Ligue 1 has been a tripartite affair this season, with Paris Saint-Germain followed by a chasing pack of three: Olympique Lyonnais, Monaco, and Marseille. Behind them, everyone else has scrapped away but the gulf in points between PSG, then the next three, then the rest, has been unbridgeable. Marseille can still finish second, mathematically at least, but their focus will be on Thursday night’s Europa League final against Athletico Madrid for now.
Marseille have not been in a European final since losing the UEFA Cup final 2-0 to Valencia in 2004, but this season has seen the fruits of a reorganisation behind the scenes after the disastrous campaign of 2015/16 when the team finished 13th. The team have been an exciting, if at times unsettling, side to watch: swash-buckling in attack, but often just buckling at the back. Marseille play almost exclusively in a 4-2-3-1, attacking at speed and through the wide spaces, with the full-backs pushing up, often leaving only one of the impressive Luiz Gustavo or Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa to protect Adil Rami and Rolando.
Florian Thauvin has been Marseille’s outstanding player this season, scoring a remarkable 22 goals and registering 11 assists from his right-wing berth in Ligue 1, and also netting three and getting two assists in the Europa League. He lines up alongside Dimitri Payet, while Lucas Ocampos takes the left wing berth.This attacking trident plays behind either Valere Germain or Kostas Mitroglou, both of whom can score goals, but whose primary function is to hold up the ball for the attacking midfielders and pressure the opposition centre-backs. The wide attacking midfielders also press the full-backs hard, as Marseille try to win the ball back high to counter; should this fail, they drop into a 4-4-2 shape with Payet just behind the striker.
When attacking, Payet drops and the wider players push forwards, supported by the wing-backs. Marseille like to play with width, but while they stretch the play on the side where they have possession, the opposite flank player comes inside. Germain or Mitroglou, both of whom are a handful to mark, create space by dragging defenders towards them, which allows Ocampos and especially Thauvin to find space in the box. Thauvin has scored many of his goals this way, nipping in at the near post to score with a header or a neat finish, while he has also shown the ability to run across the box and finish more like a primary striker, especially when Germain has pulled the centre-backs away from the danger area.
Marseille’s full-backs like to overlap, with the wide men making runs inside, and both get high and to the byline to make crosses. Bouna Sarr or Hiroki Sakai pose a threat when pushing up past Thauvin, who can then take an inside pass and carry the ball towards danger, or drift into the box and await the cross. Some of Marseille’s interplay this season has been superb: Thauvin’s goal in the 3-0 win at home to Braga is a delight of quick pass-and-move football.Payet’s contribution does still weigh largely on his ability to deliver a set-piece ball, and Thauvin’s movement in the box has seen these two combine for three Ligue 1 goals this season. But he is also a danger from open play, drifting in to the channels on either flank to play through balls to the wide men running in, or changing the direction of attack with an intelligent, slide-rule pass. Payet is one of those players who can seem to stop, take a few seconds, and then create something from very little; he is the at times still centre of Marseille’s otherwise whirling attack.
Against Athletico Madrid, this attacking ability will be tested to its limits. It is an easy cliché to view this game as unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, but Marseille’s movement will cause problems for an Atleti defence that works best when structured and not forced to respond off the cuff. Thauvin and Payet have already had superb seasons – will this Thursday bring them its crowning moment?
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