‘El Loco 2’: Firebrand Sampaoli has found the perfect home in Marseille

When Jorge Sampaoli picked up his phone in February this year and found that it was Marseille president Jacques-Henri Eyraud on the other end of the line, his heart must have skipped a beat.

The Marseille hotseat vacated by Andre Villas-Boas was to be his. However difficult the job, it was the opportunity he had been waiting for and, more than that, it gave him the chance to once more follow in the footsteps of his managerial inspiration, Marcelo Bielsa.

For the two years prior to being handed the Marseille job, the Argentinian was coaching in Brazil and, for the most part, he looked happy. In so far as Sampaoli looks happy anywhere.

He still jittered up and down the touchline as his Santos and Atletico Mineiro teams played his wild brand of football-on-fast-forward during 2019 and 2020. He still barked orders at his players like a deranged dog and frequently collected yellow cards for abusing fourth officials.

But off the pitch, when he was photographed going about his business, he looked quietly content.

In Santos in 2019, he’d ride his bike to training and head down to the beach after work for a game of futevolei. And during his two years in the country, he welcomed two more children into the world with his Chilean partner Paula Valenzuela.

But deep down he must have been as restless as his pitch-side persona suggested. For if in his personal life all was going swimmingly, then in his professional life, he had unfinished business.

Sampaoli, now 61, is in his thirtieth year as a football coach. Having worked his way up from the bottom, he has enjoyed a good deal of success. Three league titles and a Copa Sudamericana with Universidad de Chile; a Copa America with the Chilean national team; a Minas Gerais state championship with Atletico.

But there is a gap in his CV. One, you imagine, he would like to fill. Sampaoli has never had success at a European club. In fact, he has barely worked at one at all.

In 2016, after leaving the Chile national team job under something of a cloud, he was hired by Sevilla. For a while, it went well. He led the Andalusian side to second in La Liga and into the knockout rounds of the Champions League. But it did not last long.

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READ: The story of the blogger who got to work with Bielsa after inspiring Pep

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In January 2017, rumours started circulating that Sampaoli would replace Edgardo Bauza as the head coach of the Argentinian national team. That April, it was confirmed. It was his “dream”, he said. So, with a shot at a World Cup a year later, he parked his European ambitions to take charge of the nation of his birth.

It proved a disastrous decision. Argentina scraped through the group stages at the World Cup only to be destroyed by France in the last 16, Sampaoli’s high-intensity style proving thoroughly unsuited to the oldest team at the tournament.

He had besmirched his record, walking out on Sevilla only to lead Argentina to an ignominious early exit. He was sacked by the Argentinian FA and no top European team was about to take the same chance on him that Sevilla had two summers prior.

His stock among South American clubs sides was still fairly high, however, and he took refuge in Brazil, ready to rebuild his reputation.

And rebuild he did. In 2019, he led Santos to a surprise second-place finish in the Brazilian league. In 2020, he took the Atletico Mineiro job, bringing them the state champions’ crown and a creditable third place in the national league, playing unpredictable but rarely boring football.

It proved enough. When Marseille manager Andre Villas-Boas walked out on the French club in February, infuriated that Celtic player Olivier Ntcham had been signed against his wishes, Sampaoli got the call from Marseille president Eyraud.

It appears a match made in heaven, or at least it does from a neutral perspective. If Sampaoli is a tempestuous character, then Marseille as a club matches him.

Just a few days before Villas-Boas rage quit, Marseille ultras had ransacked the training ground hours before a game, causing damage to buildings and vehicles as a result of the anger they felt over the direction of the club under Eyraud.

But the arrival of Sampaoli – Marseille’s 21st manager in the last two decades – may well have bought Eyraud a little patience among the more zealous elements of Marseille’s notorious fanbase.

As mentioned, Sampaoli is a Bielsa disciple; the happiest moment in the club’s recent history came under Bielsa in the first half of the 2014-15 season.

The current Leeds United boss only spent one season in Marseille, but it was an unsurprisingly thrilling one. The Argentinian got l’OM playing his wantonly attacking brand of football and had them leading the league from September until December.

They may have fallen away towards the end of the campaign, but Bielsa is fondly remembered in the south of France and there is hope that Sampaoli can revive that style, which fits well with the club’s overall identity.

Asked about Bielsa in his opening press conference as Marseille boss, Sampaoli played down the connections.

“Bielsa is a reference for many,” he said. “I feel close to him in the style of play, but I’m not going to try to be like him. I will do things my way, without imitating him. There are idols [that are] impossible to imitate.”

But that did not stop the magazine France Football from splashing the headline ‘El Loco 2’ on its next front cover over a picture of Sampaoli sat on a drinks cooler in true Bielsa fashion.

In his four Ligue 1 games so far, those comparisons have looked apt.

Sampaoli has set Marseille up in the 3-5-2 formation that he employed as Chile boss when he took over from Bielsa there, and l’OM are starting to embody the vision their stout, feisty manager set out when he arrived.

“We have to try to go back to the fundamentals,” he said, “the rhythm and the desire and to have each player be aware of how lucky he is to wear this jersey. The idea of this project is to convince the group to fight everywhere, by being on the front foot, by putting the attack and good football at the beginning of everything.”

So far, they have won three of four in the league under his watch, with previously underused players like Michael Cuisance, Luis Henrique and Leonardo Balerdi making significant contributions, whether starting or off the bench.

Over the weekend, with Sampaoli boldly starting Brazilian wide attacker Luis Henrique as a left wing-back, l’OM beat Dijon 2-0 to get themselves back into the swing of things after the international break.

And though it was easy to imagine that Marseille’s waddling, barrel-chested, 34-year-old football wizard Dimitri Payet would struggle under a manager who demands full-throttle running in defence and attack, that has not proved to be the case.

Sampaoli, like Bielsa did before him, has found a role for Payet as an inside forward, supporting loan signing Arkadiusz Milik in attack. Payet is repaying Sampaoli’s faith. He has been a key part of the attack in each of the four games so far and on Sunday, he set up both goals with two set-pieces as Marseille eventually broke down Dijon’s stubborn defence.

It appears Payet is enjoying himself, too. “As with Marcelo [Bielsa], we have the impression that play can switch from one side to the other, that we can play freely and not be too calculated,” he said after l’OM beat Brest in March.

Sampaoli does have a few problems to face – last week, defenders Balerdi and Pol Lirola were caught breaking Covid restrictions at a clandestine party in Catalunya, and Ntcham’s dire performances have kept that sensitive issue very much front and centre. But the early signs are generally positive.

Marseille have seven league games left and of those seven, five are against bottom-half opposition and none are against sides above them in the table.

They are 13 points off Lyon in fourth, so the chances of nicking a Europa League spot are slim. But a strong end to this season could see them overhaul fifth-place Lens to book a place in the inaugural Europa Conference next term and set them up for a Bielsa-esque start to 2021-22.

How long the Sampaoli-Marseille love-in will last is anyone’s guess. But however long it is, we can be sure it’ll provide excitement from start to end.

By Joshua Law

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