The summer was a good one for French football. Neymar arrived, Mbappé and Lemar stayed and the profile of what is a rapidly improving division, full of young talent was raised yet further. Nevertheless despite the attacking talent populating last season’s top three sides, it’s been a wily 40 year old Ligue 1 stalwart of a centre back who has expertly rebuffed Mbappé, Falcao, Balotelli and the rest this season for a Montpellier side who are quietly gathering momentum under new coach Michel Der Zakarian and looking to recapture past glories.
Balding defender Vitorino Hilton isn’t a player you would call fashionable but, as he has proved over 375 Ligue 1 outings, he is effective. The Brazilian’s career started in the mid 90s at Chapecoense, but it was in France, via three seasons at Sevette in Switzerland, where he really found his feet. After a loan at Bastia he was signed by Lens where he made 122 Ligue 1 appearances which tempted Marseille and then manager Didier Deschamps to add Hilton to their title chasing side, Hilton taking his first Ligue 1 title in 2010 with OM.
However his importance at the heart of Marseille’s defence diminished over his three years on the south coast and a distressing robbery of his family home prompted the player to leave the area as soon as possible. “I couldn’t stay at Marseille after my house was robbed.” said Hilton “My family and I didn’t have the psychological strength to stay in the city after that.” His contract was swiftly terminated in August 2011.
However, Hilton rapidly resurfaced along the Mediterranean coast at Rene Girard’s Montpellier and despite the influx of QSI’s billions and Carlo Ancelotti at PSG that same season, Hilton formed a tough center back partnership with Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa as Montpellier unexpectedly, and gloriously, won Ligue 1 in 2012. It was Hilton’s second title in three years, but he was already 34.
However, despite 5 further seasons as MHSC’s premier defender, Hilton’s level has rarely dropped, continuing his renaissance in 2017 in helping keep Kylian Mbappé and Edinson Cavani at bay in a 0-0 draw last month, shutting Mario Balotelli down in 2-0 win over Nice last weekend and limiting free scoring champions Monaco to a solitary strike in a impressive draw away in the principality before the international break.
Hilton aside, Montpellier’s defence has proven to be tight and robust across the campaign, conceding just 6 times in their 10 league games. Michel Der Zakarian’s charges aren’t the most fluid of sides, their 15 points so far have come from just 8 goals, the stoic 1-0 win in at high-flying St Etienne on Friday night being a case in point.
This record represents Montpellier and their coach reverting to type, a club that has never been one for goals. Unbelievably, former Les Bleu centre back Laurent Blanc remains their all-time top scorer with 84 goals, the ex-PSG boss playing as a forward during his early career spell at Montpellier.
After coach Jean-Louis Gasset joined talisman Ryad Boudebouz in departing over the summer, the notoriously defensive Der Zakarian was installed as coach with Montpellier lacking in the resources to replace a forward of Boudebouz’s quality, staying up was their priority having flirted with the relegation battle in recent years. Armenian born Der Zakarian was the perfect choice.
A former Montpellier coach, handling their reserve sides in the early noughties, and boasting the experience of keeping low scoring sides comfortably in the division, his Nantes side finished 14th in consecutive seasons after promotion with only the hapless Troyes scoring fewer than Les Canaris in either of those campaigns.
Despite Der Zakarian’s economic use of goals and his side’s effectiveness, the turnaround in their fortunes this campaign has been startling. Even with Boudebouz’s influence they were only able to accrue 39 points last term which equalled a generous 15th place finish while the ensuing transfer window failed to breed much hope of such a resurgence.
As top scorer Steve Mounié followed Boudebouz in also departing (Huddersfield), few genuine reinforcements replaced them, solid defender Pedro Mendes and the less than prolific forward Giovanni Sio, both joining from Rennes, the unremarkable highlights.
Montpellier, perhaps unsurprisingly, have often switched to a 5-man defence under MDZ. Hilton is now flanked by Mendes and long term partner Daniel Congré with the breakout 19-year-old left back Nordi Mukele and the excellent Jérôme Roussillon on the other flank, both men are crucial to the way Der Zakarian sets his team up in both final and defensive thirds. However, this defensive approach has it’s drawbacks.
Where they are solid against the bigger sides, happy to sit and soak up pressure, looking to counter when possible with the pace of Casimir Ninga, Isaac Mbenza and their wing backs, Montpellier are blunt and uninspired when faced with equally economic and thrifty opponents. A home draw with promoted Strasbourg along with losses at Toulouse and Dijon, amongst the marquee results, exemplify this.
Behind the top two and above Metz, Ligue 1 remains an extremely hard fought league with much of the top six spots up for grabs this season. Michel Der Zakarian’s Nantes side briefly challenged for an European spot in his final year in charge but faded dramatically along the final stretch. Perhaps now with the experience of Vitorino Hilton and a quietly effective team at his disposal, he might have an outside chance of achieving the feet with Montpellier.