long ago that we found ourselves tipping Marseille as outsiders for the Ligue 1 title. After six straight wins in the league, they sat just two points off the leaders in mid-December. They also had two matches in hand: a fairly tricky game against Lens and an eminently winnable fixture against a rudderless Nice side. Marseille had been shockingly poor in Europe but, now that their relentless, squad-stretching Champions League campaign was behind him, could they make a fist of things domestically?

Given their results in the last month – capped by their 2-1 defeat at home on Saturday to lowly Nîmes, a side that had lost seven of their previous eight matches and have by far the worst defensive record in the division – the answer is looking increasingly likely to be no. Marseille have only won one of their last six games in the league.

This downturn comes amid a busy transfer window for the club, with the loan departure of Kevin Strootman, the arrival of Pol Lirola and the hoped-for signing of Arkadiusz Milik. Strootman’s salary has been an albatross for some time, and Lirola, an attack-minded right-back, could offer the sort of dynamism going forward that Hiroki Sakai seems incapable of delivering. Milik, out of favour at Napoli, might at last provide the club with the goalscoring striker they have been lacking since the departure of André-Pierre Gignac in 2015, but his potential arrival comes as the team is roiled by internal conflict and external pressure from their notoriously demanding fans.

While it is far from an unfamiliar sight to see fans unfurling banners or marching in protest outside the Vèlodrome – as they were on Saturday – the revelation that club president Jacques-Henri Eyraud had delivered a fiery diatribe to the team on Sunday morning shows how unsettled the club has become internally. An anonymous player told RMC: “He said that our match was pathetic, that we were rubbish and that we were walked all over by the bottom side in Ligue 1, that we showed no desire. We have rarely seen him like that. He was furious. He said we were not worthy of the shirt and that we did not respect the supporters. That if the stadium had been full we would not have been home until three in the morning.”

Eyraud reportedly told the foreign players to learn French or be sold in the summer and informed the players who will be out of contract at the end of the season to let him and sporting director Pablo Longoria know their future plans within the next 48 hours. The club has every right to plan ahead but, given that this group includes key players such as Florian Thauvin and Jordan Amavi, the intensity of his ire will have unsettled things further, even if he did reportedly apologise later.

Florian Thauvin (right), who is out of contract this summer, reacts after missing a penalty against Nîmes. Photograph: Daniel Cole/AP

One has to wonder if the fissures at the club are now beyond repair. In André Villas-Boas they have a manager who is undoubtedly talented and adept at getting the most out of limited resources, but given his reported reluctance to continue last summer – he was eventually talked into staying by his players – his future seems as up in the air as it has ever been. Without Villas-Boas, Marseille would surely be in an even worse position.

In the post-match press conference, Villas-Boas said he was “worried about the future”. Worried is an understatement. Thauvin, who had been in fine form in the league before the break, appears to be running on fumes, having started his fourth match in 11 days on Saturday. Aside from the winger – who was named captain in Steve Mandanda’s absence and offered a spark in the match’s early stages before disappointingly missing a penalty – Villas-Boas has precious few options in attack.

Dario Benedetto did score on Saturday, but he has been a wildly inconsistent presence when leading the line. Dimitri Payet has been a shadow of his incandescent best this season and his recently signed contract extension, which will keep him on the club’s books until he turns 37, looks likely to be more of a millstone than a source of security.

The bottom line is that Marseille have lacked a consistent overarching sporting approach and transfer strategy for some time now. When the club have invested in domestic talent (Valentin Rongier, Morgan Sanson), they have done well. But in continuing to pay over the odds, both in terms of transfer fees and wages, for veterans or punts from other leagues, Marseille have built a squad that is too small, too old, and lacks resale value.

In a compressed season, there is no easy way out of this. With Rennes resurgent and Monaco flying, Marseille could miss out on European football altogether. Even if Milik does arrive, he has not played football this season, having been left out of Napoli’s squads in both Serie A and Europe.

Quick Guide

Ligue 1 results

Show

Brest 1-2 Rennes

Nantes 1-1 Lens

Nice 0-3 Bordeaux

Strasbourg 1-0 St Etienne

Lille 2-1 Reims

Lyon 0-1 Metz

Marseille 1-2 Nîmes

Angers 0-1 PSG

Montpellier 2-3 Monaco

It would probably be best for Marseille if Eyraud’s threatened clearout actually happens. Losing Thauvin on a free transfer would be a bitter blow, but players such as Duje Ćaleta-Car and Sanson could fetch handsome fees, particularly if the former can impress for his country in the European Championship. Payet remains a concern, but in Boubacar Kamara, Rongier and Pape Gueye, the club have the building blocks in place to move forward, even if that transition may be painful. Either way, it will have to be a decisive step when it is made – the half-stepping and chicanery that have characterised the Frank McCourt era on and off the pitch must be put to one side to foster a genuine rebirth that the club sorely need.

Talking points

Aaron Leya Iseka celebrates after scoring the winner for Metz against Lyon.
Aaron Leya Iseka celebrates after scoring the winner for Metz against Lyon. Photograph: Laurent Cipriani/AP

• Lyon’s 16-match unbeaten run had to come to an end at some point, but few would have predicted a defeat at home to a Metz side who were missing a raft of their key attackers, including Ibrahima Niane and Opa Nguette. Anthony Lopes may be asked to shoulder the blame after failing to stop Aaron Leya Iseka from scoring the only goal of the game in the 90th minute, but some woeful finishing from Lyon’s front three also played its part. With their derby match against Saint-Étienne looming on Sunday, Lyon will have to recover quickly if they hope to sustain their title challenge.

• Rennes now boast the longest unbeaten run in Ligue 1 – seven games – after beating Brest in a Breton derby. Clément Grenier once again ran the show for Julien Stéphan’s side, scoring from the spot to make the difference in a 2-1 win. Grenier now has three goals in four matches, and Stéphan has shifted to a 4-2-3-1 to accommodate him. Grenier is an older and wiser player than the freewheeling attacker who took the league by storm seven years ago and his renaissance is further testament to the abilities of Stéphan to recast and improve even veteran players.

• Finally, a nod to Bordeaux, who followed up their 2-1 win over Lorient last weekend with a 3-0 victory at Nice on Sunday. Neither Lorient nor Nice has won a game since Christmas but, as the adage goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. Yacine Adli has shone in the absence of the injured Hatem Ben Arfa. The 20-year-old is still guilty of the odd rash decision, but his creativity and skill on the ball are impressive indeed. He is playing with increasing freedom and could yet be one of the season’s breakout stars.

Ligue 1 table

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