So far, Jorge Sampaoli has led Marseille to an unbeaten start with two wins in the opening 3 Ligue 1 games, carrying on from the sides' decent form towards the end of last season. Since his arrival to Marseille back in March, they have displayed some exciting tactics, with Sampaoli introducing his playing philosophy, making Marseille a very intriguing side to watch. Every footballing site has Marseille's formation as a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 but, there is so much more to it.
In this tactical analysis, we will mainly look at some key elements from their most recent game against Saint-Etienne, the elements that have remained since his arrival last season, and how they have worked so far. Furthermore, of course, the Football Manager 2021 Jorge Sampaoli tactic based on this analysis.
Their formation alone is a fascinating one. As said before, footballing sites have Marseille down in a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 whilst other platforms, for the most recent game, have Marseille's formation as a 4-4-2. Against Saint-Etienne, it is understandable why sites have Marseille in different formations as they are very tactically fluid. The formation, in this case, is certainly debatable, and spectators will for sure have different opinions depending on what they see. During specific game scenarios, such as opposition goal-kicks and Marseille's lengthy spells without possession, a 4-4-2 shape was in place, as we can see below.
Four examples from their most recent game against Saint-Etienne.
However, this 4-4-2 shape was rarely seen on the pitch during Marseille's possession of the ball. Even starting positions such as kick-off or a goal-kick for Marseille, there were three at the back, with Alvaro Gonzalez in between William Saliba and Luan Peres in their most recent game. Rongier, positioned as RB in the back four images, spent most of the time roaming around central midfield, partnered with Mateo Guendouzi and Kamara, who also was roaming around and rotating positions, never before sticking to one area on the field.
The wingers in this system remain high and wide whenever Marseille had the ball, often stretching the opponents' backline to create gaps for central runners, and with Milik out injured, Dimitri Payet has been deployed as a central forward who was, according to Wyscout, partnered up front with Gerson and at times created a four-man attacking line with the wingers. The two forwards were dropping between lines, and neither took on the role of a traditional striker.
Teamsheet from the most recent game and with an image of the four-man attacking line formed
In their opening three games, Marseille have kept an average of 63% possession per 90, indicating that the system is possession-based and against Saint-Etienne, most of their 602 passes attempted were lateral between the three at the back, patiently building attacks and not forcing an attacking action. Though there are sides that play more progressive passes per 90 than Sampaoli's side, Marseille look to progress through central areas and using the forwards as their outlet. Gerson and/or Dimitri Payet tended to drop to collect the ball whilst a central midfielder would make a run dragging an opponent out of a central position to allow either forward to receive a progressive pass played through the lines. Quick passing and off-the-ball movement are key elements, as their opponents are often reactive and look to block central passing lanes to stop Marseille from creating an opportunity.
Example of breaking lines and finding a central pass through off-the-ball movement.
At the very early stage of their build-up, from goal-kicks, Marseille typically shape up with three defenders, and either central midfielder will drop deep to it in front of the back three. The wingers always stay wide, continuously stretching play throughout and with one of the strikers dropping into the midfield, giving Marseille a 3-4-3 look. However, as mentioned earlier, Sampaoli's side are very fluid tactically, and their shape could resemble more of a 3-3-4 or even start the early build-up stage with just two central defenders depending on how the opponents are reacting.
Once they advanced from their early building stage looking to create an opportunity, looking at their forward pass map, we can see they like to play through central channels, which requires much movement from the midfield and attackers in order to open up and create space to receive a forward pass.
Forward pass link
Going forward, Marseille have created 5.23 expected goals, which is lower than the league's average, but they are overperforming by scoring eight goals in Ligue 1. They also take the 2nd most shots at goal per 90, expressing themselves in front of goal, not afraid to shoot from outside the box.
Because of the wingers effectively hugging the touchline, Marseille utilise the entire width of the pitch in attack and the central areas that could open up as a result of the wingers stretching the opponent's defence line. In the league, Cengiz Under has the 2nd most touches in the penalty area, second to Mbappe, and the wide men tend to drive with the ball towards the box where they can whip the ball across the goalmouth or pull back for player arriving inside the box.
Marseille overload the opposition's backline by occupying all five vertical channels, pulling defenders out of position, creating more space for the cross across goal or a pullback.
As mentioned before, Marseille sometimes have a 4-4-2 shape when they are defending without the ball for a lengthy spell. In trying to win the ball back, they do not press intensely. Their Passes Allowed Per Defensive Action is lower than the leagues average at 11.54 (13.32 is the league average), so they do not sit deep and standoff to allow pressure and will look to press in the final 60% of the pitch (where the PPDA is calculated) with a higher defensive line and engagement. However, in doing so, rather than the engaging forwards actively looking to win the ball back, they instead look to block the passing lanes into the central midfield to working the opposition out wide where they press more intensely.
Marseille attempt to prevent the goalkeepers' short distribution during the goal-kicks by having the forwards looking to block passing lanes into midfield, and with one of the Marseille midfielders tightly marking their number "6". Sampaoli has his wingers also tightly marking the attacking team's full-backs, or at least a close enough distance should do the ball go out wide they can press effectively. Especially against Bordeaux, the shape now looks like a 4-4-2 diamond. Nevertheless, as mentioned at least a couple of times now, Sampaoli's system is very fluid, so this shape can change depending on the match situation and especially if the opponents tweak their set-up. This was their typical shape.
Marseille shape when Bordeaux have a goal-kick
Like most sides now, Marseille looks to intensify their press out wide once they have managed to force the opponents out, working to block central routes. In their most recent game against Saint-Etienne, 57% of their defensive duels attempted were down the left side of the pitch whilst it was 30% on the right leaving Marseille only attempting 13% of their defensive duels down the middle, and this is a recurring theme in all of their opening matches so far. Further indicating where Marseille do most of their pressing. They can form pressing triangles out wide, too, defensively overloading the opposition, making it difficult for them to escape the touchline area. Also, note that Marseille complete most of their defensive duels around the mid-third, the reason being they press more intensely once the opponents enter their half of pitch.
Marseille defensive duel map vs Saint-Ettiene and second image demonstrating Marseille wide pressing triangle.
Marseille's defensive work has been solid so far and on a per 90 basis, they allow the 3rd least shots against with 8.35 per 90 and they also have the lowest xG against in the league with 1.91 though, they have conceded 5 goals so can be said they are underperforming defensively. But if you consider they signed 9 new players during the window, effectively a new team, it may take a few more matches for things to click and get familiar with their responsibilities.
Unfortunately, that wraps this brief Jorge Sampaoli early-season tactical analysis. Considering the new signings made during the window, the side have shown encouraging signs in their so far unbeaten start to the season. They are certainly a possession-based side, and if you go by their form since his arrival, there are potentially some fascinating times to come for Marseille. But thank you for reading and I hope you have enjoyed this article. Thank you to Total Football Analysis and Fintan O'Reily, research credit goes to them also.