OGC Nice – Olympique Marseille: Kluivert Carves The Course Into The Final Four (4-1)

Seizing the high ground, Marseille’s dreams of cup glory were slowly coming into fruition at a critical juncture. But in a contest where they lacked control, the visitors slipped away nearly as quickly as they flew out of the traps, falling to a margin of defeat that bestows favorite status.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

PSG might have virtually wrapped up the top spot in Ligue 1, but this clash in the Coupe de France brought together two of the best of the rest at a pivotal moment in their bid for domestic silverware.

OGC Nice have borne the fruits of a change in leadership. Fresh from ousting the Parisians in his last post at Lille, Christophe Galtier continues to impress in the south of France. His men sit third in the table with a four point buffer in the race for Champions League football. What’s more, coming into the quarter-finals of the cup after beating the league leaders, a window of opportunity has now presented itself for them to go all the way. However, their visitors were equally primed to strike.

The only other outfit ahead of Nice in the table were Olympique Marseille. Nearing the year anniversary of his appointment at the helm, Jorge Sampaoli has rubberstamped his identity on the club. Crafting a flexible, forward thinking unit, he has struck a balance between idealism and pragmatism to guide his squad towards the upper echelons of the standings. Competing for their best chance of a trophy this campaign, the away team now looked to make a statement of intent.

Galtier stuck to his classic 4-4-2 formation. Jean Clair Todibo partnered Dante at the back, pushing Flavius Daniliuc out to the right of the back four in place of Youcef Atal. Morgan Schneiderlin and Pablo Rosario formed the double pivot, Khéphren Thuram moved to the left of the midfield quartet, and Justin Kluivert switched to the right flank. Amine Gouiri and Andy Delort doubled up upfront.

Sampaoli found favor with a 4-4-2 diamond system against Angers on Friday where Arkadiusz Milik bagged a hat trick. The striker led the line while Cengiz Ünder featured as a right winger off the back of his goal from the bench. Signaling at the value of the contest, all of Valentin Rongier, Luan Peres, and Duje Ćaleta-Car came back into the fold. However, Boubacar Kamara’s suspension kept him out.

Sampaoli’s striking selection

Indeed, it was the absence of Kamara that generated a big dilemma. Without the option of calling on the services of Pape Gueye, yet to return from AFCON triumph with Senegal, how would Sampaoli make do? In the end, he selected Valentin Rongier to sit at the base of the midfield. But, given this decision, the following cause for consternation was at right back. Pol Lirola began the match on the bench, so the manager trusted central defender William Saliba to fill in on the right of the back four.

Nice navigate choppy waters

Few would still have questioned the decision if the duel between these two outfits finished the same way it started. Scoring five last time out, Marseille’s rampant form in front of goal showed no signs of slowing up. As early as the third minute, they had broken down Nice. Todibo blocked an effort from Milik, while Marcin Bułka was equal to the follow-up strike from Ünder. However, misfortune struck as the goalkeeper rerouted the ball towards the leg of Melvin Bard, who directed the play into his net.

However, Sampaoli’s men could not turn the lead into a springboard for success. Their buildup phase took a familiar outlook. Goalkeeper Pau López offered a safe circulatory option for the pair of central defenders, creating a narrow chain of three. Rongier stayed in the room behind the front two, and double width on the flanks thanks to the deep, broad spacing of the fullbacks stretched the field.

The home team prepared themselves for this task. Similar to Lyon, they engaged in a high 4-4-2 block. The front two oriented themselves to access the central defenders, while one of the central midfielders moved higher to cover Rongier. The narrow row of four in the middle of the park, relative to a broader chain at the back, guided play to the flanks, where the root of Nice’s equalizer emerged.

10th minute: buildup to Nice’s equalizer. López opts against a lateral pass to Ćaleta-Car, sweeping the play into the path of Saliba. His main outlet is long line pass to Ünder, whose body posture facing his own goal is a trigger for Bard to press. Once the ball goes back to Saliba, Thuram, Rosario and Schneiderlin have shifted diagonally to block the right back’s foray forwards, turning over the ball.

In the 10th minute, López drilled a pass out to Saliba, whose inward dribble from the wing sought to break Nice’s pressure. His ball loss was not ideal, but the backline fell into disarray. Gouiri floated freely on the outskirts of Marseille’s block, slipping past Saliba and Ćaleta-Car to draw his team level.

Transitions make the difference

From here, the tide never swung back for the away team. Mostly building the play down the line as opposed to through the halfspaces, they could not string together the quick progressions through the thirds that are a hallmark of their best displays under Sampaoli. From time to time, Mattéo Guendouzi tilted outward as a way of releasing pressure on the back four, but his team still tended to get stuck near the box. Fruitless switches and crosses shone a light once more on the need for greater creativity.

Marseille, too, hoped that the hosts would come up short in the face of their defensive strategy. The guests set a lower line of confrontation, forming a 4-5-1 medium block in their half of the pitch. Nice approached the defense with a clear structure. Daniliuc, a trained center-back, stayed deeper on the right, letting Kluivert hold the width to his outside. On the other hand, Bard bombed down the left where Gouiri roamed as the deeper of the two strikers.

Galtier’s men showcased some enterprising approaches on this flank, but it was the transition that snared Marseille for a second time. Central pressing traps from their 4-4-2 block generated multiple turnovers in this contest, and one such instance sent away Gouiri. Strike partner Delort then drifted to the right halfspace, from where he stood up a cross that met the head of Kluivert to put Nice ahead on. Notwithstanding a brief pressure phase on the stroke of half time, the visitors had much work to do.

Sampaoli’s solution cannot get going

Sampaoli’s initial configuration had aroused confusion, so it would not have shocked many to see him turn to the bench. In light of the deficit, he swapped Leonardo Balerdi for Cédric Bakambu. Marseille now adopted a base of three defenders, while the substitute was the initial width holder from the left.

Alas, another hammer blow inundated this switch. Coming to life from the buildup phase from a goal kick, Kluivert roamed forward in the right channel, hitting a fierce shot past López. Doubling his tally on the night and his team’s lead, the winger had severely dented Marseille’s chances of a comeback.

Since Nice were not under any duress to force the issue, Marseille’s share of the play grew. Gerson’s withdrawal to assemble a double pivot could draw out the second line, and the visitors broke the lines access Guendouzi in the right halfspace more often. But Nice were waiting in the wings to pounce.

53rd minute: offensive sequence from Marseille. Gerson and Rongier draw out the double pivot while Nice’s wide covering mechanisms let Ünder dribble inside while Guendouzi underlaps the winger.

Indeed, just past the hour mark, a fourth goal had killed the contest. Daniliuc brushed Bakambu off the ball, setting away a counterattack. Kluivert then picked up the pieces to his outside and clipped a precise delivery towards the far post, where Delort looped the ball back over López to hit the target.


Nice bounced back from adversity in an ideal manner. Taking inspiration from Lille and Lyon’s resistance against Marseille, they brought their strengths on the break to the fore in an impressive display. Now facing fourth tier FC Versailles in the semi-final, they will fancy their chances of winning a first trophy since 1997: it would be due credit to the work of the still underrated Galtier.

Tropes of Sampaoli’s eccentricity over Saliba’s selection at right back might grab the headlines, but broader themes of the match will have angered the manager much more. Several 4-4-2 blocks have been a nuisance for Marseille’s buildup over the last month, while matters of breaking down a deep block extend further than Kamara’s absence. Sampaoli will hope such results do not mark out a blueprint that derails an excellent campaign to this stage.


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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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