The time stamps gave it away. Marseille’s players were bowled over by the attention to detail shown by their new coach in his extensive video analysis sessions at their Commanderie training base, but they couldn’t help but notice that many of the videos they were watching had last been edited by someone who had been up working until three or four o’clock in the morning. The Marcelo Bielsa era had begun, and it was to be like nothing the club had ever experienced before.
It was always likely to be a sulfurous combination – the singular, cerebral Bielsa, nicknamed El Loco, and France’s most volatile, combustible club – and so it proved, right up until the moment, minutes after Marseille’s 1-0 loss at home to Caen on Saturday, that the Argentine walked into the press conference room at Stade Vélodrome, sat down and stunned the assembled media by announcing his immediate departure. The Marseille president, Vincent Labrune, did not learn of Bielsa’s decision until the press conference was already under way. In the changing room, the players’ smartphones began to bleat and vibrate incessantly. They gleaned the news of the coach’s exit either from social media or via calls and text messages from family and friends.
Marseille were drifting to a disappointing sixth-place finish under interim coach José Anigo when Labrune announced Bielsa’s arrival in April 2014, electrifying France’s most football-mad city. He was acclaimed as a hero from the moment of his arrival and while his track record meant the locals were quickly seduced, he was not afraid to bare his teeth. In an early press conference he lambasted Labrune over the club’s recruitment of the Brazilian centre-back Dória, which he had not authorised, saying that the club “doesn’t have the structure necessary to evaluate the qualities of a player who doesn’t play in France”. Marseille’s press officer was photographed hiding her face behind her hand. Dória, an €8 million signing from Botafogo, had captained Brazil to victory in the Toulon tournament in 2013 and 2014. He did not play a single minute of the 2014-15 season.
Lyon are 1-0 up at home to Metz and labouring when a lofted pass from Nabil Fekir finds Yoann Gourcuff in space on the left-hand edge of the penalty area. He deftly brings the ball down and throws a step-over to unbalance Metz defender Jonathan Rivierez, only for a posse of four opponents to force him towards the corner flag. The opening appears to have closed up, but Gourcuff holds off Rivierez and manages to drill a low pass to Corentin Tolisso, who steadies himself before shooting into the bottom-left corner from 25 yards.
At first glance, the goal seems all Tolisso’s own work, but it is the pace of Gourcuff’s pass that creates the opportunity. Tolisso is too far from goal to shoot first-time, but Gourcuff knows that by fizzing the ball into his feet at speed, Metz’s defence will be caught off-guard and the young midfielder, an accomplished striker of the ball, will have time to pick his spot.
Though incidental, the assist bore all Gourcuff’s hallmarks, showcasing as it did his sensitivity to the precise technical requirements of each on-pitch situation. Every action he performs seems delicately calibrated, from the deliberate way he paces backwards before taking set-pieces to his habit of bobbing on his toes at the start of his run-up and the exaggerated follow-through when he strikes the ball. Sadly for Gourcuff, and for Lyon, he is also uniquely sensitive to the condition of his body.
“There’s already one of ours who’s up there [Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa], and I wish him the best. Rémy, I think he deserves something else than Newcastle. I wouldn’t go there. You must get bored shitless in Newcastle.”
– Montpellier president Louis Nicollin on reports linking Rémy Cabella with a move to Newcastle United
“At Milan, they treated me like a king. People were courteous, welcoming and always willing to help. At a restaurant, in France, you sit down and not only do they make you wait for a very long time, but they treat you badly. It was disconcerting, but now I’ve adapted: if someone treats me badly, I treat them badly in return. I’m a real Parisian now.”
– Paris Saint-Germain’s Thiago Silva on the joys of life in the capital
Loïc Féry: “Thank you.”
Christian Gourcuff: “I’m not saying thank you to you [vous].”
Loïc Féry: “So we’re vous-ing each other now?”
Christian Gourcuff: “Yes, yes, we’re vous-ing each other now.”
– Terse exchange between Lorient president Loïc Féry and outgoing coach Christian Gourcuff, caught on camera by Canal+ after Lorient’s 4-1 loss at home to Lille on the season’s final day
“For him to be bad is one thing, but for him to be stupid is something else.”
– Nice captain Didier Digard hits out at referee Antony Gautier after being sent off for handball during a 1-1 draw at Saint-Étienne. He later apologised
“It’s not glasses he needs – it’s a Labrador!”
– Lyon midfielder Clément Grenier to referee Ruddy Buquet after a stormy 2-1 loss at home to Saint-Étienne
“I’m surprised by the unacceptable and immature attitude of Romao, who made vulgar remarks towards [Canal + pundit] Pierre Ménès and me because he couldn’t think of anything else to say after fouling me but insult me. I quote: ‘Go and suck that fat Pierre Ménès.’ Unacceptable.”
– Bafétimbi Gomis, then with Lyon, on a dispute with Marseille midfielder Alaixys Romao
“So then Mr Gomis, about the ‘son of a whore’ and ‘tramp’ that you yelled at me on the pitch yesterday – I should tweet it, right?”
– Lorient midfielder Mathieu Coutadeur suggests Gomis is no angel himself
“The atmosphere on the pitch? The French were too arrogant, as usual.”
– Sweden Under-21 player Kiese Thelin after his side eliminated their French counterparts in an Under-21 European Championship play-off
“A coach is above all someone who works in the technical domain. And there are coaches who don’t coach, like Laurent Blanc at Paris, where it’s [Blanc’s assistant] Jean-Louis Gasset who takes care of it. I don’t like this model. A coach who doesn’t control the pitch, as far as I’m concerned, is not a coach.”
– Christian Gourcuff
“I passed my coaching exams. Mr Gourcuff passed them 30 years ago. He should take them again and see that the job has evolved.”
– Blanc responds
Newcastle United fans, look away now. If losing Yohan Cabaye was painful, it probably won’t help to learn that he’s not even getting in the Paris Saint-Germain team at the moment.
As one of the stars of Lille’s 2010-11 double-winning team and a core member of the France side that engineered November’s famous comeback against Ukraine in World Cup qualifying, Cabaye is not short of admirers in his home country, but he is not playing for PSG for the simple reason that he is not Marco Verratti.
Since swapping the Bigg Market for the Champs Elysées in January, Cabaye has made only four starts. Instead, he is becoming the player that Laurent Blanc turns to when Verratti needs a breather, starting in the second leg of the Champions League last 16 encounter with Bayer Leverkusen (after PSG had put the tie to bed with a 4-0 victory in the first leg) and coming into the team for Friday’s 1-0 win at Nice, when Verratti was rested ahead of this week’s meeting with Chelsea.
French pundits believe that PSG’s neatly balanced midfield trio of Verratti, Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi will give them the edge in their quarter-final against Chelsea, and if Motta supplies the brains and Matuidi the lungs in that triumvirate, Verratti is the wildly and erratically pumping heart.
Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco may have stockpiled all the money in Ligue 1, but the playing fields of the French top flight have been awash with diamonds this season.
Over the past few months, a 4-4-2 formation with a midfield diamond – known as a milieu en losange in France – has become the must-have tactical system for the league’s leading teams, with Lille, Monaco and Lyon successively enjoying improved fortunes after adopting the tactic and Marseille potentially poised to follow suit.
Lille were the pioneers, with coach René Girard installing the system within weeks of his arrival from Montpellier during the summer. Having initially declared an intention to persist with the 4-3-3 formation favoured by his predecessor, Rudi Garcia, he jettisoned the tactic after only 45 minutes of the club’s first friendly match, a 3-2 win over Dijon in July.
The system he introduced was designed to get the best out of Marvin Martin, who operates in the number 10 role ahead of a three-man midfield. Once seen as France’s answer to Xavi, he endured a disappointing debut season after signing from Sochaux but has spoken positively of the “freedom” afforded him in the new system. It is a set-up with which the 26-year-old is familiar, having come to prominence at Sochaux by supplying the bullets for Brown Ideye and Modibo Maiga as the club from eastern France recorded a surprise fifth-place finish under Francis Gillot in 2011.
From post-match brawls and Twitter spats to weather vanes, broken televisions and Justin Bieber, Football Further proudly presents its seasonal compilation of the year’s best French football quotes.
“People have a good image of me. It’s not these tramps who are going to tarnish my image. They should stop lying to the French people. It annoys me that people talk about ‘your image’. My image is great in France. When I’m abroad, I don’t even talk about it. But in France it’s just these people, these parasites.”
– Patrice Evra on his friends in the media
“I go to talk to the referee. At that moment, the delegate blocks me and pushes me towards the referee. As a result, I touch the referee with my back. It happened exactly like that. I didn’t push the referee.”
– Leonardo‘s not entirely accurate account of his encounter with referee Alexandre Costa after Paris Saint-Germain’s 1-1 draw with Valenciennes in May. It ultimately costs him a 14-month suspension, effectively forcing him out of French football
“This year we’ve lost lots of players, as always, but we’ve lost something very important: the pillars of Valencia, players like [Roberto] Soldado, David Albelda or Tino Costa who talk in the changing room. Now there are lots of boot-lickers who don’t say things to your face. That’s why things aren’t going well between me and Đukić.”
– Adil Rami explains why his relationship with Valencia coach Miroslav Đukić has broken down. And is promptly frozen out of the squad
“There was an altercation that I wasn’t involved in. My goalkeeping coach, Fabrice Grange, was surrounded by a load of people who were pushing him. Jean-Michel Aulas arrived – I don’t know why. All I did was push him back. He says that I hit him in the back, which is scandalous. If I’d done that, he wouldn’t have been able to do an interview with Canal+ three minutes later.”
– Saint-Etienne goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier rejects an accusation from Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas that he punched him during a tunnel scuffle after a heated derby du Rhône
“And what’s the other one called, Screwdriver? Rolland Screwdriver. All he does is talk.”
– Evra again, unwittingly rechristening manager/pundit Rolland Courbis ‘Rolland Tournevis’
“After the Euro, the media attention was very difficult to digest. I’d say that it ruined my season a bit. Everyone talked to me about it. I handled the situation badly, I accept that. I should have given a mea culpa. I shut myself off and, with hindsight, I realise that I was wrong.”
– Samri Nasri reflects on Euro 2012
“If I had to do everything again, if I had the possibility to relive exactly the same life, I’d do it, I’d want the same one. I’d do everything the same. It’s beautiful, all the same. I’m happy with what I’ve experienced up to now.”
– Éric Abidal on his battle with liver problems
“Above my mantelpiece, in the living room. My wife’s prepared everything.”
– Asked where he would put the Ballon d’Or trophy if he won it, Franck Ribéry reveals that he’s barely given it any thought at all
“When the coach told me I was playing, I said: ‘We’re going to Brazil.’ It doesn’t matter how. If I’d had to score with my hand, the ball would have been in the back of the net.”
– Mamadou Sakho, who scores two goals as France overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Ukraine to book their place at next year’s World Cup
“I’d never seen such an atmosphere at the Stade de France. It was a beautiful moment to experience, all those people behind us, the flags, the chants. From the hotel to the stadium we felt that force pushing us.”
– Captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris
– So often the scourge of the national team, L’Équipe takes its cue from Ali G with a simple one-word headline the day after the match
“Sporting the captain’s armband for Paris Saint-Germain, Sakho conceded a penalty with a rash sliding challenge on an opposition forward in the 71st minute of a French Cup tie at Lorient’s Stade du Moustoir. Worse, PSG were playing Saint-Colomban Locminé, an amateur team from the French fifth tier, who promptly equalised from the resulting penalty. Worse still, Sakho was making his first appearance under new coach Carlo Ancelotti, who had succeeded Antoine Kombouaré just 10 days earlier.”
I’ve written a piece for AFP on why things fell apart for Mamadou Sakho at Paris Saint-Germain, and you can read it – should you wish – here.
Having waited 19 years and 13 days to reacquaint themselves with the rarefied air at the summit of French football, Paris Saint-Germain were rather dismayed to see their Ligue 1 title celebrations unravel into a sorry mess in the space of barely a week.
Twenty-four hours after a 1-0 win at Lyon on May 12 gave PSG their first title since 1994, supporters clashed with riot police at Paris’ Place du Trocadéro (scene of Zlatan Ibrahimović’s glitzy unveiling the previous summer) and plans for a triumphant trophy presentation at the Hôtel de Ville were shelved. PSG were quick to condemn the “few hundred troublemakers” responsible for the violence, but the title euphoria dissipated further as Carlo Ancelotti abruptly announced his desire to leave the club for Real Madrid.
Sporting director Leonardo then had his suspension for shoving referee Alexandre Castro increased from nine to 13 months, while an initial lack of transfer activity was compounded by a glut of headline-grabbing arrivals at newly promoted Monaco, as well as media reports linking Ibrahimović and Thiago Silva with moves away from Parc des Princes.
The sense of flux was heightened by the unexpected string of rejections that PSG had to wade through before finally appointing a successor to Ancelotti. No fewer than six coaches – José Mourinho, Arsène Wenger, Fabio Capello, Guus Hiddink, André Villas-Boas and Frank Rijkaard – were reported to have rebuffed the French champions’ advances, before former France coach Laurent Blanc eventually took the plunge following a year out of the game.
From AVB to Zlatan, Newcastle to Donetsk, Football Further is proud to present its third annual compilation of the year’s best French football quotes.
“Yesterday, I make one tackle and all everybody speak about is this tackle. Nobody speaks about the 50-yard pass that kills [Florent] Balmont and causes a red card for ‘im.”
– Replete with some elaborate eyebrow-waggling and a healthy dose of Gallic shrugging, Joey Barton‘s attempts to ingratiate himself with the Marseille media become an instant YouTube classic
“Eden Hazard’s English is catastrophic. I asked him: ‘Are you happy with your transfer?’ He said: ‘I don’t understand!'”
– Romelu Lukaku on his new Chelsea team-mate
“It was the feeling I had with the coach. He said he trusted me, but he didn’t let me play. He said I was too young. He said: ‘Your time will come.’ It didn’t come. Even though he’s had a 25-year career and despite the fact he’s the boss, my objective was to play … I’m impatient. When I want something, I’ll do anything to get it.”
– Paul Pogba crosses Sir Alex Ferguson, and lives to tell the tale
“The only thing I miss is in the changing room. I can’t understand all the jokes and it’s frustrating. French is more difficult than I thought. I’m trying to take my lessons very seriously. I listen to them for at least half an hour each day. The other day I watched a film in French, with English subtitles. It was Ne le dis à personne [‘Tell No One’], which was a great film. I’m going to do it again.”
– Joe Cole may have left Lille with a sub-GCSE level of French, but he is now a leading authority on the films of Guillaume Canet
“I could become a doctor!”
– Abou Diaby tries to put a positive spin on all the medical vocabulary he has acquired during his time in and out of the Arsenal treatment room
“I accept that you can ask questions about his sporting performances … But when I hear that he could be dangerous for the concept of the group, I feel like we’re trying to bring a wolf into the sheep pen. He’s been a part of the group since the start. He dropped out due to injury and then loss of form. Don’t make him out to be a wolf, because he isn’t one.”
– Laurent Blanc tells the media not to cry wolf after handing Yoann Gourcuff a place in his preliminary squad
“Shut your face! Shut your face!”
– Samir Nasri celebrates his goal in the opening game with England by thanking the gentlemen of the French press for their support
“There was a bit of a slanging match in the changing room.”
– Olivier Giroud lets the cat out of the bag about the row that erupted after France’s shock 2-0 loss to Sweden
“Go fuck yourself! Go fuck your mother, you son of a bitch! There, now you can write that I’m badly brought up.”
– Such a nice boy, that Samir Nasri – lashing out at a journalist following Les Bleus‘ quarter-final elimination by Spain
“We’ve told them to be vigilant and not to say anything that could hurt the group.”
– French Football Federation press officer Philippe Tournon, prior to the tournament, on the instructions given to France’s players about how to handle the media
“As in all the great rivalries, much of Marseille’s sense of identity is derived from their fierce opposition to everything PSG, and the events of the last year or so have only served to make the distinction between the clubs clearer. If PSG are the nouveau riche aristocrats, OM have become the sooty-faced street urchins, scrapping and scheming for everything they can get. In André-Pierre Gignac, the striker no-one wanted, who matched [Zlatan] Ibrahimović’s brace at Stade Vélodrome, they have a fittingly unglamorous figurehead for their resistance to the billionaires from Paris.”
My latest Pitchside Europe column for Eurosport, on how Marseille exposed the shortcomings in Paris Saint-Germain’s star-studded squad, can be read here.