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The case for Marseille’s defence

Publish on 17/12/2021 at 10:46 - D. CROSSAN

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Proud possessors of the best defence in Ligue 1 Uber Eats, Olympique de Marseille’s solidity under Jorge Sampaoli has boosted the prospects of a return to the UEFA Champions League.

OM have conceded a mere 14 goals in 17 league matches and have kept an impressive nine clean sheets. Rennes, also challenging for a top-two finish, are next on the list in France with eight clean sheets. So just how has Sampaoli, a known exponent of attacking football, made Marseille so watertight?

 

Brought into the team in Round 5, after joining on loan from Roma, Spanish goalkeeper Pau Lopez has forced club legend Steve Mandanda into a back-up role. It was an audacious move from Sampaoli to replace the man who has played more often for Marseille than anybody else in history, but the Argentinian boss can feel vindicated by his bold decision. Lopez is the first OM goalkeeper to keep eight clean sheets in his first 13 league matches and – crucially – is outperforming expectations. He has conceded nine goals compared to an xG (expected goals) conceded of 14.


 

Lopez fills Mandanda's gloves

 

Lopez told RMC Sport in November: “It’s quite simple. Both goalkeepers give their all and Sampaoli makes his decision. It’s a bizarre concept to think you need to be in conflict with the other goalkeeper if you are not playing. The competition for the spot is clean. If you’re going to get annoyed with somebody because you are not playing then it should really be with the coach and not with your team-mate. With Steve, we talk to each other and we respect each other. The relationship is good and we work together.”

 

Following a 3-2 home loss to Lens in Round 8, Sampaoli tightened things up. OM have conceded only five goals since as their policy has been defence first. William Saliba, on loan from Arsenal, has been a fixture at the back, starting 16 league matches and Sampaoli said of the centre-half in September: “He’s a top player in his position. We’re lucky to have him on loan. He’s very talented, not only in terms of his marking but also in playing the ball out from the back. He’s one of the future greats of French football.”

 

A reputed tactician, Sampaoli has juggled his systems this season, sometimes operating with a back three, sometimes a back four, and often with a hybrid system that sees Valentin Rongier, a midfielder by trade, drop in at right-back. Injured when Sampaoli arrived in the spring, former Nantes captain Rongier has become a mainstay of the coach’s system, despite fearing for his club future in the summer. Rongier admitted to BFM Marseille: “I asked the coach whether my efforts could pay off or whether they’d count for nothing and I should leave. What marked me the most, if I’m honest, is that during pre-season he spoke about the midfield, and he mentioned everybody’s name apart from mine.”


 

Versatility and options

 

Brazilian Luan Peres previously worked with Sampaoli at Santos and is another to have had to have adapted his game. A centre-half in Brazilian football, Luan Peres frequently finds himself in the left-back position. He said: “Sampaoli is getting better all the time, including in his way of working. He’s positive, a fighter, a winner. That’s why he’s in Europe and a lot of clubs wanted him.”

 

With Duje Caleta-car and Alvaro Gonzalez challenging Leonardo Balerdi for a central defensive role, Sampaoli has options, as he does in the wide positions with Pol Lirola and Jordan Amavi also on the club’s books. No matter who is picked, Marseille are very hard to break down. Reims come to the Orange Vélodrome on Wednesday December 22 and the Champagne club have been warned.

>> Statattack Round 18: Pau Lopez leading an OM revolution