Luiz Gustavo Highlights His Importance to Marseille in the Club’s League Opener

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There’s a lot of buzz surrounding Ligue 1 at the moment. The French top-flight has added a number of impressive names to its ranks, most notably Brazilian superstar Neymar. Then there are coaching additions such as the enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa and Premier League winner Claudio Ranieri, who have signed on with Lille and Nantes respectively. Throw in the fact that Marseille continue to embark upon their so-called “Champions Project,” and there’s a lot of intrigue surrounding the new Ligue 1 campaign.

In relation to the latter, new Marseille owner Frank McCourt has promised to restore the club to its former glory. The first signs of that lofty ambition started to show last season, with guys like Florian Thauvin and Dimitri Payet joining on permanent deals. It was a long way from the days when stars like Andre Ayew and Andre-Pierre Gignac were let go, and the overhaul has continued into the new season. Clinton Njie has signed on from Tottenham on a permanent deal after last term’s loan, while Adil Rami and Valere Germain have added yet more quality to Rudi Garcia’s squad. Another player who has been acquired, and one who could be absolutely crucial at the heart of Marseille’s midfield, is Brazilian ace Luiz Gustavo.

He may not be the kind of signing who engenders much hype, especially given his hard-edged way of playing, but Gustavo provided plenty of sizzle on his Ligue 1 debut. In fact, his roulette turn to weave beyond a couple of defenders in the lead-up to OM’s first goal of the season, scored by Njie, was one of the highlights of Ligue 1’s opening weekend. The way that Gustavo spun back towards the centre of the field, wrong-footing two Dijon players in the process, highlighted the high-flair environment in which he grew up as a young Brazilian, and although he isn’t typically associated with this kind of flamboyancy, it was nice to see him bring a bit of it to the table.

What he did next, however, was more typical of Gustavo. He played a sharp pass out to the right-hand side, where Germain was located. The ex-Monaco man then hit a hard, low cross into the goalmouth, and with a diving header, Njie gave Marseille the lead. That’s Gustavo’s role, playing the architect from deeper positions in the hope that those ahead of him can then benefit from his work at the front-end. He finished up the game with 59 passes at 93.2% accuracy, and even though many of these were shorter balls while building up the play from defence, Gustavo’s ability to combine simple passes with more forwards-thinking efforts was impressive.

For Gustavo, a kind of simplicity is at the heart of everything. Even when he does something a little more expansive, such as playing a crossfield pass or hitting the ball into a player located between the lines, it feels like a high-percentage option. He isn’t the sort of midfielder who forces the ball into heavy traffic, and instead prefers to give his teammates every chance of success.

This is why he’s so useful to Marseille in his role as their deepest-lying midfielder. In their season opener against Dijon, he regularly dropped in between the team’s two centre-backs, Rami and Rolando, to kickstart their process of building from the back. His sensible and slick distribution was a feature from that part of the pitch, and he facilitated Marseille’s play beautifully. Gustavo fed passes out to flanks, either to fullbacks Patrice Evra and Hiroki Sakai or wingers Thauvin and Payet, and given that Marseille had plenty of rotation of position through the midfield zone, he was often able to find players cruising through the centre as well.

Of particular note was his efficiency, and even when it came to teeing up teammates with more vertical passes along the turf, he rarely wasted the ball. Take the lead-up to Marseille’s third goal, for example, a deflected effort on the counter scored by Njie, where Gustavo started things off with a pass out from defence. He let the ball run in front of his body initially, so as to keep it away from a marker, and followed up by finding up-and-comer Maxime Lopez. Lopez then found Njie and the former Spurs man did the rest, cutting inside before firing home from range with some help from a heavy deflection.

Again, this spoke to Gustavo’s role. Often working hard at the front-end to ensure the players around him could prosper, the former Wolfsburg midfielder kept things simple, precise and effective. He also completed 3 dribbles for the match, an indication of his ability to breeze by oncoming defenders, and though his technique can at times look a little loose due to his wiry frame, he always operated with a kind of unerring economy.

There wasn’t anything unnecessary to Gustavo’s game. He did pick up a booking on the defensive end for a tough challenge Oussama Haddadi, but on the attacking end at least, his game was exceptional in a very understated way. Of course, he will add plenty to Marseille in a defensive sense as well – he’s renowned for his work as a tough-tackling midfield enforcer, so much so that he even featured for Wolfsburg at centre-back throughout the course of last season – but his work in the team’s build-up could be crucial in the club’s quest to reassert themselves as a Ligue 1 giant.

It won’t be easy for Marseille, with the likes of Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain still well ahead of them, but there’s a fair chance that they can return to the top three in the current season. Gustavo has already stated that Marseille’s lofty ambitions had a lot to do with decision to link up with the club, and now, as the man who can provide a combination of balance and strong distribution to their midfield unit, he has the chance to help them achieve those objectives.

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