We’ve already discussed Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but there’s one other club that’s off of a perfect start in Europe’s major leagues. Olympique Marseille moved to 6-0-0 after a 1-0 victory on Sunday over Evian, and if it seems their story is being underplayed, it’s probably because nobody’s quiet sure what to make of it.
OM wasn’t highly thought of at the beginning of the season, though to be fair, few thought for anybody beyond Paris Saint-Germain seven weeks ago. Ligue 1’s ground was ripe for a surprise, but if you were asking experts to pick PSG’s most likely challenger, it wouldn’t have been OM. Lille, potentially Lyon would have been your answer. Marseille was too much of a riddle.
That’s because the team fell flat last season, going most of the year’s second half without a league victory, though they were able to claim the Coupe de la Ligue. In the same year they were playing Champions League soccer, OM fell to 10th in Ligue 1. Head coach Didier Deschamps departed at the end of the season, replacing Laurent Blanc with the French national team.
Deschamps is not the type of presence you want around when things are going bad. A style that can come off as domineering reinforces negativity, part of the reason why when things went bad for Marseille last season, they went very bad. No player embodied this more than striker André Pierre Gignac. Once a prize acquisition from Toulouse, Gignac was a non-factor last year, nearly moving to Fulham in the winter window. Instead, Gignac stayed at the Velodrome, posting only one goal in 21 appearances (only six starts).
This year, Gignac has already scored three times, though Marseille’s modest attack has been overshadowed by a defense that has allowed only one goal in six games (after shipping 41 last season). And new coach Élie Baup has done this without a major overhaul. In fact, Marseille lost Stephane Mbia to England’s Queens Park Rangers in the transfer window. With largely the same personnel, Baup has managed the turnaround by merely getting his charge to perform better.
There is one major caveat to the turnaround: The schedule. Marseille’s yet to face any of the league’s major powers. Their toughest opponent by the standings is newly-promoted Reims, sitting fifth place having taken advantage of an easy schedule of their own. There are no PSGs, Lilles or Lyons among the team’s Marseille has faced. The biggest names are Rennes and stumbling defending champions Montepllier. Sochaux, at 14th, is the highest-placed team besides Reims.
There may be another reason (beyond Baup and the schedule) that Marseille’s come together, a reason we were reminded of twice late on Sunday. That’s when goalkeeper Steve Mandanda stepped up with two big saves to preserve Marseille’s perfect start. The French number two, now 27 years old, has steadily improved on the inconsistency he brought with him from Le Havre four years ago. Now, just as France’s number one is having trouble getting playing time, the Kinshasa-born Mandanda is putting everything together. If he continues playing like this, his former club coach will have a good Plan B if Hugo Lloris doesn’t came Tottenham’s Plan A.