Montpellier Hérault SC have mounted a European challenge on the solid bedrock of a stingy defence. A surprise perhaps, but one that fits snugly with the image of their coach, Michel Der Zakarian.
Strikers of the 1980s and 90s will have painful memories of their duels with Der Zakarian, a strapping, no-nonsense defender for Nantes and Montpellier.
Since returning to Montpellier as coach last summer, he has turned a side that finished just three points above the bottom three last term into an outfit that is contention for a place in the UEFA Europa League next season.
The biggest change has come at the back where the 2016/17 campaign’s third-worst defence has been transformed into the second-best backline in the country, behind only leaders Paris Saint-Germain ahead of Week 29.
“Our aim was simply to improve on last season. For me personally, I wanted the team to defend better because they conceded 68 goals in the last campaign. Now we have the second best defensive record in the league. I hope we will continue to be defensively solid until the end of the season,” Der Zakarian, who has also enjoyed success in the dug-out at Nantes, Clermont and Reims, told The Ligue 1 Show on BeIN SPORTS
“The idea is to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible! When we lose the ball, we have to be organised, to stop opponents from creating chances. When we have the ball I want my team to use it well, to link up, cross or shoot with quality.”
Rampaging full-back Jérôme Roussillon has caught the eye among the back five, while the trio of central defenders, anchored by 40-year-old Vitorino Hilton, have proven almost impassable.
When opponents have broken through, they have then struggled to get past Benjamin Lecomte, the goalkeeper signed from relegated FC Lorient last summer.
“He’s got everything, he’s good with high balls, good with his feet, reads the game well. He’s having a brilliant season, we’re delighted to have brought in a goalkeeper who wins points for us,” Der Zakarian explained.
“It’s important to have a good defence and a good spine to a team. The keeper is key because he commands that defence. I hope he keeps it up!”
LOSC Lille, struggling against relegation, will be the next side to attempt to find a way into Der Zakarian’s bolted-down fortress when they meet on Saturday, while the visitors to the Stade Pierre-Mauroy will hope to add to the hosts’ difficulties with the same brand of football that has brought them to within touching distance of the top five.
“There isn’t just one way to play football, my team tries to play good football when we have the ball, but we’re aware we don’t have the world’s greatest team so we play to our strengths, we look to move the ball wide quickly, switch play regularly and attack down the flanks,” said Der Zakarian.
“We’re doing that well, but when you don’t have the ball you have to defend well. For a team to play well, it has to limit space for the opposition. It’s up to our opponents to unsettle us, and that hasn’t happened much this term. Not conceding chances is something that makes me happy, if we finish a game without conceding