Heading into this weekend’s match, both Marseille and Monaco have had seasons to forget. Monaco, having replaced Leonardo Jardim with Thierry Henry in October, found themselves in 19th place and in with a real chance of relegation. Marseille, led by Rudi Garcia, had been knocked out of the Coupe de France by amateur side ASF Andrézieux and have been incredibly inconsistent throughout the campaign, currently languishing in sixth position.
To make matters worse, the ever-demanding supporters of OM promised a “typhoon” of emotion against their team for the match, highlighting the predicament they are in. Despite the current predicaments of both clubs, battles between such powerful and illustrious figures in French football are always unmissable affairs, and this weekend’s edition was no different.
Monaco’s starting XI was highlighted by the three debutants chosen by Thierry Henry. For the first time since his highly publicised transfer away from Chelsea, Cesc Fabregas made his debut in the Monaco midfield, as did experienced centre-back Naldo and full-back Fodé Ballo-Touré. To further the continuity issues on the pitch, Monaco were left reeling prior to the start of the match because of Falcao’s unexpected absence due to illness.
Marseille on the other hand lined up in Rudi Garcia’s usual 4-3-3, and had much fewer headaches with regards to personnel issues. Nevertheless, more than a few eyebrows were raised at Garcia’s selections. Luiz Gustavo, arguably the club’s best midfielder, was deployed as a centre-back. With ex-West Ham maestro Dmitri Payet’s impulse to tuck inside and perform as a number 10, Morgan Sanson was forced to occupy wider positions; something he is awkward at doing, to say the least.
Garcia further confounded expectations by leaving the only recognized first-team forward, Kostas Mitroglou, on the bench. This left Ocampos to play out of position as the number nine. It was a mishmash starting XI, to say the least.
The absence of a true number nine from the start for both teams raised more than a few eyebrows, and begged questions about the approach they would take in this pivotal match. It was a match which neither could afford to lose or even draw, both from a points and perception perspective.
The opening exchanges were fairly even. There was however a clear pattern of Marseille possession and Monaco passiveness, the visitors sitting off the home side until they reached the halfway line. This was compounded by an understandable lack of cohesion in midfield about whether or not to press or recover in certain circumstances. Fabregas was largely a non-factor.
Much of the early threat from both sides came in the wide positions via attempted early crosses. Marseille’s overlapping full-backs, Amavi and Sarr, created time to deliver these crosses, but the lack of a target-man made them ineffective. For the first 30 minutes, Monaco relied on counter-attacking scenarios to create danger, but did little with the opportunities and struggled to gain a foothold in the match.
The opening goal came from Marseille following a second chance on a freekick. When a weak header fell to the feet of Maxime Lopez at the edge of the box, Monaco players were lackadaisical in their effort to put in a block. He needed little invitation to smash home under the right-hand side of Diego Benaglio. While Marseille deserved their lead on the balance of play, Thierry Henry and assistant Franck Passi on Les Monégasques’ bench would’ve been disappointed to concede in the manner they did.
As the half continued on, Monaco’s influence on the game grew and grew thanks to their efforts in getting around the sides of Marseille. Both of OM’s full-backs found themselves very high up the pitch and Monaco’s direct passing on the counter was a constant threat.
This passing style was no doubt influenced by their lack of a true centre-forward and the tendency of Golovin and Lopes to roam across the front line. The equalizer arose from such a situation. Golovin pulled wide in the penalty area to cross to advanced full-back Benjamin Heinrichs, and his touch allowed Youri Tielemens to smash home on top of the box. Overall, the half-time scoreline was a fair reflection of parity.
The second half followed a very similar pattern to the first. Marseille dominated territorially, while Monaco created danger through quick and direct counters, albeit with some minor tweaks. It was clear from a defensive standpoint that Monaco attempted to put more pressure higher up the pitch than in the previous 45 minutes.
Whenever Marseille moved the ball to the full-back positions, Toure and Henrichs were quick to storm out and confront the opposition, and not allow for simple ball movement around Monaco’s shape. Fabregas was also more active in shutting off passes from deep into Kevin Strootman, Marseille’s deepest-lying midfielder, which contributed to simple and stale possession.
This staleness in possession was exemplified by the lack of real chances on goal. Marseille only forced Benaglio into making two saves. If there were a picture which encapsulated the theme of the match it would be the three Monaco defenders (Naldo, Glik and Badiashile) tight in their penalty area with Marseille prodding to break them down. Monaco were largely comfortable in this regard.
When Monaco did have stable and sustained possession, it was thanks to Fabregas dropping deep and slowing down the tempo. Comparing his team’s passing and cohesiveness from this match to the majority of matches in 2018/19, the difference was like night and day.
His ability to slip players in between the lines or open up the pitch with a large switch to an advanced wing-back enabled Monaco to break pressure. They were able to shift Marseille and make them uncomfortable. The final ball we’ve all become accustomed to throughout his years in England has clearly not abandoned him.
The major talking point of the match was no doubt the VAR decision which ruled out a potential winning goal in the 70th minute. For one of the few times Marseille were able to pick a way through Monaco’s compact back five, and after Lucas Ocampos collided with Diego Benaglio, Thauvin swept home.
However after a number of minutes, and with the match about to restart from kick-off, the goal was ruled out after the referee consulted VAR. Marseille’s players, and above all Rudi Garcia, were apoplectic. The rest of the match went on with one major Monaco chance for Tielemens fashioned by a wonderful Fabregas pass that went begging. When the referee blew for full time, the frustration was palpable.
As previously mentioned, much of the pre-match hype surrounding the match highlighted how Cesc Fabregas would perform on his Ligue 1 debut. Overall, it was a similar story to the strengths and weaknesses he showed in recent times with Chelsea: in possession, he was a delight, out of possession (primarily in a physical sense) he showed his age.
Sitting in the middle of Monaco’s midfield trio, the responsibility was placed in the hands of Tielemans and Bennasser to slide across the pitch and disrupt. The Spaniard grew into the match with his defensive responsibilities and helped make Marseille’s passing patterns predictable, but Monaco’s well-being in holding off the competition was largely in spite of him.
With the ball, Fabregas controlled the tempo of Monaco going forward. They were largely threatening on the counter, but he enabled his team to find passes in between the lines of Marseille’s 4-4-2 for one of Golovin or Lopes dropping deep and turning.
The lack of true strikers on the pitch proved to be a bigger blessing for Monaco than Marseille, such was the shape of the entire 90 minutes. In essentially having two mobile, clever, attacking midfielders up front Monaco, were less shackled by the lack of a presence to occupy defenders as they played direct through wing-backs with space in behind. Marseille, on the other hand, could have used the talents of Kostas Mitroglou to use as a target for crosses or simply a plan B in attack.
The draw will be of no hope to the job security of Rudi Garcia. Marseille’s inability to properly break down a Monaco team in crisis will be of no use to him in turning the tide of public opinion. Three players were asked to perform roles they were grossly ill-prepared for, and two who would’ve been deployed in more common roles were left out of the starting XI from the start.
From afar, it screamed of a coach who was reeling thanks to recent failures, and unsure of himself. The Marseille manager attempted to deploy a similar false nine tactic during his ill-fated spell at Roma, but with a clear objective in the match. Not choosing a centre-back from the start and demanding midfielders to play in roles they are not used to points to desperation.
There is an old cliché for games such as this: “a draw is of no use to both sides.” That rang true on Sunday afternoon. Monaco remain rooted in 19th position in the table, while Marseille drop to ninth, ending a miserable weak for the Les Olympiens. For Monaco, this result will feel like a huge missed opportunity to pick up points from a club in turmoil. Much of the hardcore Marseille support were actually openly supporting the opposition when in possession.
For Marseille, the disallowed goal in the controversial VAR decision will be a tough pill to swallow. Looking at it from a neutral perspective, a draw was probably the correct outcome, however. Perhaps it was the fear of a negative result or the lack of true options available, but both Thierry Henry and Rudi Garcia failed to make any tactical adjustments to alter the tide of the game.
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