Abel Meszaros digs in to the Croatian manager and his approach and examines why it is paying dividends in the south of France
Ligue 1 is often cast as a one-horse race, and with some justification. Focussing on PSG, though, means missing that this has been the most exciting Ligue 1 in years.
Whether it’s RC Lens, the only team matching PSG as far as their home record (34pts vs 35), punching above their weight, or Lorient’s atypical style, or Rennes staying in the top three, Ligue 1 has been bonkers this season even prior to the World Cup.
Since the World Cup break, we’ve seen a host of other surprises. Despite being woefully unlucky in the 2023 big games vs PSG/Lens/Lyon, Paulo Fonseca has revitalised Lille with by far the best non-penalty xG difference. As a result, Jonathan David has 10 goals since the restart, matched by Wissam Ben Yedder, whose AS Monaco (second best metrics in 2023) was just recently eliminated from the UEL following a thriller vs Bayer Leverkusen. Then there’s the Will Still waters at Reims running deep [Ed: do not mention Football Manager!], having not lost a game in 17 league outings, a feat matched on a slightly smaller scale by interim Nice manager and former Middlesborough occasional Didier Digard (6W 4D).
Notably, the other major force absent from the list has been last year’s runners-up Olympique Marseille. OM were more or less counted out of contention, and even the UCL spots (538 had them with 22% as the 5th most likely team) by most preseason predictions. One could understand the rationale behind it – losing almost all of the goalscoring – as Gerson, Bamba Dieng, Arkadiusz Milik, Cedric Bakambu departed the club and “took” with them 27 goals and 7 assists. Furthermore, the Sampaoli-era creative forces of Amine Harit (season-ending injury in November) and out of favour Dimitri Payet (25 goal contributions in 2600 minutes last season, 5 in 700 this season) are almost completely missing in 2022/23.
Surely, a new manager from Hellas Verona, who has left every job he’s had in the last five years after at most a season and one who’s never had a points per game average of anything close to the 2 PPG you would need to reach at least the mid 60s for UCL qualification would be set up to fail….
Luckily for OM, Pablo Longoria, who at 37 has two decades of experience working his way up the ladder from scout to chief scout to sporting director in Spain to Newcastle to Atalanta, Sassuolo and head of Juventus’ scouting, definitely knows ball and he knows Igor Tudor.
As he was a bit of an unknown – unless you were following his magical run at Hellas Verona for some reason last season – let’s take a look at who Igor Tudor is.
Tudor, the contentious Croatian, is began and ended his playing career at Hajduk Split when injuries forced him to retire aged 30 at his hometown club. He’s better-known for a stint at Juventus as a tactically intelligent, positionally versatile, but also no-nonsense, defender, who was always a fan favourite. Signed in 1998 out of obscurity (even at WC 1998 he logged just 3 sub appearances and 13 minutes for Ciro Blazevic) he eventually played 174 times all over in defence and midfield, even popping up with the occasional goal for Ancelotti and Lippi.
Immediately after his retirement Tudor began using that career to gain experience alongside Edoardo Reja as an assistant coach, and would visit Antonio Conte at Juve prior to taking the Hajduk job in April 2013. The local hero, who broke down in tears upon his presentation at his hometown club as head coach, Tudor would leave after some disagreements around the club’s ambitions versus his own in early 2015.
His nine month stint at PAOK saw a few outstanding results (beating Tuchel’s Dortmund in the UEL) but also some embarrassing losses. In the end he left in disappointing fashion having lost 3/3 vs eternal Olympiacos, whom he also praised heavily, which by all accounts counts as a massive “own goal”. The story of Tudor jumping ship quickly would be repeated at Karabükspor, which he left (understandably) for Galatasaray, albeit in somewhat ugly fashion after just beating league leaders Besiktas and skipping training to sign a deal at Gala.
Barely three weeks later Tudor’s Gala of Lukas Podolski, Wesley Sneijder, and Nigel de Jong then lost at home to Besiktas, who took the 3 points and eventually the title. While Tudor still has loyal fans who remember his start to the 2017/18 season fondly, when Gala played some of the best football in a long time with some creative tactics (the use of Tolga Cigerci is reminiscent to that of Rongier or Guendouzi at Marseille), a couple of bad breaks combined with his poor reaction to criticism led to a quick parting of the ways.
At Udinese he had an interim spell, a late four game trial that yielded seven points after Massimo Oddo’s side lost 11 straight league games but rather unfairly didn’t get him a contract. When the club once again was close to relegation (just a point off in the Julio Velazquez/Davide Nicola era), a second spell saw Tudor’s team take 18 points from 11 games – including draws vs Inter and Milan – and finish with three wins in a row in 12th place. He’d get a deal until the end of 2019/20, but, as is customary in Udine, would not see it out: a mediocre 10 points from the opening 10 games to start the year and Tudor was gone. In fairness the 7-1 and 4-0 back to back defeats vs Atalanta and Roma (who scored 3 more after their center back Fazio was sent off on 32 minutes) are tough to defend. At the same time, the recognition of Rodrigo de Paul as a right sided CM/number 8 is attributed to Tudor.
His return to Hajduk ended up being a case of “you can’t go home again”, as he came in January of 2020, but left to join Andrea Pirlo’s staff at Juve in August. As a loyal and trusted assistant he answered the call and supported Pirlo publicly, but there were always indications that he perhaps wanted more.
It would happen for him at Hellas Verona, in a remarkable success story in Serie A, I’ve analysed here. Tudor’s playing principles, here shown on Analytics FC’s Coach ID modelling tool, show a direct and aggressive team, adaptive to opposition.
Anything but smooth sailing in the south of France
And so to Marseille. Despite a success that mostly those who followed the nuances of Serie A and/or Tudor closely appreciated, in the larger context of Marseille developing into runners-up behind PSG under the hastily departed Sampaoli, Tudor was a gamble. A head coach with a patchy history, described as a combative man by owner Frank McCourt, a relative unknown, who was booed by his fans during introductions in OM’s opening game and came under fire in the dressing room by the likes of Payet, with assistant Mauro Camoranesi leaving as a result.
It’d be unfair to characterize his tenure at OM as smooth sailing, as the below graphic from Transfermarkt shows:
- Having started with 7 wins and 2 draws in 9 games, they were just 2 points behind PSG in early October, then proceeded to dominate and lose to Ajaccio at home and Lens, whilst also losing convincingly to PSG
- The rather unfortunate/almost comical elimination from Europe vs Spurs – they were pushing for a late goal, despite apparently a desperate, on the pitch, Tudor telling the team that a draw would get them the Europa League, and conceded to Spurs in what was dubbed the match of the year. This has cost them about 17 million Euros
- Domination of PSG in the Coupe de France was followed by losing to 14th place in Ligue 2 FC Annecy in the next round on penalties
- Just five points back from PSG and a chance to make it two at home, they were carved apart in the Velodrome by Messi and Mbappe after a decent start and lost 3-0 to see off their title hopes (certainly confirmed after Strasbourg’s two late goals earlier this week)
Yet, despite some of the downs in terms of results, there’s been remarkable consistency in terms of the performances, as evidenced by the fact that the previously discounted OM have only spent two match days out of the UCL spots all season!
In addition, since Ligue 1 restarted after the World Cup, OM is
- Tied for most in Ligue 1 with 26 points and 8 wins
- Top 3 in PPDA
- 5th best NPxG difference
- 4th best xPts
- 2nd in goals for, xG,
- 3rd in NPxG for (Lille, Monaco)
- 10 different players have scored a goal, and are at now 18 different goalscorers on the season
Once again, they are outperforming expectations.
We’ve seen what Tudor has achieved with OM, but now let’s examine HOW he has done it, because it’s just as interesting, especially in contrast to his and Marseille’s previous coaching tenures, specifically vs. Hellas Verona (it’s the most convenient comparison in terms of recency, sample size and data availability).
Some of the key takeaways are:
- The wing play and long balls seen at Verona (especially vs bottom of table via Faraoni and Lazovic who were primarily creators for others) are almost completely absent and there’s less of a focus on transition at Marseille
- Deep circulation and increased ball retention emerging at OM due to personnel and quality in the central spaces: Balerdi, Rongier as CB, Veretout, Guendouzi, Malinovskyi are all Champions League level players with the ball, while at Verona that could only be said of Ilic, Barak + Caprari who are likely more at Europa League or midtable level.
- In general, Tudor’s counterpress and low block approach is the same as in Verona
- Finally, crossing, which was a tactic much more against the bottom teams in Italy, is a much more consistent part of OM’s style versus all opponents.
While at Verona, his key actors were the aforementioned two high energy wingbacks, Ilic behind Caprari and Barak, and the revitalized Giovanni Simeone. Now, Tudor has much more at his disposal, even after a hectic summer and not featuring Amine Harit or Dimitry Payet.
- GK Pau Lopez +4.8 PSxG, best since his Espanyol days also involved as a capable passer vs high blocks (unlike Montipo at Verona)
- the default CM duo Rongier and Veretout top the xG buildup charts in 2023
- Guendouzi as the flex midfielder (can be the wide dropping DM, the left or right 10)
- The sharpshooting January signing Ruslan Malinovskyi, who alongside Payet is the only player over 2.75 shots per 90
- Cengiz Ünder (recently overtaken by this Lionel Messi character for most xA since World Cup restart in Ligue 1) who can play as a 10, second striker but also as an offensive wingback
- The wingbacks Nuno Tavares, who has scored six times in Ligue 1 already, and lately has been inverting with the other side occupied by ex-Lens man Jonathan Clauss, sporting 10 assists in all competitions
- Although his peaks were considerably higher than that of Gio Simeone and he’s at a different phase in his career, absolutely no one has expected Alexis Sanchez’s revival. It’s not just the remarkable 16 goals in all comps or the minutes (1800 is his highest since Arsenal 2016/17 and he’s in double digits in the league for the first time since then), but his dedication to lead the line, work against the ball, run behind, create four shots per game for others, etc. In short he’s playing like a complete number 9 all over the pitch in his FIFTEENTH season in Europe.
- And finally the two contenders for the coveted “plays most like Igor Tudor himself” award: Chancel Mbemba and Sead Kolasinac with 10 goals between them, including several key ones like vs Rennes, Toulouse or Strasbourg.
Let’s take a closer look at Tudor’s Marseille with the help of some footage and more data.
In general, it can be said that OM under Tudor have shown a fascinating adaptability. In contrast to, but also in the completely different context of a relegation threatened Hellas Verona team that he took over in dire straits vs a top team in France with OM, Tudor has completely changed his approach, whilst maintaining his principles:
- Dictating tempo/not allowing opponent to do so via a sustained & suffocating high man press to generate chances as well (10:51 vs Rennes)
Given his footballing background, this approach is understandable – he often cites the recently deceased Croatian footballing father and 3-5-2 inventor Ciro Blazevic as a major inspiration. “He would always say he was the best in the world,” said Slaven Bilic, a key part of the Blazevic’s 1998 side – a line in Jonathan Wilson’s typically terrific sendoff to Blazevic, is perhaps something of a “man’s got to have a code” type of principle that Tudor would surely accept.
Upon this there lies another set of layers: Tudor’s Italian tactical education at Juve, recalls the adaptability/problem solving/emphasis on the collective of Ancelotti and Lippi in the 2000s
Finally, in terms of leadership and sticking to his principles (at times to a fault) he’s been inspired by not only the many visits to Antonio Conte, but more importantly the proliferation of the Gasperini university. Although he is not a direct disciple, it’s also more than just being tangentially related via Juric’s defensive principles at Verona, especially when you see the way his teams attack.
But first and foremost, Tudor’s been able to apply his version of an intense and sustained man-oriented high pressing as a ways to eliminate qualitative differences and to create chances vs even the very best, e.g. PSG:
The defensive line on average is 1.15 meters higher than under Sampaoli (46.65 to 47.82) whilst the opponent buildup % has dropped from a middle of the pack 82% to a top 3 mark in the league 79.15% per the excellent Markstats website – this is a measure of an opponent’s pass completion percentage outside their final third (i.e. ‘in buildup’).
While obviously this is a highly risky strategy, they’ve allowed just 17 open play goals, the third fewest in Ligue 1, but they were already the best at this last year with just 22 shipped, albeit vs an xG of 30.53 per The Analyst. Tudor doesn’t seem to be that obsessed about stopping shots – they’ve already matched the league best 235 they allowed under Sampaoli – and with the 8th fewest shots allowed and an open play xG vs goals of 24.72 vs 17, they may have also rode their luck a little here. This is also supported by Pau Lopez, sporting a career high 80% save percentage. In advanced metrics he’s just ahead of Bernd Leno, with +4.8 PSxG plus minus, making him the 10th best performing GK in the Big Five leagues per Fbref.com.
Yet in terms of expected threat allowed – a category which Sampaoli’s team led last season thanks to their league best Field Tilt of 63.9%, Tudor’s much more intense defense creates slightly more threat (1.55 vs 1.46) but allows 1.2 vs 1.01.
As you can see from Soccerment’s metrics, just like Lens, who have 54 points at the time of this writing, OM are among the most disruptively intense teams in France, but are a bit more successful in terms of turning this into points (56 vs 46 and 40 respectively) than Lille or Lyon.
Perhaps one reason, beyond some intangibles and good fortune is Tudor’s solutions to adapt his team style to its personnel: flexible players who’ve learned from Sampaoli but have become more efficient with the ball. Let’s see how:
- Quick and direct ball circulation via asymmetry with CBs pushing up + CM drop/wide pull out in buildup
Compared to last season, a couple of data points show the massive change in possession style: on a per game basis, OM under Tudor complete 410 passes, nearly a hundred fewer than Sampaoli’s 506, but slightly edge them in terms of final third completions and match them with 8.3 key passes per ORTEC.
Despite fielding 3 CBs, this is not done in an attempt to defend with possession, as they are much closer in this aspect to the highly direct Verona team of last season.
However, Tudor’s Marseille team of improved quality is capable of holding the ball. Up from the 50% of Verona, OM boasts 56% possession vs 61% under Sampaoli, but as expected, the short possession spells are up, whilst the 45+ spells are dramatically down, although it’s still double vs that of his Verona team.
Let’s go to the tape, to see how this looks in action. Starting from the customary Gasperini school 3-4-2-1- base, OM immediately look to attack the channels with their vertical front three:
Should the direct attack not suffice, or if they play a less aggressive team, they will employ an organized buildup with some wrinkles as seen on the tactical board from an early season obliteration of Lucien Favre’s Nice, showing the paths of progression for Tudor’s team
Tudor’s Italian back 3 experience vs the many 442s or 4231 in France shines through. Against PSG, it’s the CM Guendouzi dropping wide to receive around the block (but Veretout is renowned for this exit on the left side as well)
Or they can improvise: against PSG in the cup, Tudor used the high line of PSG combined with the lack of aggression of the Messi-Neymar duo to drive the ball in behind via Rongier as a makeshift ball carrying CB.
- In the opponent half: wide traps, direct transitions, effective wide rotations and continued numbers into the box
The aforementioned focus on intensity is combined with clever traps in wide areas, once the opponent is forced there, as we saw at Verona, where Tudor’s players look to overload and trap to start transitions:
Similarly, this is how they created an early chance for Nuno Tavares in the 0-3 loss to PSG:
Furthemore, using CBs as wide progressors – allowing the wingbacks to be finishers or cutback creators – is also not a novelty; Tudor himself adapted this from Juric at Verona, who of course brought it via his mentor Gasperini. While only Nicolo Casale – cleverly scooped up by Sarri’s Lazio – had the requisite qualities to play this role offensively, Tudor’s OM features two of the hardest-working side CBs in the game, who do plenty else besides scoring.
Mbemba and Kolasinac routinely show up in wide positions near the opponent box, which is one reason why OM are able to send so many bodies into the box. Specifically, the high presence of side CBs allows Clauss or Tavares to stretch the last line (or if they come inside, Kolasinac/Mbemba have the athleticism to do this) and allow underneath runs into the cutback zone by the front three. Remember, Tudor’s Verona sent players into the box at a clip similar to Manchester City last season!
It can all come together like a recent goal vs Nice.
Last but not least, another other source of direct attacks ending in the box is something that the Gasperini school teaches, the principle of “be your own third man”.
Conclusion: set piece voodoo, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but overall Tudor’s full control impact!
Another key factor in Marseille’s success – perhaps the elephant in the room – is set pieces. Offensively, it’s at least somewhat obvious: as we can see they generate the 3rd most shots and lead the league in xG. Surely some of this is due to excellent ball-strikers like Malinovskyi or Payet (who can set each other up on corners for example), huge physical presences like the aforementioned Kolasinac-Mbemba duo, who will just get open.It’s also interesting that there are so many corner takers that one could potentially have a hard time preparing for them.
It’s less easily explainable on the other side of the ball, where although only seven teams allowed more shots than OM, they lead the league with just 3 goals conceded vs an xG of 6. But already during the writing of this analysis, we’ve seen Strasbourg and Annecy have goalscoring success from corners, highlighting this area as a potential weak spot.
In terms of other weaknesses and vulnerabilities the Analyst data shows the left side to be somewhat exploitable – which given the demands of Tudor’s style is just a natural downside. The green zone to the left of Marseille’s penalty area shows that this zone is “ranked HIGH for the number of opposition touches and LOW for the number of team touches”, according to Opta who produced the visual.
As you can seen from the defensive territory maps, there’s almost superhuman demands on the side CBs to press high to win the ball, but also maintain man coverage on entire flanks.
The other downside of Tudor’s high intensity approach was shown in the recent match vs Rennes. Bruno Genesio’s 4114 shape had two very creative attacking minded young fullbacks beat the press in Djed Spence and Adrien Truffert (another creative LB) with some really fun combinations and dismarking runs.
Another vulnerability is concentration: already a Big Five leagues’ high five own goals scored and a tendency to come out on the wrong side of the big games in Europe (as seen in the UCL), vs. PSG or the cup vs a 2nd tier opponent.
Finally, Tudor’s excellent overall matchplan and massive impact in all phases is not always matched by in-game management. Specifically, he has a tendency to have a hard time figuring out the right substitutes – or as noted French football expert Christophe Szabó said: “it’s almost as if five subs are just too much for him to handle”.
Still, the takeaway of this analysis is the overall astonishingly positive impact of Tudor, which is best captured style and numbers wise by the two visualizations here:
It’s an impact that should make the Velodrome faithful convert to Tudorball – although at this point, who hasn’t?
Header image copyright: IMAGO/PanoramiC