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Know Thine Enemy: Olympique de Marseille-Atlético Madrid Q&A with Mohamed Mohamed

The Statsbomb writer offered his perspective on Marseille’s rebirth and their chances in Lyon.

AC Chievo Verona v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

After a few so-so seasons, Marseille are back among France’s finest. How have they re-emerged as a quality side under Rudi García?

If I’m being honest, I had low hopes going into this season. I thought the decision to skew toward older players either at the end of their prime years or the beginning of their post-prime was short-sighted — and while I’m still concerned about some of the contracts moving forward, this season has been about as good as I can hope for, as a lot of the veterans are ably holding off Father Time.

At our best, we play an aesthetically-pleasing brand of football built around wing-based attacks. We try to have passing connections all over the pitch to where we form shapes and there’s always support for the man on the ball. We somehow turned Bouna Sarr from an ineffectual attacking midfielder into one of the best fullbacks in the league, while Jordan Amavi has been very important. Florian Thauvin has had a superstar-level season, while we’ve even turned Clinton N’Jie into a super-sub type and he’s been awesome at that. We’ve just had a lot of attacking players have productive seasons.

You mentioned Florian Thauvin. While Dimitri Payet is Marseille’s captain and most recognizable star, has the ex-Newcastle flop been their best player?

Thauvin has been the best player and has been one of the best attacking players in European football this season, which might sound weird to some considering his troubles at Newcastle. Dimitri Payet has been very good from a creative standpoint, especially over the past 2-3 months as he’s continued to defy age curves by being this productive over 30. But Thauvin has had the better season, as he’s bailed us out numerous times both in Europe and domestically.

Back in 2014/15, it was clear as day that the attack went as far as Payet could take it. This season has seen Thauvin take away the car keys with Payet instead riding shotgun.

OM’s attack can do damage, but how strong is this team defensively?

I think I’d rate us defensively in the B to B+ range. No one would confuse this team for being some defensive stalwart, but we’re decent enough in terms of both shot suppression and average shot quality conceded domestically. We employ a high press that likes to use the sideline as a way of suffocating the opposition once the ball is in that area of the pitch, while also employing something resembling a counter press — so you’ll see multiple players hound the opposition once there’s a turnover. As with a number of clubs that press, Marseille face the issue where once the press is broken, there is real estate to be had for the opponent and we’re leaving our CBs exposed.

What most concerns you about seeing Atlético Madrid in this final?

I could totally see a scenario in which Atlético only produce 8-10 shots, but those shots will be decent/high-quality shots on average because we’ll have more of the ball in attack and they can just block passing lanes constantly with their mid-block routine before launching counter attacks.

Basically, I’m afraid we’re going to do an Arsenal because we won’t have enough balance defensively. Because of how high up our full backs are to complement our wide players cutting inside with Thauvin and Lucas Ocampos, if the immediate counter press doesn’t work, there’s going to be acres of space for Atlético to pounce on.

Fill in the blank fun: If OM are to win the Europa League, they need to ___.

Rely on Payet set piece magic, either from wide free kicks or corners. We’ve done well creating chances from dead ball opportunities, though it hasn’t been necessarily from training ground trick plays as much as it’s been scrambles near the goal line.

In open play, it’s about trying to make Atlético’s defence less compact to where we’re not reduced to merely taking long rage shots and/or trying crosses from further away — whether the mechanism behind it is quick switches of play or having the fullbacks time their runs to where they’ll be on the blindside of their marker and they can get into open space.

Time for a scoreline prediction.

Marseille have been a good/very good team this season. For large stretches, we’ve been the second best club in Ligue 1 both statistically and aesthetically. We have the high-end talent needed in Thauvin/Payet to pull off a victory in a final — and as much as I loathe using cliches for analysis purposes because it’s usually very lazy, it could very well be that the hunger to win a trophy and finally get back to the Champions League will push us over the edge.

But I also can’t shake the feeling we peaked around two months ago and we’re sputtering somewhat toward the finish line with a thin squad being pushed to its limits. We’ve had a couple disconcerting results in the league recently, including a 3-3 draw against Guingamp in which we blew a two-goal lead and were down to 10 men.

Also, this is Marseille we’re talking about here — I’ve seen us flame out in spectacular fashion. Let’s say 2-1 for Atlético Madrid in extra time, with the rest of the day being miserable for yours truly. Never dream big, kids, unless you want to have your heart crushed.