PARIS (AP) — Marseille fans were quick to voice their displeasure when Igor Tudor was hired to replace popular coach Jorge Sampaoli who suddenly quit in July.
Tudor made his name as an imposing central defender with Juventus but the 44-year-old Croat had a modest track record as coach, even though he did well guiding a fair Verona side into ninth place in Serie A last season.
Sampaoli left reportedly because of a disagreement with the club’s recruitment strategy, and Tudor immediately rubbed Marseille fans the wrong way by dropping popular playmaker Dimitri Payet, a key player under Sampaoli and the club captain.
Tensions were reportedly high in training as players felt uncomfortable adapting to Tudor's intense work ethic and disciplinarian approach.
Marseille's demanding fans had already made their minds up about him before a ball was even kicked, booing him when his name was read out before the first game of the season against Reims.
By the end of that Reims match the fans were cheering.
They remain behind Tudor as third-placed Marseille is unbeaten in the French league and level on points with Paris Saint-Germain, which leads from Lens on goal difference.
Furthermore, with three goals conceded, Marseille also has the best defense in the league heading into Saturday's game at ninth-placed Auxerre.
Sampaoli was a tactically astute coach who developed an attacking game that played to former France midfielder Payet's strengths — when he was on form.
But Payet is aged 35 and did not initially suit Tudor's high-octane pressing game, which is backed by speedy and technically strong full backs Jonathan Clauss and Nuno Tavares.
So Tudor benched Payet for the first three games and gave the armband to someone else. Dropping Payet, a fans' favorite who scored a career-high 16 goals last season, was a bold move and one which set up Tudor for ridicule if it went wrong.
But he backed himself, and so did Marseille's directors by aggressively pursuing striker Alexis Sanchez and signing him from Inter Milan.
Picking the hard-working Sanchez at center forward gave the team greater balance and mobility than when imposing striker Arkadiusz Milik played. Milik has been loaned to Juventus.
Sanchez has made it easier for Tudor to bring back Payet, playing behind Sanchez in a wide-left role. The two combined well last weekend when Sanchez scored twice in a 3-0 win at Nice.
The astute Tudor gave Payet the captain's armband again on Wednesday and he responded by setting up the winner in a 1-0 home win against Clermont.
Tavares, meanwhile, has been a revelation since joining on loan from Arsenal, and has three goals. The left back combines superbly with France international Clauss, a signing from Lens, who overlaps on the opposite flank.
Clauss was a key player for Lens, but the northern side has coped well without him and averages nearly three goals going into Sunday's game at Reims. Forward Florian Sotoca is in fine form for Lens with five goals.
But rampant PSG has 21 goals in five games, with Neymar netting a league-high seven times heading into Saturday's game at Nantes.
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Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press