Three in a bed rarely works, and Marseille may be finding that out in the least comfortable way imaginable. A run of seven defeats in a row on the pitch has underlined the crisis enveloping the Stade Velodrome, but off the pitch, coach Didier Deschamps, sporting director Jose Anigo and president Vincent Labrune continue to enjoy a quite mystifying three-way relationship.
So it must have seemed as though the heavens had fallen in at Marseille last week when former owner Bernard Tapie, who led the club through their most successful era but was also in charge when they were stripped of the 1993 European Cup for match fixing, decided to give his two euros on the problems facing his former team.
"I only see three international quality players in the side. [Steve] Mandanda, [Loic] Remy and Andre Ayew", said the former supremo. “Marseille do not have a great team. There is an identification problem. Something is wrong. It is hard [for Deschamps] to coach players that he has not chosen. On the other hand, with the ones he did, it has not been successful."
Tapie touched on the fault-line threatening to tear this once proud French football institution apart. The Anigo-Deschamps relationship has not been a happy one, seemingly due to differences over transfer policy, in particular the purchase of striker Andre-Pierre Gignac.
Gignac was signed in 2010 by Anigo, though Deschamps had wanted Luis Fabiano from Sevilla or the Italian Alberto Gilardino. Admittedly, the Frenchman had a good track record, having been top scorer in the league with Toulouse, but has failed to make an impression at Marseille, perhaps unsurprisingly given the tension with his boss – he has also had issues with his weight. Last summer Anigo stepped in to say Gignac would not be leaving the club amid speculation over his future after a poor season.
This season, Gignac rowed with Deschamps after being left out of a clash against Olympiacos. He threw a water bottle at the wall, launched into a tirade at the coach and used the word ‘tu’, an informal way of addressing someone which can indicate disrespect. That led to the forward being ostracised from the group. Anigo stepped in to make clear that he was being reintegrated into the squad later in November; but the situation has not improved.
The long running Anigo-Deschamps division had already become very public a month earlier when the World Cup-winning captain revealed in a press conference that things were “complicated”, and hinted that the pair were pulling in different directions.
A furious Anigo responded with “I don’t play, I don’t pick the team, it’s idiotic to say things like that.” Labrune, who Tapie has said is not the right man to be the club’s president, then took issue with Anigo’s comments, and fined him, pointing to a breach of “professional secrecy.” The tensions however cooled somewhat, in public at least, helped by good mid-season form which saw Marseille go 16 games unbeaten.
Since then, a quite atrocious run of results has left the south coast giants languishing in ninth place, well off the Champions League spots. And it is not as though Marseille can even point towards a bad run of fixtures. A defeat at Brest ended the 16-game run and precipitated a new one; seven losses in a row, including defeats to such luminaries as Evian, Ajaccio and Dijon (the three teams promoted from Ligue 2 last season). In some ways Deschamps was unfortunate. His team built up their good run after he had coaxed his best players; the Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre, and Morgan Amalfitano, who broke into the French squad this year, into form. Previously, it was Mathieu Valbuena, the playmaker, who has set up the most goals in Ligue 1 this year, and the prolific Remy who were keeping Marseille’s dignity intact. The quintet, on form, helped Marseille produce their best spell of the season.
Though the departure of the Ayew brothers towards the end of January, when the rut began, was anticipated – they both left on African Cup of Nations duty with Ghana – the injury to Remy was unfortunate. Suddenly Marseille’s main goalscorers were all gone, and then Valbuena was sent off in the Coupe de la Ligue semi-final. The wheels had not quite come off, Marseille’s unbeaten run continued, but defeat to Brest, without Remy, at the end of February, was an accident waiting to happen.
The problem since has been obvious. Deschamps’ side have scored just four goals in French competition, and three came from Remy in a brief comeback before being injured again. The Ayews, seemingly tired from the African Cup of Nations, have contributed a total of two between them since their return.
During this run, it was undoubtedly the 3-2 loss at Quevilly in the quarter-final of the French Cup that was the major shock, as Marseille were beaten by a team from the third tier of French football. In France, there are only two professional leagues – Quevilly, with an annual budget of €1.7M, compete in the Championnat National, a competition with a mixture of professional, semi-professional and amateur sides.
Deschamps had shuffled his pack, but his chosen performers should still have been good enough to see off their lowly opponents. Alou Diarra, Marseille’s big summer signing, played, as did Gignac; it was not just the defeat that hurt – but the manner of it. Quevilly had lost the lead twice, however Marseille had not been able to take the initiative and the minnows were able to take the lead for a third, and final time, in the last minute of extra time.
Post-match, Deschamps admitted to feeling “shame”, and though the losing streak came to an end away at Nice on 24th March with a draw, the result still means that, having lost to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Les Phoceens have not won a match since February. Indeed, the nine times Ligue 1 winners have claimed just three points in the league since January.
It is hard to imagine the run continuing for much longer, eventually Marseille’s form will surely return, as will Remy. But Deschamps’ future is now in question. He has plenty of credit in the bank, having ended the club’s long spell without a trophy by winning Ligue 1 in 2010. And his position within France is helped by his status as the only man to have captained a French team to lift either the European Cup, with Marseille, or the World Cup. It does though remain difficult to imagine how long both he and Anigo can last without either being pushed out of the door.