Montpellier 2-3 Monaco: Optimism for the losers, questions for the winners

Eric Devin reflects on Thursday night’s Ligue 1 encounter between Montpellier, in a match where Monaco came from two goals behind to win at the death through a Fabinho penalty.

Awkwardly shoehorned into Matchday Seven’s already uncomfortable placement between European matches as the lone game on a Thursday, Montpellier-Monaco capped off a fairly entertaining set of fixtures with plenty of its own fireworks, the visitors getting a 3-2 win thanks to a late penalty.

Despite its maladroit position on the calendar and the attendant temptation to give it short shrift on a Saturday morning with another full slate of matches already in full swing, we actually learned a not insignificant amount about both sides during the match.

While scoring two goals was encouraging for the hosts, they still remain rooted to the bottom of the table. Conversely, as much as a win was needed for Monaco, to concede two against what had been one of Ligue 1’s worst attacks means that, while three points are their own reward, the result was far from ideal. In this brief piece, the hope is that each of these themes can be explored in a bit more depth, providing some food for thought as the pair prepare to face Lorient (Montpellier) and Guingamp (Monaco) on Sunday.

Montpellier started the match in fine fettle, with Mustapha Yatabare leading the line and Kevin Berigaud and Ryad Boudebouz playing wide. Even though Yatabare was the nominal striker, the two wide men and the big Malian moved freely, with Jonas Martin and Bryan Dabo often joining in from midfield.

William Remy, signed as a central defender, was the deepest-lying of the midfield three and at times almost seemed an auxiliary centre back, dropping between Daniel Congre and Vitorino Hilton to allow the fullbacks to push on as well.

While young Jerome Roussillon still needs a bit of an education as regards the responsibilities of an attacking fullback, as Nabil Dirar had a bit too much joy up and down the flank, the formation was generally promising for La Paillade. Yatabare won an astounding 11 aerial duels, providing a fine outlet for long balls from the defense and generally being a nuisance.

Granted, the big centre forward failed to score, but he is, at this point, still regaining full match fitness after being used sparingly during his spell at Trabzonspor, and it is perhaps more than coincidence that he has been on the pitch for all four of Montpellier’s Ligue 1 goals this season.

Defensively, neither Roussillon nor Mathieu Delplagne covered themselves in glory, the right back failing to track the run of Thomas Lemar for the pint-size winger’s equaliser, having been played in by Dirar.

Even with that being the case, Congre and Hilton seem to be developing a solid understanding as Rolland Courbis’ new centre back pairing, the former Toulouse man’s conversion from left back looking more and more like an inspired decision from the manager, as his recovery pace gives the Brazilian slightly less running about to do. Neither was at fault for any of the goals, and along with the promising youngster Ramy Bensebaini, things look, if not at the level of last year, to be slowly but surely improving.

With an old-fashioned target man in place and a deepening understanding in the defence, things are perhaps looking a  bit better for Montpellier than they were a few weeks ago, albeit with two major caveats.

While Fabio Coentrao may have made much of a borderline challenge, Jonathan Ligali is, unfortunately, a poor replacement for Geoffrey Jourdren, who was quietly one of Ligue 1’s better ‘keepers last season. With Jourdren likely out until early December, Montpellier’s offense will surely need to continue to improve for the club to have  any chance of pulling out of the drop zone.

The other issue is focus; for the second time in as many matches, Montpellier conceded any injury-time winner. Granted, the circumstances were very different, but Courbis’ men seem to not know how to lose down a match. This was occasionally a problem last season, as three of the club’s first eleven matches involved a late opposition winner or equaliser, resulting in four dropped points.

However, as the season wore on, this ceased to be an issue, the club’s confidence growing as they made what was a valiant but ultimately failed push for Europe. Now, six points from safety, but with no really tough fixtures on the horizon, the beleaguered Courbis needs the very best from his squad from minute one to minute ninety if they are to remove themselves from the relegation scrap.

What, then, of Monaco? Despite the victory, tensions are mounting at the Stade Louis II, with the club accused of taking their selling policy too far. The club failed to qualify for the Champions’ League, to some degree due to not using Aymen Abdennour, last year’s standout centre back against Valencia in the play-off round.

Now, Monaco are weighed down by the arduous Sunday-Thursday rhythm of the Europa League, a burden which will tax their still-developing squad unduly without the financial rewards of the more highly regarded competition.

While this is frustrating, the additional matches may not be the worst thing for the club, as there will be further opportunities to test the club’s young arrivals against a variety of opponents without the pressure generally found in domestic matches.

What is frustrating, however, is how the team are have been lining up. Last year, the club employed a 4-3-3 with Joao Moutinho ahead of a pairing of Jeremy Toulalan and Geoffrey Kondogbia. Further forward, Anthony Martial’s mobility made him an ideal outlet, with Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Bernardo Silva the wide men. While Ferreira Carrasco and Silva weren’t the best at tracking back, the quick and powerful Abdennour and Kondogbia were generally enough to cover for their slower partners, the likes of Toulalan and Ricardo Carvalho or Andrea Raggi.

Now, with Toulalan a doubt for some weeks due to injury and Tiemoue Bakayoko, the side’s other natural defensive midfielder also having struggled with thigh and back issues, manager Leonardo Jardim has been forced to improvise.

Having this season switched to a 4-2-3-1, an acknowledgement of the surplus of attacking talent at his disposal after the summer, the manager now finds himself struggling to properly pick a solid eleven.

While Kondogbia’s physicality and ability to run with the ball at his feet were always going to be missed, Fabinho, a converted right back, had showed enough in a few starts in defensive midfield last campaign to suggest that he might be a capable performer there in the long term.

Indeed, the young Brazilian has done quite well there, but in the absence of Toulalan and Bakayoko, Jardim has tried a variety of solutions, each one looking worse than the last.

Joao Moutinho was a willing worker in Claudio Ranieri’s diamond 4-4-2, but his lack of pace, size and tackling ability make him an ill fit. Adama Traore had played as part of a midfield three for Lille last season, and actually did credibly holding alongside Toulalan against Paris Saint-Germain. However, with his obvious abilities as a more attacking force, few, if any observers would describe his future of being that of a deep-lying midfielder.

Mario Pasalic is the third player to have been given a run in the side, and has perhaps the least to offer. Yes, he is young, but the Chelsea loanee’s lack of positional discipline is appalling. Against Montpellier, he was constantly caught out, and if not for an assured performance by Fabinho, it is not too difficult to imagine the hosts racking up a few more chances.

It would be one thing if Pasalic were able to contribute something with his forays forward, but his two headed chances were nowhere near troubling Ligali, and his two goals from Champions’ League seem increasingly aberrant.

While he did have a decent scoring record during his time in Croatia, he was also played further forward during his time there. In a deeper role, his sense of defensive awareness is still lacking, and while one would trust Jardim to develop that aspect of his game, it is difficult to see how the manager can afford to wait.

With that type of performance from the youngster, against a more incisive team, or one set up to play on the counter, (as so many Ligue 1 sides do) Monaco could well have been facing much more of a deficit at the interval.

With Bakayoko fit enough to make the bench on Thursday, the hope here is that he is played alongside Fabinho against Guingamp, with Toulalan recovering enough to play in Europe on Thursday. With Fabinho alongside one of the two, or rested occasionally, Monaco will have every chance of regaining last season’s position with a defensively sound midfield once again the basis for their success.

The attacking players will still need time to gel, but Thomas Lemar and Ivan Cavaleiro already look impressive, and it took some time for Jardim to find the right formula amongst a raft of new arrivals last season. With Cavaleiro an option as a striker, (something Jardim has yet to try) more changes are surely forthcoming, and one would not bet on a continued lack of attacking nous.

The key here, though, was that even through the club’s early struggles last season, their defensive solidity allowed them to remain competitive in most, if not all matches. Unless Jardim makes some tough decisions regarding his defensive midfield, and soon, the optimism that surrounded Monaco at the end of last season may be nothing but a distant memory.

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