In the popular imagination, tactical innovations are often the product of deep rumination by battle-worn coaches desperate to reverse the fortunes of an ailing team. We are invited to imagine them pacing around their training ground offices late at night, a half-drained bottle of brandy within easy reach, or perhaps wide-eyed and manic, furiously rearranging salt and pepper mills to the bewilderment of their companions at a swanky dinner. Suddenly, the eureka moment arrives. The centre-forward needs to be withdrawn to a deeper role! The sweeper should play behind the defence! Wing-backs!
The reality, of course, is usually rather more prosaic – tactical shifts evolve by training ground experimentation, or are imposed upon a coach by injuries, suspensions or losses of form – but sometimes, a new strategy will present itself quite by accident.
With one sweep of Aaron Ramsey’s right boot, Marseille’s season lurched from desperate to tragi-comic on Wednesday night. Almost literally incapable of winning in Ligue 1 (where they have registered one victory in their opening 10 games), OM had found respite in the Champions League and were seconds from taking a valuable point from a dismal game with Arsenal when Johan Djourou’s cross drew in Marseille’s defenders like moths to a flame and left the Welsh midfielder with time and space to beat Steve Mandanda with an unflappable finish at the back post.
Defeat was cruel on Marseille, who had limited the visitors to just two clear second-half chances up to that point, although Borussia Dortmund’s unscheduled 3-1 defeat at Olympiakos means their chances of reaching the knockout phase remain in good shape. It would be unfortunate indeed for Didier Deschamps’ slide to slip from the competition at the group stage, for it is in the Champions League that their tactical escape route has been illuminated.
Amid the gloom of Marseille’s wretched season glows the beacon of a 3-0 win at home to Dortmund in late-September. OM had been dealt an embarrassingly one-sided 2-0 defeat by Lyon 10 days earlier and went into the game having conceded an injury-time equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Valenciennes. They were expected to flounder but instead they flourished, weathering an early Dortmund barrage before prevailing through an André Ayew brace and an opportunistic goal by Loïc Rémy.
The hosts attempted just seven shots on goal to their opponents’ 12 and scored with three of their five efforts on target, as well as conceding the majority of possession (53 percent) to Jürgen Klopp’s visitors. Marseille were far from convincing but they were clinical. Dortmund’s attacking potential and ease on the ball had obliged OM to play on the counter-attack and they were surprised to find that it suited them rather well.
As one of Ligue 1’s heavyweights, with the star names and inflated wage bill to match, Marseille are consistently confronted by massed defensive configurations in their domestic games. Starved of space, and with attacking players deployed in unfamiliar positions, they rotate the ball endlessly without ever finding any penetration. It is not just that they don’t score, but that they don’t even seem to know how to score.
Dortmund’s energetic pressing and high defensive line gave Marseille one thing that they rarely see in league games: acres of space to gallop into. As a result, the pace and explosiveness of Rémy and Ayew became lethal weapons, rather than bullets rattling around uselessly inside the chamber of a shotgun positioned too close to its target to be deployed.
“Dortmund are a good team. Marseille impressed me by the way they played against them,” said Arsène Wenger earlier this week. “Marseille know how to keep things tight at the back and then counter-attack. They have a good ratio in terms of shots to goals, which shows how efficient they are.”
In Ligue 1, Marseille’s creative players feel straitjacketed. Ayew complains about his reluctance to play on the wing, André-Pierre Gignac’s difficulties have obliged Rémy to adopt an unfamiliar role as a lone central striker and Mathieu Valbuena, by his own admission, struggles to suppress his natural urge to drift infield.
Lucho González, meanwhile, looks like he is still digesting the shock of watching his partner in crime from the 2010 title-winning season, Mamadou Niang, sold to Fenerbahçe amid the dying embers of last year’s summer transfer window. With no-one to scurry onto his through-balls, the Argentine has retreated to the role of a deep-lying regista, where his technical refinement and trusty weight of pass cannot disguise a troubling inability to make things happen in the final third.
That game against Dortmund, though, has shown the way. By playing on the counter-attack, Marseille can avoid passing themselves dizzy in front of double-locked defences and make full use of the power in their forward line. It may require tactical double-bluffs against Ligue 1’s lesser lights (such as Saturday’s visitors Ajaccio), who will have understandable second thoughts about taking the game to one of France’s grandest clubs, but submitting to the role of reactionary counter-attackers may be the only way for OM to save their season.