“For us in Montpellier, if you go past Avignon, you’re in the north.” Despite the birthplace of Olivier Messiaen being less than 100 kilometres away from the Stade de la Mosson, there is more than a ring of truth in the words of Montpellier manager Michel Der Zakarian, who has used his resolutely southern identity to make huge gains for a team which has meant so much to him. Taken in isolation, his side’s 2-0 win over Bordeaux last night, in Ligue 1’s final match of the calendar year, means very little. Les Girondins have been France’s worst side of late, earning just five points in their last twelve matches as they have struggled badly in attack. However, given the divergent directions of the two sides at the beginning of the season, that La Paillade would expect victory in a place where they had not won in nearly fifteen years speaks volumes about the team’s resolve and improvement this season under the Armenian.
Bordeaux had impressed last season, qualifying for the Europa League and playing some of France’s most attractive football under Jocelyn Gourvennec. Given the promise of an up-and-coming manager and a young squad, the team invested heavily in the summer, signing Lille’s Nicolas De Préville and the Brazilian duo of Otávio and Jonathan Cafú. Montpellier, by contrast, sold their two most influential attackers, Steve Mounié and Ryad Boudebouz, and the players that they brought in, the likes of Pedro Mendes and Giovanni Sio, seemed more the type to make up the numbers rather than contribute to any significant improvement.
That sort of parsimony has been nothing new for Montpellier, though; even in the wake of the team’s miraculous title six years ago, they spent little ahead of their Champions’ League exploits. Of a bigger concern, however, was how the club would develop under Der Zakarian, with many tipping the southern side for relegation. A former club captain and a long-time assistant following his retirement from playing, the fiery manager had done well with limited means at Nantes, but his hiring this summer, coming after failing to get Reims promotion despite having one of Ligue 2’s biggest budgets, seemed the very definition of unimaginative.
Now six months into his tenure, Der Zakarian has made his doubters look foolish indeed. He has fashioned Ligue 1’s best defence, with only thirteen goals conceded in nineteen matches, and has steered his unfashionable side into seventh place. A frustrating slip-up against Metz at the weekend notwithstanding, Montpellier have approached the season with an unremitting focus that, for Der Zakarian, is in the image of the club’s former owner, the late Louis Nicollin.
“He had deep respect for people who worked hard. “Loulou” transmitted strong values: generosity, hard work, self-sacrifice. That spirit is still there at the club, whether in the office or on the pitch.”
No player perhaps embodies that more than Vitorino Hilton, the side’s captain. Despite turning forty earlier this season, the Brazilian has been hugely impressive at the heart of Der Zakarian’s three-man defence. He missed out yesterday through suspension, but the veteran has thrived with Mendes and youngster Nordi Mukiele next to him. Hilton has long been one of Ligue 1’s better centre backs, but his continued defiance of time has much to do with Der Zakarian’s improving his fellow defenders individually as well as collectively.
Mukiele arrived in January from Stade Lavallois with a decent reputation, but was considered more of a marauding full-back than the solid and versatile presence into which he has evolved. Likewise Mendes, a decent player but one who struggled to get a game at Rennes following the emergence of Joris Gnagnon last season. That Der Zakarian has molded these two into sublime foils for Hilton has been chief among his achievements, but he’s also worked wonders with several other recent acquisitions.
Der Zakarian’s sides have always had a reputation for being solid at the back, but this season he has expanded his repertoire, also improving a cadre of talented young attackers as well. Jonathan Ikoné was on the scoresheet for the first time this season yesterday, a fitting reward for a dynamic, high-energy performance for the youngster. The Paris Saint-Germain loanee has missed the last three months or so with injury, but after an inconsistent spell under Jean-Louis Gasset last season, he looks to have fully invested in Der Zakarian’s aggressive, high pressing system. Likewise Junior Sambia, another youngster on loan, from Niort, who impressed in a more advanced role, and looks an increasingly well-rounded presence in midfield despite having only played a more defensive role in previous seasons.
Montpellier are still alive in both domestic cups, and their promising start could yet be undone by fixture congestion. Player transfers also loom; Mukiele in particular has been linked with several foreign clubs, including Benfica. For now, though, the way that Der Zakarian has evoked the spirit of the combative Nicollin to develop a fighting spirit for the club which has meant so much to him is nothing short of miraculous.
1 | The time has come surely for Jocelyn Gourvennec and Bordeaux to part ways. Having assembled a vibrant and competitive looking squad, Les Girondins were expected to challenge for a top 4 spot this season but the 2-0 home loss to Montpellier was their fifth in a row and tenth in their last 13 meaning they finish the first half of the season in a lowly 15th place. The glorious Malcom aside, Gourvennec has been unable to cajole any fight, fluidity or any semblance of solidarity from his charges since a crushing 6-2 September loss in Paris. Gourvennec seems to have now lost the players along with the fans who continued their demands for his resignation. Gourvennec surely needs a Christmas miracle if he is to start 2018 as Bordeaux’s manager.
2 | Nice had been written off. The 4-0 drubbing of the Champions Monaco aside, Lucien Favre’s admittedly decimated team had struggled to find the irrepressible intensity that made Les Aiglons a title chaser last term as they flirted with the bottom three. Now however, the table and Nice’s form both have a more familiar look. A draw at Lille saw them finish 2017 in the top six after 4 straight wins allowed Nice to leave the throng of squabbling mid table sides behind as Mario Balotelli’s form proved crucial, scoring in all four wins. It has taken Favre a little time but balance has been restored at the Allianz Riviera and the top 4 will be looking nervously over their shoulders as Ligue 1 moves into 2018.
3 | A 3-1 loss at Nice in week 16 had seemingly already ended Metz’s faint survival hopes. The defeat left them with just 5 points, 14 adrift of the safety mark and with a squad that was not able to recover from losing its best players in the summer. Philippe Hinschberger’s inevitable sacking changed nothing as the team continued in their woeful form under new coach Frédéric Hantz. Now however, miraculously Metz have hope. 7 points from their last 9 available has closed the gap to 8 points as a superb 3-0 win over PSG’s conquerors Strasbourg amounted to their first home win and best display of the year so far.
The notoriously wayward forward signings Nolan Roux and Emmanuel Rivière have finally found their feet and the back of the net both with two in their last four while the reintroduction Florent Mollet, one of few midfielders capable of creativity, has complemented previous standouts Mathieu Dossevi and Renaud Cohade. Metz could yet usurp expectations and retain their Ligue 1 status if they can keep this form up.
E.D. with A.W.