According to the most partisan supporters of Olympique Marseille, the club where the much-travelled Andre Villas-Boas now finds himself is the biggest he has managed. Bigger than Porto, because the wide reach of its support-base. Bigger, they would venture, than Tottenham Hotspur by dint of OM having won the European Cup, and more storied than Chelsea: Marseille have, after all, won their domestic league 10 times.
But what the most optimistic Marseille fan is obliged to acknowledge about an institution of faded glories is that Villas-Boas, 41, is at probably the most hard-up club he has managed since he started his senior coaching career, so precociously, at Academica de Coimbra a decade ago. “We have no money,” Villas-Boas reminded OM’s supporters last week, adding sharply, “some people find it hard to get that into their heads.”
Villas-Boas is two matches into his return to European club football, after a three-year gap and a brief adventure in Chinese football, and he is yet to record a win. He has just under a week to go until the close of the transfer window and is more concerned about departures from Marseille - the midfielder Luiz Gustavo is interesting Fenerbahce - than hopeful of a late recruit that might lift spirits. The budget he deals with is austere, and while AVB says he was clear about that when taking the job, the first 11 days of the season have provided plenty of evidence of the many areas of his squad that could use some investment.
On Wednesday, Villas-Boas confronts a significant derby, at Nice, whose maximum yield of Ligue 1 points so far puts them five clear of Marseille and looking very much like the top club on France’s Mediterranean coast. It’s an intriguing meeting of two young coaches, Patrick Vieira, 43, and Villas-Boas, and, premature or not, it will inform judgements about how the AVB-OM partnership is progressing.
Above all, a first goal of their partnership would be welcome. Marseille are the only team in Ligue 1 yet to register one, and their best chance of breaking the new season duck was squandered at the weekend at Nantes, when OM fluffed a penalty in the 0-0 draw. Dario Benedetto, the striker on whom Marseille committed a large chunk of their slender transfer resources - some €14m to Boca Juniors - was the luckless spot-kicker, launching his attempt wildly high of the crossbar.
After the opening weekend’s 2-0 home defeat against Reims, this was not a scenario the new manager needed, or had asked for. Benedetto is not the club’s designated taker of spot-kicks, but was offered the chance by Dimitri Payet in a gesture intended to help the new signing, to ease him towards his first Marseille goal. Villas-Boas did not approve. “That’s the first time and the last time that happens,” he said.
What is it with young managers and off-the-cuff penalty-taking decisions? Rather as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United has weathered suggestions that his authority as a manager has been diminished by recent on-field debates between Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford over who should take United's spot-kicks (both have missed one this season already), so Villas-Boas was plunged into an unwanted controversy by Payet's generous act towards a colleague. No one emerged well from it: Not the new manager, who had approved Payet, not Benedetto, as his penalty-kicker. Not Payet, whose act of supposed leadership was then questioned by AVB. Not Benedetto, deflated by a bad miss that showed every symptom of anxiety and was hardly excused by the explanation the striker offered to Argentina media: that the ball used in Ligue 1 seems lighter than balls he is accustomed to.
All Marseille centre-forwards carry a heavy burden of expectation, and Benedetto feels it already. He will be relieved once he can count on the service up front of both Payet and Florian Thauvin, the latter provider of 26 assists over the last two seasons but still gingerly making his way back from an ankle injury he picked up in pre-season.
“We have had to be patient with Thauvin,” said Villas-Boas, “and there is a small chance he can play a part against Nice.” As for Benedetto, the coach urges patience from fans. “After the international break [next month] he will be nearer his best rhythm.”
AVB’s immediate aim is that, by the international break, Marseille will have heaved themselves up the table. These are early days, but, right now, they are a "big" club squatting just one place above the relegation zone.