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How Jorge Sampaoli has made sleeping giant Marseille a force once again

Jorge Sampaoli is leading Marseille back to the top of Ligue Un. Alexandre Dimou/Sipa.

Marseille don’t like boring managers. This is, after all, the club that gave Marcelo Bielsa a job in 2014 and hired Andre Villas-Boas five years later after the Portuguese coach had taken time out of the game to race in the Dakar Rally. Even by such standards, though, Marseille’s appointment of Jorge Sampaoli in February 2021 was eye-catching.

Of course, Sampaoli is renowned as a disciple of Bielsa’s, with both Argentineans considered soccer thinkers who emphasis attacking over all else. Sampaoli himself has publicly rejected this comparison, but the parallels are undeniable, certainly since the 62-year-old has followed in the footsteps of Bielsa by taking over on the south coast of France.

There wasn’t a great deal of evidence to suggest Sampaoli would be a success at the Stade Velodrome. Marseille had suffered a string of defeats while disgruntled fans invaded the club’s training ground to protest the ownership and leadership at boardroom level. Villas-Boas resigned amid a cloud of malaise.

On top of this, Sampaoli had struggled for consistent success over a number of years. He lasted just one season at Sevilla before flaming out as Argentina boss in a similarly short period of time. From there, Sampaoli went to Santos and then Atletico Mineiro. The Argentine coach burned through five jobs in just five years.

However, Sampaoli’s character has been a perfect fit for one of European soccer’s most volatile clubs. The Marseille supporters have embraced him, as he has them. Marseille is a club with a South American feel, such is the fervour of the fanbase and the cauldron-like atmosphere of the Stade Velodrome, and Sampaoli has added to this with his lively conduct on the touchline.

On the pitch, Sampaoli has also made a big difference. Marseille are currently on a four-game winning run which has them sitting in second place in the Ligue 1 table. As things stand, they are on course to qualify for the Champions League for only the second time since the 2013/14 season. 

Under Sampaoli, Marseille have become a younger team. Dimitri Payet is still an important figure, but he has Mateo Guendouzi behind him to provide a platform in central midfield. While Guendouzi endured a troubled time at Arsenal, Sampaoli has managed to get the best out of him with the 22-year-old’s all-action style making him a favourite with the fans.

24-year-old Gerson has also been an influential figure in the centre of the pitch for Marseille, while 22-year-old Boubacar Kamara among the best in Ligue 1 at protecting the back four and giving his team structure. It could be argued that Marseille’s midfield unit of Guendouzi, Gerson and Kamara is currently the most effective in French soccer.

William Saliba has been solid in central defence for Marseille, with the on-loan Arsenal player even forcing his way into Didier Deschamps’ France squad. In this form, Saliba will surely be given an opportunity to prove himself at his parent club next season, but if Mikel Arteta still doesn’t want the 21-year-old Marseille will surely be at the front of the line to sign him permanently.

“Sampaoli explained to me that, even though I’m a good player, I have a lot of things to improve on,” Saliba explained when asked how Sampaoli has managed to get the best out of him as a player since joining on loan from Arsenal. “With him, I will have ways of progressing. His playing philosophy speaks to me.”

Former Leicester City winger Cengiz Under was signed on loan from Roma to offer direct running and attacking output with the Turkish international contributing nine goals in 26 Ligue 1 appearances. He is another player Marseille would surely like to keep beyond the end of the season with Under still on the books of Roma.

Then there’s Bamba Dieng, a 22-year-old forward who has been key for Marseille this season. While Dieng’s finishing in front of goal could still use some refinement, his movement and willingness to stretch the pitch has made him one of Sampaoli’s most important players. Even when he doesn’t have the ball, he creates space for others.

Sampaoli has a reputation for burning brightly, but quickly, at clubs. It’s been a long time since he lasted two years in one place, and there’s the possibility that his Marseille team fall just as quickly as they have risen. For now, though, Sampaoli looks to be the perfect fit for a sleeping giant that might be waking up.

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