Marseille‘s last participation in the UEFA Champions League dates back to the 2013-2014 season. Six years later, they will be back in the most prestigious cup in Europe. Indeed, the season will not resume in Ligue 1 following the pandemic of COVID-19 and this places Marseille in 2nd place in the ranking, ahead of Rennes and Lille. It is a huge satisfaction for this team which has experienced many difficulties in previous years. The appointment of André Villas-Boas at the head of the team counts for a lot. Over the season, he has been able to make his team pragmatic, realistic and above all ambitious. And if there’s one thing that symbolises Villas-Boas’ Marseille, it’s this ability to press high on the pitch and with great intensity. In this tactical analysis, in the form of a scout report, we’re going to look at Marseille’s pressing and especially its role in the tactics put in place by the Portuguese coach.
This season, Marseille has mainly played in 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3, depending on the placement of the wingers on the pitch. These two formations are still very similar and are very well suited to high pressing on the pitch. There is a good occupancy in the width with the two wingers and above all a good axial density, which will allow efficient pressing in several areas of the field. One of the key components of a good pressing is the profile of the players. This requires a lot of physical effort throughout the match and above all good tactical sense. Every player needs to know when to press, who to press and how to position themselves in relation to their teammates. It requires the involvement of the whole team, as a united block. If one element of this block fails, the whole pressing can become inefficient and put the team in danger.
Marseille can count on two central midfielders who are extremely generous in their efforts and who have a pretty incredible work rate with Morgan Sanson and Valentin Rongier. They are the driving force of Marseille’s pressing and are responsible for many ball recoveries. Darío Benedetto is also very active on the pitch with a lot of runnings each game to hinder the opponents’ build-up play. The loan of Álvaro González from Villareal has also been very intelligent, and his duo with Duje Ćaleta-Car is working very well. The two central defenders are good on the move and know when to push up the defensive line to make the block more compact.
In the picture above, you can clearly see the defensive organization of Marseille in 4-3-3. A high defensive line, close to the halfway line, and a compact and little stretched block. The width of the block is indeed quite axial and this allows to reduce the possibilities of passes between the lines and to direct the game towards the wings. It is much easier to press a player who has the ball on a wing than a player who has it in the centerline. This is because the field of action is not the same. If the Bordeaux player at the bottom of the image receives the ball, his passing angles are limited to 180°. This makes him more vulnerable to pressure from the opposition in this area of the pitch.
Thanks to the statistics collected by Statsbomb, we will be able to see on the graph above, the pressures made by the different players of Marseille. The “pressure” stat calculates the pressure made by a player towards an opponent who possesses the ball or is about to possess it. Sanson and Rongier dominate the rankings on the pressures made everywhere on the field with 719 for Sanson since the beginning of the season and 614 for Rongier. What will also be relevant is to look at the pressure in the last 30 meters of the game. And once again, Sanson and Rongier stand out for their activity. But Benedetto is the best performer in this exercise, with 197 pressures carried out in this area of the pitch. That gives us an idea of the pressure made by the Benedetto-Rongier-Sanson trio since the start of the season. Marseille is 3rd in the ranking of pressures carried out in the last third of the field with 1109 pressures, behind Lille (1242) and PSG (1164). They have an average ball possession of 53.7%. That’s why it is logical that they apply less pressure than a team like Angers which only has an average possession of 44.8% (4467 pressures in total for Marseille and 5169 for Angers). The less possession you have, the more pressure you can apply. The stat that must be retained, is thus the pressures applied in the last third of the opponent, and which shows the will of the team to recover the ball high.
The graph above shows the areas of recovery for Marseille and tells us that this team recovers on average more balls than most Ligue 1 teams in the last third of the field. These high-pressure phases on the field allow cutting passing lines and reducing the action time of the opposing players. This graph can be correlated with Marseille’s stats in terms of PPDA (Passes allowed per defensive action in the opposition half). Marseille have a PPDA of 8.56, the second-best in Ligue 1 behind PSG (6.88). This shows that the team is very active defensively in the opposing camp and tries as much as possible to disrupt their opponent’s build-up play. The PPDA alone does not allow us to judge the quality of the pressing, but it gives a good indication of a team’s playing intentions. I noticed a rather peculiar thing when calculating the Marseille PPDA according to the final result.
The graph above shows the average PPDA of Marseille when they win, when they lose and when they draw. Of Marseille’s 16 wins this season, the PPDA averaged 9.86, compared to 7.9 in losses and 7.6 in draws. The figures are rather paradoxical and can be explained by the fact that Marseille exposes itself to dangerous counter-attacks by pressing very high on the pitch. The sample of losses (four) and draws (eight) is too small to draw conclusions on this particularity in the stats, but it serves as a reminder that over-pressing is not always synonymous with a win.
The quality of a pressing depends on its organization, the coordinated movement of the lines, and a compact block that leaves little space between the lines. We could see all the intensity that the Marseille players put into their pressing, with this willingness to go and harass the opponent very high on the pitch. It’s interesting to observe the timing of Marseille’s pressing. The start of half-time is the times when the pressing is the most intense. First of all, because the players are fresher physically, but above all because the psychological impact is stronger. The goal is to not let the opposing team get their bearings and to impose a very sustained tempo directly. The match against Bordeaux on 8 December is the most striking example of this. After a tight first half, Marseille loses 1-0 at home. The second half is going to be completely different and especially from the 45th to the 60th minutes of play, Marseille will impose an incredible tempo. Block very high with the full-backs in the last 30 meters of the opponent’s camp, and above all an incredible energy. The psychological impact was very strong, as Bordeaux did not seem to find any solutions and missed countless passes. Those 15 minutes were enough for Marseille to score two goals, against Bordeaux players who seemed to be lost on the pitch. Not to be overlooked is the impact of Marseille supporters, who make the Velodrome (Stade de Marseille) a frightening place for opponents.
In the picture above, number six from Bordeaux has the ball back to the game. Rongier is closed to him, so he can’t turn around or pass forward. He is forced to play towards one of his teammates who will be in great difficulty. Valère Germain and Dimitri Payet ready to harass their close opponents in case they receive the ball.
Bordeaux’s six will finally play towards the keeper and all the Marseille pressure is on. It’s a man-oriented pressing, where each Marseille player controls the space around him. This keeps the pressing consistent and makes it coordinated. The players move as a block and together, which limits the passing options for Bordeaux defender Pablo. Here the reference for the pressing is the opponent. All the bodies of the Marseille players, especially the shoulders, are oriented towards Pablo, who is about to receive the ball. Note that the pressing directed towards Pablo is triggered once Benoît Costil passes the ball to him.
As expected, Pablo receives the ball and has very little time to react. Most of the passing lines are cut by Marseille and his teammates are all marked by Marseille players. He can only attempt a risky pass. Pablo misses his pass, allowing Sanson to get the ball back and score with a superb shot. This counter-pressing is one of Marseille’s strength this season and allows them to create some dangerous moves. The 1993 Champions League winners are not the most creative team in the league, but the counter-pressing makes up for it. By retrieving balls while their opponents organise their offensive transition, Marseille can take advantage of the spaces left free. Jürgen Klopp said that the best playmaker in the world was counter-pressing. Each team has to disorganise its defensive block to prepare its offensive transition. And counter-pressing allows you to take advantage of this disorganisation to create space when the ball is recovered.
The 4-3-3 tactics also make it possible to organize pressing traps, to attract the opponent where the pressing will be more effective.
In the picture above, Marseille has a compact block with a high defensive line. There are few solutions inside the block for the Bordeaux players. Bordeaux’s right-back is deliberately left free to force the pass on him.
Youssouf Sabaly then receives the ball and the trap pressing begins. The idea is to surround the opposing player so that he has no possibility of passing around him. All his teammates are marked or within range of a Marseille player.
The trap closes on Sabaly and he is now surrounded by four Marseille players. No passing angle is possible to his teammates and he is forced to play backwards. The coordination of the Marseille block is interesting with many players involved. The “triangles” offered by the 4-3-3 tactics in both offensive and defensive phases are perfectly used by Marseille. This allows many players to be present in areas that are favourable to the recovery of the ball. Pressing is a very demanding collective task and one must be careful throughout the match not to leave any space for the opponents.
In the picture above, we have the example of a pressing trap that is not very efficient, partly because of the space left between the lines. The 4-3-3 leaves a free space between the winger and the full-back. Here, Nicolas de Préville positions himself perfectly in this space. Payet and Sanson are not positioned in such a way as to cut the pass lane from the centre-back to De Préville. Payet is too far away from the ball carrier and cannot block the angle of the pass to the Bordeaux attacker. If he had been a little closer to the ball carrier, Payet would have prevented the pass and forced the defender to pass the ball to one side and thus Marseille could have set up a pressing trap.
The pass was perfect and broke Marseille’s first two lines. This allows De Préville to have the ball in a dangerous area with a lot of space. This action will lead to Adli’s Bordeaux goal. The good positioning of the whole team is important in order not to put themselves in danger.
We’ve seen in this tactical analysis that the Marseille team is capable of putting a lot of intensity into the game and pressing high up on the pitch. That’s what made Marcelo Bielsa’s Marseille so attractive, that ability to press throughout the match with crazy intensity. It’s impressive what the Portuguese coach is doing with this team, particularly in the progress they’ve made throughout the season. A very generous team that has earned its return to the Champions League.