When Andre Villas-Boas arrived at Olympique de Marseille, few expected him to be his old self. Many viewed him as a washed-up coach who had pursued life and coaching in the Far East at places like China and Russia.
His last stint with Shanghai SIPG was not that memorable as well. Villas-Boas had falling out with the Chinese officials over rude gestures to referees and persistently complaining about the tight fixture schedule. He did not add anything to his trophy cabinet while in China.
Andoni Zubizarreta, the former Marseille sporting director, hired Villas-Boas because of his close contact with the former Porto manager during their time in Barcelona. Villas-Boas, however, seemed to have a point to prove, especially to English critics who have disavowed him for his catastrophic spells in London.
Villas-Boas was now in charge of a Marseille outfit which was missing European football, had a tight budget, and a smaller squad. Dimitri Payet, the former West Ham maverick, was a shadow of his former self when Villas-Boas arrived. Even Steven Mandanda, the Marseille veteran, looked past his prime.
To further complicate the matters, Marseille suffered one of their worst pre-seasons both in terms of results and players' injuries. Florian Thauvin, the man who had been carrying Marseille for the past two seasons, suffered a long-term ankle injury, which ruled him out for the rest of the season.
Villas-boas showed extreme guile in devising a 4-3-3 set-up with a single-pivot and two wingers. He used Payet as an advanced playmaker/winger on the left flank to cut into the diagonals and create chances for the new Marseille forward Dario Benedetto.
Kevin Strootman, for most of the season, safeguarded the defense with his great man-marking ability. Deja Caleta-Car and Alvaro Gonzalez patrolled the defensive line with admirable commitment, especially in big matches against Olympique Lyon and Bordeaux. Morgan Sanson and Valentin Rongier had perhaps their best seasons for Marseille under AVB.
While the club from the south of France picked up only four wins from the first twelve games, a sixteen-match unbeaten run catapulted them to second, only behind the perennial champions Paris Saint-Germain.
Given the circumstances into which he arrived, Villas-Boas had to call upon an incredible team spirit to unlock the full potential of his limited squad.
Football-mad Marseille offers one of the more unique jobs in France, with the coach and team always under pressure to perform. Crises can erupt from small incidents, yet Villas-Boas’ approach of fronting up to the media and offering honest answers won him the respect of the fans.
In only his first year in France, AVB had already cut an image of himself as an astute tactician who could produce great results with limited resources. His first-team squad was of full appreciation for the man who guided them to a second-place finish.
Villas-Boas, amidst speculation of a move away from France, has opted to stay. The support from his first-team players and club president Henri-Eyraud was a significant factor behind his decision to stay for the final year of his contract.
Even though the club achieved a return to the Champions League after a wait of six years, financial hurdles have beset their path ahead. Despite the COVID-19 situation, the club was able to land some promising players on loan.
Leonardo Balerdi from Borussia Dortmund, Michael Cuisance from Bayern Munich, and Papa Gueye from Le Havre have certainly bolstered the squad.
Villas-Boas' men have already started this season on a strong note, registering their first win over Paris Saint-Germain since 2011 and securing vital draws against arch-rivals Olympique Lyon and Lille.
It is fair to say that while many did not expect Mourinho's protege to have this kind of impact in France, he has been quietly taking Marseille back to the top.Published 21 Oct 2020, 21:19 IST