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Montpellier’s Tactical Conundrum (Talking Points: Week 2)

Eric Devin paints a dreary picture for a Montpellier side that has seriously struggled to take off after two weekends of Ligue 1 action.

Admittedly, it was only down to a speculative effort late on that Montpellier failed to come away with anything from last weekend’s visit to Rennes, and while the opening matchday’s defeat to Angers is less easily digestible, perhaps things are not as bad as they seem from the perspective of last place.

After all, Morgan Sanson is still to come back from injury, and new signing Ryad Boudebouz is still being integrated into the team as manager Rolland Courbis works to settle his best eleven into a cohesive formation.

Most of a fairly strong defence returns, and even if Vitorino Hilton is another year older and Abdelhamid El Kaoutari has made his way to Italy, former Dijon centre back William Remy is the type of player whose pace is tailor-made to complement the Brazilian, with Daniel Congre and Mathieu Delplagne ideal compliments on the flanks.

On top of this solid base, we must remember that last season had started slowly as well, with the club suffering inconsistent performances over the season’s first few months before a seven-game unbeaten run in December and January turned things around for a late but ultimately futile Europa League push.

Even with Sanson, one of Ligue 1’s breakout players, being a long-term miss, optimism surrounded the club at the start of this campaign, as the struggles of the previous season seemed forgotten.

The arrival of ex-Bastia playmaker Ryad Boudebouz was likewise a reason for hope, as his versatility and dead-ball ability would increase Montpellier’s potency without sacrificing any of their defensive solidity. So, with no points or goals after two matches, what has gone wrong and can it be fixed?

Last season, Montpellier played a crossing-heavy style, with Anthony Mounier able to cut in from the left to pass or shoot, Barrios the target man and Sanson also a scoring threat as a box-to-box midfielder.

The arrival of Boudebouz, who has played as a winger, but has been at his best as a central playmaker, will necessitate some sort of tactical change, being a more traditional no 10 than Sanson, but seeing as he and Remy are the team’s only notable acquisitions thus far, aside from Algerian youngster Ramy Bensebaini, perhaps a more system-oriented approach to transfers would have been more appropriate.

After all, for as impressive as Mounier was last season, creating delightful interchanges with Congre and being arguably the team’s greatest creative threat, what could make him even more dangerous would be another player on the opposite flank, to avoid opponents overloading he and Congre.

Admittedly, the lure of Boudebouz for such a price (€1.7M) was too much to turn down, but the fear here is that in signing someone of his estimable reputation, Courbis has made him undroppable, but without giving due thought as to his role in the team.

Playing Boudebouz through the middle means that MHSC still lack a creative player who can operate on the right wing; Kevin Berigaud has deputised there at times, but he offers by no means the type of crossing threat of the likes of Mounier.

This also leads to the question as to Sanson’s role upon his return. Despite having been used in a variety of positions throughout his career, Sanson showed last season that he is most effective when he can be used centrally, to break up play and either take defenders on himself on the counter or distribute the ball to wide players.

With the likes of Jonas Martin and Joris Marveaux occupying the holding spots, perhaps the long-term aim of Courbis is to play Sanson on the right, to give more balance to the team from wide areas, using Berigaud or Camara as a centre forward. However, Sanson is not the greatest at delivering crosses, and this shift would also negate his ability to break up play and start counter-attacks centrally.

The proposed midfield shake up will however not obviously improve things with regards to the team’s forwards. Last season’s leading scorer Lucas Barrios’ loan spell has ended and neither Camara nor Berigaud have proven themselves to be the sort of double-digit centre forward necessary to spearhead an attack. Add in Camara’s age and things begin to look even more doubtful.

With the transfer window still open, there may be time yet for a loan signing or another transfer, but with just about every side in Ligue 1 short of last season’s top three looking for a striker, options are scarce.

With the likes of Jean-Christophe Bahebeck and Valere Germain recently moving on loan, there may be an option for Montpellier from this avenue, but such a player would likely have to come from abroad, as perhaps only Monaco have a surfeit of strikers at this point.

Perhaps an Emmanuel Riviere or Moussa Dembele might relish the chance to burnish their reputations with time back in France? This could likewise be the answer at right wing, as Morgan Amalfitano, out of favour at West Ham, would offer an ideal solution, despite his wages likely being an obstacle.

Veering away from the hypothetical, what may, however, be the real issue here is how Montpellier’s plight is symptomatic of the persistent talent drain on French football. Not that the departure of any one player this summer has hastened their current issues, (although the Barrios of last season’s run-in would certainly be a useful addition at present) but that the options available to supplant these departures are becoming increasingly limited.

It wasn’t so long ago that a club like Montpellier, while not a perennial European contender, but certainly a well-established Ligue 1 side, could have had their pick of players from lower down the top flight or from Ligue 2, Mounier and Congre being fine recent examples of this sort of move.

The likes of an Anthony Le Tallec or a Jonathan Kodjia would have likewise been prime targets as strikers, and perhaps one of those or a Pablo Chavarria would do much to strengthen the club.

However, with the success of the likes of Diafra Sakho, Moussa Sissoko and others, the lower reaches of French football are becoming increasingly picked over, as Le Tallec has gone to Greece to play European football with FC Atromitos and Kodjia has joined English side Bristol City, both chasing bigger wages as examples of the financially hamstrung state of French football.

Champions just three seasons ago, Montpellier now look to be in for a real battle for survival, even if a few more acquisitions are made. Things aren’t getting any easier with Paris Saint-Germain set to visit the Stade de la Mosson this evening before a visit to vibrant newcomers Troyes next weekend.

While no one except the most diehard MHSC fan expects a result tonight, time is ticking for the club to show more offensive nous or at least record a point, evincing to some degree that this poor start is merely an aberration.

The likes of Mounier and Congre are simply too talented to want to endure a second relegation scrap in three seasons, with both having been linked to moves abroad in the current window.

Montpellier’s recent history of selling players (Henri Bedimo, Younes Belhanda, Remy Cabella, Benjamin Stambouli) without significantly reinvesting (the €3M spent on Berigaud is their largest fee spent in four years) seems to finally have caught up with the club, and should La Paillade enter the first international break propping up the table, their season may be over before it starts, another once-promising side waylaid by unfortunate financial realities.

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