Marseille has been the place for drama in soccer this season. It started with Andre Villas-Boas being persuaded to stay at the club by his own players after threatening to resign and culminated with the Portuguese coach finally stepping down after the club signed a player he didn’t ask for or want.
There were several months between those events, and in that time Marseille fans became so disgruntled with the direction of their team that they stormed the club’s training ground, confronting several players and Villas-Boas himself. It’s just as well supporters aren’t permitted to attend matches right now, otherwise Stade Velodrome would be a volatile place.
Now, Marseille are reportedly on the brink of appointing Jorge Sampaoli as the successor to Villas-Boas, who has been suspended from his position until an internal investigation is completed. The former Argentina and Sevilla boss has genuine pedigree, but inserting someone like him into Marseille’s current situation could be like dropping a toaster into a bath.
This is a manager who has ended up in a dispute with the hierarchy of almost every club and team he has taken charge of over the course of his career. Sampaoli led Chile to Copa America glory in the summer of 2015 and yet within six months he was gone, having fallen out with the president of the country’s soccer federation.
Sampaoli won’t be in the dugout for his final match in charge of Atletico Mineiro — he was suspended after charging the pitch to confront a referee over the award of a dubious penalty kick. The 60-year-old isn’t the sort of figure to shy away from confrontation. In fact, he’s frequently the one instigating it.
At his best, Sampaoli is an energising force who knows how to get players fighting for him. His Chile team were a force of nature for a number of years. They were a group of players in Sampaoli’s own image and they dominated South American soccer for a period. When Chile won the Copa America for a second time in 2016, after Sampaoli’s exit, his fingerprints were still all over the triumph.
At his worst, though, the 60-year-old is an unsettling and disruptive presence. Perhaps that’s why Sampaoli has managed no fewer than 12 different teams since 2002. After a season which has produced underwhelming results in both Ligue 1 and the Champions League, fan protests and the suspension of a manager, Sampaoli might not be what Marseille need at this precise moment in time.
There is talent at Stade Velodrome for the Argentine to work with. Marseille finished second in Ligue 1 last season, their highest finish since 2012/13, and the core of the squad has been untouched since then. Duje Caleta-Car has been linked with a move away from the club, most recently in January to Liverpool, but the Croatian is still at Marseille. Morgan Sanson left for Aston Villa last month, but he is an exception.
Sampaoli takes over a team currently slumped in seventh place in Ligue 1. Instant improvement will be expected, although a top four finish might already be beyond Marseille — there are already 16 points between them and Monaco in the Champions League qualification places. Europa League qualification, however, might still be an achievable objective.
The opportunity presented to Ligue 1’s chasing pack this season has already bypassed Marseille. Paris Saint-Germain have suffered an unexpected drop-off in form which sees the capital club currently in third place, four points off the pace being set by Lille. Marseille have been nowhere capitalising on this.
Sampaoli’s brief will be to build for next season, when much better will be expected of the south coast club on and off the pitch. Marseille is France’s hottest of soccer hot beds. While Paris is frequently targeted for its apparent lack of love for the sport, Marseille is a city defined by soccer and its soccer club.
This is the club that hired Marcelo Bielsa and the similarities between the now Leeds United manager and Sampaoli are clear. They share more than just a nationality. If there is a club that reflects such South American vitality and energy, it’s Marseille. Bielsa, however, ultimately left Stade Velodrome after just one season, citing a difference of opinion with the club’s ownership. Sampaoli’s biggest challenge might well be to make sure his Marseille story doesn’t pan out in the same way.