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FEATURE | Marseille’s goalkeeping conundrum – why the club must think with its head & not its heart

Exactly this time last year, Marseille lost their stalwart captain, goalkeeper and undeniable rock of the team. In the highs – and very deep lows – there was one constant, a formidable and highly competent goalkeeper in Steve Mandanda. The third big name to quit OM in the clearout of 2016, the France international signed for Crystal Palace for a pittance.

You’d be hard pressed to find a Marseille supporter who would begrudge Mandanda his move. After eight seasons and with OM sinking like the Titanic, it was perhaps best for Mandanda to seek one big career adventure abroad after a loyal period in the south of France. Instead, many OM fans were highly pessimistic of his replacement.

Over the past season Mandanda’s replacement has been Yohann Pelé. Once a high-flyer in his younger days, he had only played one full season of football since 2010. Frozen out of Toulouse before a medical issue forced him temporarily out of the game altogether, Pelé returned to the field with second-tier FC Sochaux in 2014-15, before joining Marseille as a substitute goalkeeper the following season.

At the time, many had scoffed & cringed at the idea of replacing a veritable legend with one who had barely played 16 games in the first division in 7 years. There were of course, other goalkeepers available such as Rennes’ Benoit Costil yet these options were spurned as austerity continued to strangle Marseille.

And yet 12 months on, the possible arrival of club legend Mandanda returning to Stade Vélodrome to retake his no.1 spot from Pelé is remarkably causing some unease. It’s an extraordinary conundrum that no one saw coming.

And this is down to Yohann Pelé’s unexpected great form in his first full season as Marseille’s no.1 At 34, few expected anything like the impact he has had with an array of world-class saves that have on more than one occasion saved Marseille from defeat.

After a tetchy start for the goalkeeper at the beginning of the season, the former Le Mans & Toulouse shot-stopper has grown through the campaign, pulling off a number of fantastic performances, particularly in the end-of-season run-in.

Indeed, such is Pelé’s surprising career turnaround, he actually ended up as the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets in Europe’s top five leagues. Ahead of Neuer, ahead of Buffon, ahead of Courtois and one more than anyone else in France managed. A superb statistic for a player whose career was in the doldrums just two and a half years ago.

So, would it be wise for OM to dislodge Pelé for the return of the formidable Mandanda? There’s little dispute that Mandanda is the superior player, but will the current OM custodian accept what would likely be a bit-part role for 2017-18 having just completed a successful year between the sticks?

There are further questions to be asked as well. Just how forward looking is the OM Champions Project? With Pelé at 34 and Mandanda at 32, both goalkeepers are not the long-term options many OM supporters crave.

Mandanda’s situation is a little delicate for the moment after a nightmare few months in London with Crystal Palace. It has been reported that Palace want up to €8m for a player they signed for €2m last season, a figure that OM will simply not entertain.

There is an ample need for a second goalkeeper next season with OM due to play upwards of 50 games. While Mandanda is not completely certain to return to the Velodrome, the names of Guillermo Ochoa (a former Ligue 1 fan favourite with Ajaccio) and Iker Casillas have long been rumoured with a move to France. Neither of these options present themselves as an opportunity too good to refuse for the OM leadership.

While there may be a conundrum, the answer is simple. The conditions are incredibly favourable to sign a high-profile, high-potential young goalkeeper who is able to perform in competition with Yohann Pelé, before succeeding him as the undisputed no.1 from 2018 onwards.

The experiments of Marc Andre Ter Stegen at Barcelona and Chelsea’s signing of Thibault Courtois and eventual discarding of club stalwart Petr Cech spring to mind. For Marseille, signing the likes of Alban Lafont from Toulouse or Andre Onana from Ajax present a fine long-term opportunity to mould a player capable of contributing significantly in OM’s quest to return to the big time.

What’s more, the likes of Lafont & Onana harbour significant resale value, while in the interim, Pelé will not be threatened with losing his place immediately. These decisions, with the future in mind should be the core focus of sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta’s project in the long run.

The return of a club legend like Steve Mandanda will always be welcomed. But perhaps it is better to start thinking with the head, rather than the heart.

 



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