Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Marseille's malaise of their own making
Lovely Margarita, Marseille's very own meter maid, is not a happy woman. The widow of Robert Louis-Dreyfus - or RLD as he was known by French football journalists - has inherited his billionaire fortune, the dubious honour of also seeing her name acronym-ed in print, and his football club. In the wake of OM's title triumph and her husband's death, she vowed to continue to plough money into the club. The woeful start to the current season, though, has led the Russian-born blonde to not only threaten to clamp down on spending, but even perhaps allow the club to be towed off by another owner.
"OM aren't playing like they should given the amount of money I've put in," grumbled the billionaire heiress, who popped €20 million into the club's coffers just last summer "If I were a real businesswoman, I would have already sold the club."
She has already traded away one piece of the family silver - Belgian club Standard Liege - and rumours that she will take €120 million for OM have been circulating. Showing a keen understanding of the free market, Didier Deschamps acknowledged Louis-Dreyfus' right "to sell tomorrow", but added: "It doesn't put me under any more pressure - I've had that ever since I arrived at Marseille."
There is no doubt, though, that France's 1998 World Cup-winning captain is under the most fierce scrutiny he has experienced since taking charge at the Stade Velodrome in 2009. A 2-0 defeat at Lyon in September even saw OM slip to the bottom of the table, and though a 2-0 victory over newly-promoted Evian followed, the minor enthusiasm generated by their first and only win of the season, which came against a side that played with ten men for 47 minutes, was quickly dampened.
Successive draws with Valenciennes and Brest, two clubs which any self-respecting title pretender should be sweeping aside with ease, have left OM in 13th, a point off the relegation zone and 12 behind leaders PSG. "It's not up for discussion," said Vincent Labrune, OM club president, of Deschamps' position, trying desperately not to make it sound like a vote of confidence. "We're conscious of our limits. We know we don't have any room for error. It may be a difficult season, like last season was - that mustn't be forgotten."
True enough. After five games, OM had just five points last season, but by the ninth game - the same stage as the current campaign - they were up to fourth place, four points off top spot. There has been no recovery so far and, worryingly, all three matches with fellow title contenders - namely Lille, Rennes and Lyon - have ended in defeat. The cause of the malaise is hardly a mystery: they, like many a western government at the present time, are living beyond their means, though in OM's case what is going in at one end of the pitch is not enough to compensate for what is going in at the other.
One of the best defences in Ligue 1 last season has crumbled into a ramshackle excuse for a back four. Injuries have forced Deschamps' hand with first-choice centre-back pairing, Stephane Mbia and Souleymane Diawara, teaming up just twice in competitive fixtures. However, OM conceded six goals in those games, which also suggests the duo may not be in the best form. Mbia's tailor-made replacement, his fellow Cameroon international Nicolas Nkoulou, has already served two three-match bans, while Rod Fanni as a makeshift centre-back and Spanish Under-21 international Cesar Azpilicueta, replacing Fanni at right-back, have been less than imperious.
Things are so bad, even ex-Liverpool 'defender' Djimi 'He just can't control his feet' Traore has been given a game. "He's been at some big clubs," reasoned Deschamps. "You don't just lose what you've learned there." Clearly, Djimi isn't one for studying. Left-back Jeremy Morel has not settled yet either, meaning the summer departures of Gabriel Heinze and Taye Taiwo - initially seen as a blessing - now look more like a curse. With defensive midfield sentinel Alou Diarra, a rare signing that Deschamps actually wanted, out of form and fitness, and with the Velodrome faithful on his injured back, solidity has been a rare commodity.
Defensive shortcomings could be excused, though, if the team were functioning at the other end. Ten goals in nine games is sufficient evidence it is not. A key factor is the form - or lack of it - of Lucho Gonzalez. The Argentina midfielder was recently recalled to the international set-up, but his performances in an OM shirt have barely merited it. Brilliant in the title-winning season of 2009-10, Lucho - whose shorts are so long the existence of his knees is the origin of heated debate - has only intermittently scaled those heights since. He was hell-bent on leaving the club in the summer with Malaga the most serious suitors, only to end up staying in a city where he and his family were robbed at gunpoint in their home in March. With their chief orchestrator out of sync and off-key, the remainder of the band are struggling to find any sort of rhythm.
The same can be said of Andre-Pierre Gignac, whose natural rhythm when he returned for pre-season training resembled that of hibernating sloth. The rotund €24 million France international came back with so much 'excess baggage' he was told to re-pack his bags for a week's slimming cure in Italy. "I simply learned how to eat," said the 24-year-old, who worryingly didn't say, "I learned how to eat simply."
Gignac is now half the striker he was when he finished as Ligue 1 top scorer with Toulouse in 2009. However, his scoring record since hitting 24 goals in that campaign - eight goals in a season is his best since - suggests that two years ago he was actually three times the striker he really is. Fast-food establishments in the Fulham area would have been enjoying Gignac's regular trade had OM not shelved a deadline-day deal with Amauri at the last minute. Though Deschamps has publicly backed his pudgy forward, Gignac's ill-advised decision to go and watch his brother play rather than his employer's game with Brest may well be the final straw.
As Gignac prepares to move off low-fat shakes and onto solids for his pre-match meals with the club's reserves, Deschamps has not been helped by the fact that Andre Ayew, last season's revelation, and new boy Morgan Amalfitano have contributed just two goals between them. With five draws already this season, OM are a team that cannot kill opponents off, and it seems the squad - unlike their boss - are feeling the pressure.
"It's not a bad thing for players to shout at each other. I'd be more worried if the players didn't show any sign of being bothered," said Deschamps, defending a recent spate of on-pitch 'verbals' from his players, who held a clear-the-air crisis meeting at the end of September. "You can even have players yelling at each other when you're winning."
OM aren't, though, and with only Loic Remy and Mathieu Valbuena, who has had a hand in seven of his team's ten league strikes this season, posing any sort of threat to opposing defences, things may not change soon.
Deschamps does have the succour of the Champions League where OM have maximum points from two games and are yet to concede a goal. While it may still be 'not easy to go to Olympiakos and get a result' as Deschamps' side did, their 3-0 defeat of Dortmund was not merely flattering, but sickly sycophantic. But for Mandanda on one of his good days, the luckless German champions would have had a beret-ful. The handsome victory hid an unsightly multitude of sins.
Should Deschamps, who signed a two-year contract extension in the summer, be shown la porte? Probably not, given that he did bring the title to the Velodrome in 2010 and has moulded the club into regular Champions League participants. As Labrune hinted, he is rather the victim of the club's desire to try and balance the books. Deschamps has repeatedly asked for experienced and talented players to help his team in European competition. What he has largely been given are young talented players, such as Remy, who are rather gambles that have come off, or second-choice alternatives, such as Gignac, who have not. His combustible relations with the club's sporting director, Jose Anigo, have certainly hampered rather than helped. Importantly - for the minute - Deschamps has the backing of Marseille's demanding fans, though that situation could quickly change if results do not.
MLD has already fired a warning shot across DD's bows, though. "I've given him all the means and powers to succeed," she declared. "Now, he has to prove he can do it." Deschamps' task is certainly not made any easier by the success of table-topping arch-rivals PSG, for whom money is no object. The PSG owner recently tripled the players' win bonus for their defeat of Lyon - the OM squad will be worrying that Margarita may just clamp their cars in the club car park if they fail to get their season out of first gear at in-form Toulouse next weekend.