Although the Ligue 1 season was brought to a premature halt, Marseille were left with reason to celebrate.
Declared the runners-up after earning 56 points in 28 matches, Andre Villas-Boas’ side had worked their way back into the Champions League after an absence of seven years.
OM’s last foray to Europe’s top table, though, proved to be an embarrassing one. Tasked with a group that contained a trio of formidable opponents in the form of Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli, they failed to pick up a single point, and, while four of their defeats were by a single goal, it was a chastening experience for a club all too accustomed to following boom periods with bust.
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With the dust barely settled on a highly successful 2019-20 season, Marseille once more find themselves on a knife edge.
Much of their joy over the course of the last year was brought due to the shrewd work of Villas-Boas, whose pragmatism allowed OM to extract every drop of potential from a limited squad and whose motivational skills transformed the attitude of even notoriously work-shy players into those who put the collective before the individual.
But Villas-Boas is not expected to remain at Stade Velodrome for more than the next few days.
After the departure of sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta and Albert Valentin, the director of scouting, the Portuguese is set to be the next major player to resign from OM.
“I came here firstly for the size of the club and secondly for Andoni,” Villas-Boas said in January – a sentiment since regularly echoed. “I’ve already said that my future is intimately linked to his.”
Such is the discontent that currently grips the heart of the club, captain Steve Mandanda, unquestionably one of their best players last season and arguably the strongest keeper in Ligue 1 over the last 12 months, as well as one further unnamed player reportedly refused to participate in a photo shoot promoting next season’s kit.
Ultimately, Marseille’s problems are financial. The club is under pressure to comply with Financial Fair Play (FFP), and while the grip of this may have been released in the short term due to the coronavirus pandemic, which caused the untimely end to the domestic season and has hit sides across the globe with unexpected economic difficulties, the situation remains precarious.
Enter Englishman Paul Aldridge, whose appointment in January as an adviser to the club specialising in the promotion of players to sell to Premier League sides was a spark that very nearly lit a powder keg.
While Villas-Boas quickly won the love of the club’s fans for bringing success on the field, his situation with the board has long been precarious. When president Jacques-Henri Eyraud attempted to unseat Zubizarreta last September, the coach threatened to hand in his resignation if the Basque was sacked.
Matters came even more precariously close to a head following the arrival of the former West Ham chief executive, whose history is murky at best. It was during Aldridge’s time at the Hammers that they signed Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano in an illegal deal, with the director “found to have lied to the Premier League over the existence of documentation that should have been submitted”, according to Channel 4 News.
He was then heavily involved at Bolton as the one-time Premier League outfit foundered in League One and flirted with insolvency.
His next trick, it seems, is to be heavily complicit in the dismantling of a backroom team that had a small squad punching above its weight to drag OM back to the status such a grand club merits.
Upon Aldridge’s arrival, which served to weaken the position of Zubizarreta, Villas-Boas went public on his upset at the news.
“My interest as a coach is to retain this group,” Villas-Boas proclaimed in the wake of the club appointing a character seeking, in his eyes, to achieve the polar opposite.
The coach’s upset is easy to understand. He stuck to a small, trusted core of players last season, with 15 players featuring in 20 or more of the club’s 28 Ligue 1 games. Lose just a couple of those figures – 25-year-old midfielder Morgan Sanson and 20-year-old defender Boubacar Kamara are the club’s most sellable assets – and the whole foundation threatens to crumble.
In planning to balance the books, then, it seems that OM have overplayed their hand.
But the board made one final gambit to keep the man who played such a pivotal role in firing them into Europe next season by offering him a new contract – and taking the unusual step of going public with just how good a deal they had offered.
“On Monday, May 18, the club sent Andre Villas-Boas an offer to extend his contract by two years (seasons 2021-22 and 2022-23) plus one optional year (2023-24) if OM qualify for the Champions League that year,” a release on the official website read.
“For 20 years, only three coaches have benefited from a contractual commitment of four years or more: Didier Deschamps, Rudi Garcia and today Andre Villas-Boas with this offer. Primarily, this demonstrates the club’s desire to create the conditions for stability without which nothing solid can be built in the long term in football and in particular at Marseille.”
This offer, though, may be a classic case of too little too late for Villas-Boas, who had tied his future to that of Zubizarreta.
If this proves the case, Marseille’s joy of returning to the Champions League will be short lived.