Feared by opponents for their tactical fluidity and flexibility, Jorge Sampaoli’s Olympique Marseille have been one of the best teams to watch in Europe. Here’s a detailed insight into the Argentinian tactical setup with Les Olympiens

Exciting, pleasing on the eye and tactically intriguing, Jorge Sampaoli's Olympique Marseille have certainly been one of the best teams to watch across Europe's top five leagues this season.

Almost a year into his tenure as OM coach, the Argentine maestro, who's a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, has had an overwhelmingly positive impact. With Marseille currently third in Ligue 1, the man whose previous coaching jobs include the Chilean and Argentine national teams, plus the likes of Sevilla, Santos and Atletico Mineiro at club level, has effectively imparted his defined philosophy onto his team.

Such a force to be reckoned with offensively, Marseille are a nightmare for opponents to face off against due to their tactical fluidity and flexibility, which constantly keeps their foes guessing. Regularly altering his formations, the tactically sophisticated whizz has used a vast array of animations, including 3-3-4, 3-2-5, 3-3-1-3, 3-4-3, 4-1-3-2, 4-3-3 and 3-2-2-3 with a diamond/box in midfield.

No matter what system he deploys, his principles typically remain the same, with him keen to dominate possession and attack incisively while using his desired positional play concepts to do so. "You need to adapt the tactics according to the players and the opponent. But I will not compromise my ideas and style when trying to play a superior game," he famously stated.

Always wanting his team to build out from the back with the central defenders, the goalkeeper and a dropping midfielder, Sampaoli wants to draw the opposition to press them high before cutting through them. Masters at forming overloads, stretching the opposition's first line of pressure and ensuring teammates are strategically located to be outlets, Marseille excel at beating the initial phase of pressure.

Using keeper Pau Lopez to help form a 4v3 to beat the press with a third man combo

Driving dribbles from center-halves and midfielders have been a handy weapon as well, for these provoke pressers to manipulate defensive shapes, thus opening passing lanes or facilitating third man combinations.

So good at creating positional and numerical superiority, their midfielders are key towards their success too, with the likes of Gerson, Boubacar Kamara, Matteo Guendouzi and Valentin Rongier excellent at finding room either side of the opposition's midfield line to progress attacks and unbalance their foes' structure.

Forming a 4v3 to progress the attack

Typically well spaced so they are connected to one another on different lines, this means the ball holder and receiver have viable options to quickly use. One particular tweak that has worked well has been Sampaoli instructing one of his midfielders to drop deep into the half spaces, with this affording them more time and space on the ball to assess their options in a less populated zone of the pitch.

Guendouzi dropping into the deep half-space from midfield
Gunedrozi's drops from mid draws a marker to then free up his wingback in behind

Adept at outnumbering their adversaries in midfield and proficiently occupying spaces between the lines in zone 14 with the help of dropping attackers, defenders are frequently posed with tough decisions whether to step out or hold their post.

Generating a 3v2 between the lines before breaking in behind

Things are then compounded by runners charging in behind when they notice a teammate dropping deep, with these opposite movements extremely hard to deal with.

Great use of opposite movement which allow Guendozi to surge in behind

The fact Marseille often commits five attackers across all the lanes of the opposition's last line of defense works in their favor, giving them overloads or enhancing their chances of breaking through.

Marseille occupying the opposition backline to exploit the gap in behind after a center-back has dribbled upfield
Attacking their opponents in behind with a 3v2

The role of the wide men has been crucial too, with them hugging the touchline to maintain maximum width to use their dribbling qualities in 1v1s. Indeed, having the likes of Cengiz Under, Konrad de la Fuente, Pol Lirola and Luis Henrique at his disposal in these areas has certainly been handy for Sampaoli when implementing his ideals.

With the aforementioned being a vital weapon, it's been valuable how Marseille are then prepared for crosses and cutbacks by flooding the box with numbers. Consequently, they regularly have numerical parity with defenders to increase their chances of gaining separation from markers. Due to defenders typically ball watching and collapsing deeper, this, in combination with Marseille getting three to six men in the box running different routes, sees them conjure some great chances.

Getting numbers in the box to unsettle the opposition before scoring
Scoring a goal following their great occupation of the box to unbalance their foes

Another method that's persistently borne fruit for OM has been through their relentless rotations. Executing their interchanges brilliantly throughout their attacking half, opponents have been found out on countless occasions due to the marking conundrums this causes. As a result, the wide men can underlap into gaps, midfielders maraud into the channels and in behind, attackers peel out wide and their forwards can drop while a teammate takes over their position to name a few combinations.

Dovetailing impressively and always putting trackers under duress by pinning and luring them out of position, this has been a fine source of offensive impetus to exploit spaces within backlines and to manufacture weaknesses among their rivals.

Mixing up his personnel and approach shrewdly to add some variety, Sampaoli's used Dimitri Payet as a false nine on top of opting to use Arkadiusz Milik or Cedric Bakambu as more traditional strikers.

Boasting so many technically elite players and forever altering reference points for their enemies through their incisive movement and formation adjustments, Marseille's work in possession has been littered with upside, thus allowing them to persistently create chances and control matches.

By the numbers offensively, the numbers below shows how effective they've been in many key metrics compared to the other teams in Ligue 1.

  • 7th for goals scored - 39
  • 5th for XG - 41.10
  • 2nd for highest average possession - 61.7%
  • 4th for shots - 12.01 p90
  • 3rd for touches inside the penalty area - 19.53 p90
  • 1 st for most corners - 5.85 p90
  • 4th for key passes - 4.04 p90
  • 3rd for passes into the final third - 60.89 p90
  • 7th for progressive passes - 65.11 p90
  • 4th for progressive runs - 17.83 p90
  • 4th for deep completions - 8.77 p90

Meanwhile, there's been a lot to like about their defensive exertions, in a season where they have conceded the third least goals (25) in Ligue 1 behind only OGC Nice and (21) Paris Saint-Germain (24).

While they don't press high all the time, instead often preferring to be in a mid-block before engaging when the opposing midfielders get involved or a pass goes towards the touchline, they've done both with a good level of success.

Eager to close off central lanes and wanting to usher foes into wider areas where they can use the touchline as an extra defender, Sampaoli's men do a solid job of condensing the pitch. Helped by their angled pressing to cut off passing lanes using their cover shadows and ball near man orientations, adversaries are left with minimal time on the ball to decide what to do. As a result of having only low percentage options and being under pressure, Marseille frequently force turnovers.

Prepared for their aggressive touchline press

Counterpressing with gusto too, the way they swarm ball near areas and opponents immediately after they lose the ball helps them regain the ball high up to attack again. Courtesy of their offensive structure, this ensures Marseille are often set up well to counterpress with access to nearby outlets so they can get at unset defenses who were preparing an attack of their own.

Excellent counter-pressing the catalyst for their opener vs. Angers

It must be said, though, at times OM can commit too many numbers forward and be caught out in transition if the initial gegenpress is broken, but overall the positives have outweighed the negatives.

On top of responding to the above triggers, the way they ramp up their harrying if they see a backpass, a sideways pass, an opponent receiving with their back to goal or in an open posture or if a sloppy pass has been hit (in the air or on the ground), they pounce aggressively.

Their defensive numbers in the table below make for interesting reading, with the key takeaways being their mid block pressing and how they’ve overperformed their XG Against.

  • 3rd best defensive record - conceded 25
  • 3rd for XG against - 28.74
  • 1st for shots against - 8.01 p90
  • 2nd for least ball losses - 79.76 p90
  • 11th for highest PPDA - 12.78 (shows mid-block use)
  • 2nd for PPDA against - 18.57 (shows class on the ball)

Although it hasn't all been plain sailing due to some setbacks along the way, such as the recent losses to Olympique Lyonnais, Nice and AS Monaco, Sampaoli's side have been fascinating to watch, for they've played with personality and flair.

"Following Sampaoli’s arrival, Marseille lacked the ferocity and intensity of their coach. Now, however, they are playing with intensity and dynamism, embodying their manager’s snarling, prowling touchline presence. Club and coach are a perfect match and, after years of underachieving, Marseille may have finally found the right formula," asserted French football expert Adam White in the Guardian.

Relishing working with his young and talented squad, Sampaoli's done an impressive job racking up the points while developing the many gifted youngsters at OM such as Arsenal loanees William Saliba and Guendouzi, plus Kamara, Bamba Dieng, Pape Gueye, Luis Henrique and de la Fuente.

Right in the box seat for Champions League qualification, Sampaoli's captivating OM outfit have definitely made waves in Ligue 1 this campaign, not only through their results but also courtesy of their progressive, sophisticated approach.

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