ANDs polls closed on Sunday evening, French leadership was very much in flux as an increasingly competitive election whittled the field down to two candidates ahead of a run-off. At the Vélodrome, meanwhile, the Marseille support were in little doubt as to who their leader was and is likely to be for some time to come.
Mattéo Guendouzi is the type of player everyone wants to play with but no one wants to play against. His belligerent onfield persona, that falls between snarling and irksome, does as much to win midfield battles as his ability in possession. In a league known for its attritional and physical style, the authority and consistency with which he has asserted himself this season is no small feat for one relatively young and inexperienced.
Leadership has become Guendouzi’s prime attribute, manifesting itself in various ways. Nothing represents the club and it’s boisterous fanbase more acutely than the ferocious intensity of the France international. In 12 years since Marseille’s last Ligue 1 title under Didier Deschamps, Marseille have too often posted meek and ineffectual displays for a club so passionate and proud. Guendouzi, however, has morphed into the torchbearer fans have long desired, a player willing to fight for everything and anything. Having become the emotional fulcrum of the team, the Arsenal loanee finds himself, willingly, at the epicenter of fan expectation, carrying his teammates along for the ride.
Guendouzi has always had heart but it’s not always been channeled effectively. At Marseille, however, a like-minded coach in Jorge Sampaoli has helped focus his intensity while, much like the club’s equally vociferous fanbase, forgiving rougher edges not always appreciated by other clubs.
Typically for the Marseille incarnation of Guendouzi, Sunday’s 2-0 win over Montpellier saw the roaring, chest-beating warrior become a graceful midfield technician too. Orchestrating an admittedly simple victory, his effortlessly commanding performance ascended to another level compared to the rest and he again proved that his bulldozing runs and snappy, progressive passing can drive Marseille forward just as effectively as his aggression.
Although not always so conspicuously, the technician and the warrior have often converged to propel Marseille to many a key win. The second leg Europa Conference wins over Basel and PAOK, a competition Sampaoli plans on winning, were Guendouzi-inspired, as have been a string of crucial Ligue 1 victories as they look to maintain second spot. Ruthless domination of France’s most dynamic midfield duo, Seko Fofana and Cheick Doucouré of Lens, in January, was a major highlight of 2-0 win.
That unrelenting display highlighted Guendouzi’s apparent ability to be in two places at once in Sampaoli’s constantly evolving system: set free, he usually plays as both a passing pivot alongside Boubacar Kamara, Valentin Rongier or Pape Gueye, while also acting an auxiliary number 10. As a result, he both instigates and realises Marseille’s creative ideas, playing both the first and last pass. At times, he’s popped up in both center forward and holding midfield areas, such is his freedom.
Much like club and player, manager and player are a perfect match. Sampaoli is not only coach but Guendouzi’s footballing spiritual guide. Their fast friendship was underlined by footage of a competitive but good-natured game of football-tennis in training between the pair, seemingly after everyone else had gone home. Unlike previous coaches, it’s clear Sampaoli simply ‘gets’ Guendouzi, as a player and as a man.
Speaking to La Provence in January, the Argentinian coach explained that “Mattéo has a particular energy. He has a desire to win and he’s a natural leader. It’s contagious and a very important value in life… he’s 22 years old but he acts like he’s 30. The most important thing is maturity. ” After the PAOK game last week, Sampaoli went as far as to say “He’s on his way to becoming one of the best midfielders in the world.”
Meanwhile, the player explained that “From our first conversation, there was a very good feeling. It just confirmed to me my desire to join Marseille… With a great coach like him, I know that I’m going to improve a lot overall and, also, I know that, individually, he’s going to give me a lot to make me a better player and man. ”
Guendouzi’s explosion in productivity has been such that a spot in Deschamps’ World Cup squad seems increasingly assured. Although Deschamps’ fixation on squad harmony over outright quality may have benefitted Guendouzi due to his passionate but increasingly agreeable profile, it’s his ability that has shone for The Blue. March’s 2-1 win over Ivory Coast was forced by Guendouzi’s keenness to impress off the bench, driving France forward in typical fashion before providing a dipping corner to assist Aurélien Tchouaméni’s injury-time winner.
At club level, Guendouzi’s trajectory shows that Marseille must keep patience with Sampaoli. After last month’s abject home defeat to Monaco, the Argentinian’s future was oddly questioned by many in France. This was remarkably short-sighted. Although its complicated, undulating systems don’t always coalesce, much like Guendouzi, OM are slowly gathering momentum and growing into Sampaoli’s ideas. Marseille have won all seven games since the Monaco loss, scoring 18 goals. Sampaoli is the first coach since Marcelo Bielsa capable of providing the ambitious, attacking approach the club has long desired and dispensing with him now would be catastrophically self-destructive, even for Marseille.
However, even if Marseille were to implode once again and remove Sampaoli before the start of next season, the Argentine coach’s legacy seems assured regardless. Although he only worn the armband once so far, Guendouzi has become Marseille’s ideological and emotional leader. Thankfully for OM fans, as president Pablo Longoria confirmed last month, conditions have been met to make the midfielder’s stay at the Vélodrome a permanent one. As a result, while the presidential campaign may yet be close-run, a vote for Marseille’s next great leader certainly wouldn’t be.
It was a pivotal weekend in Ligue 1’s congested top half, with just seven games left to secure a European spot. Nice again discovered a mental block when faced with a stout defensive unit and, despite opponents Lens being reduced to 10 men early on, were unable to find a way through. Incredibly, Christophe Galtier’s side were two down when they too were reduced to 10 and eventually lost 3-0. Nice stay fifth, nine points behind Marseille in second. Rennes, meanwhile, opened a four-point gap to fourth-placed Strasbourg who seemingly ended Lyon’s top-three hopes with a 1-1 draw. Lyon are now 10 points behind Rennes in 10th; winning the Europa League could soon become their only route back into Europe, with Monaco and Lille resurgent domestically.
While clubs in the top half drifted apart, those fighting relegation bunched up as the bottom four played each other. Bordeaux are back from the abyss and off the foot of the table after coming from a goal down to win 3-1 againstMetz, who replaced themthere. Lorient, meanwhile, kept St-Étienne in the bottom three with their own remarkable 6-2 comeback win over Les Verts. Defeats for promoted clubs Troyes and Clermont mean that just seven points now separate Angers in 14th and Bordeaux in 19th. Both heavyweight strugglers could yet be relegated together.