Montpellier HSC: Michel Der Zakarian’s unique and successful approach
While Michel Der Zakarian’s Montpellier side might not be the most aesthetically pleasing outfit to watch in Ligue 1, they deserve to be admired for their unique, successful approach. Often favouring directness over methodical build-up play, Der Zakarian’s effectively instilled his philosophy into his team, as they have a strong idea of what their manager wants to achieve. Currently sitting in sixth place in Ligue 1 on 30 points, which sees them just three points outside of the Champions League places, La Paillade has proven what a force they are to be reckoned with. Possessing the sixth-best defence in the division and the seventh-best attack, Der Zakarian’s certainly doing a fine job of getting the best out of his squad.
The fact he was recently voted as the ninth-best French coach by France Football and Zinedine Zidane even placed him third on his list offer a testament to how highly he’s regarded. Upon analysing their offensive approach, and this features many interesting elements that combine to make them an extremely challenging opponent. Playing within Zakarian’s framework that is usually a 3-5-2, 3-4-1-2 or 5-2-1-2, the players know their roles thoroughly, so they know how best to generate conditions to get at their opponents.
Boasting two excellent centre forwards in Gaetan Laborde and Andy Delort, who provide physicality, intensity, aggression and a real sharpness in front of goal, they do an accomplished job leading the line. Sharing a complementary understanding, the pair have dovetailed well to create space for each other and their teammates with their coordinated movement. On top of switching positions subtly and using cunning dismarking moves like double movements, zig-zags and dummy runs, their use of opposite movements has been key too. Indeed, this has seen one drop deeper and the other run in behind, which causes indecision for defenders on who should mark who. As a result, the split second of confusion can unleash one in behind or see one receive freely between the lines as the advanced forward stretches the backline.
It’s also been interesting to see them apply this method when they move laterally before making their respective moves to add another layer of variety. Often getting their timing spot on when charging in behind or into the box, the formidable duo directs their runs cleverly to exploit the blindside, gaps present between defenders or if their nearby opponent gets caught ball watching.
Powerful, strong and adept at winning aerial duels, they offer a fantastic outlet for goal kicks and when Montpellier look to bypass the opposition press. With one challenging for the ball and the other looking for a flick-on over the top, this tactic has worked well.
Moreover, Montpellier neatly setup second ball structure also sees them well placed to win knockdowns so they can attack from a high area.
Being such terrific targets and reference points, it’s understandable why Montpellier favour a direct approach with plenty of long balls, as this certainly maximises the strengths of their strikers.
Meanwhile, when it comes to end product, the fact Laborde has mustered five goals and four assists, and Delort has seven goals and three assists, is a testament to their success in the final third. With both men capable of creating and scoring, it’s little wonder why this clinical, instinctive duo form one of the most feared frontlines in Ligue 1. “We have two fighters, two players who can score and score. They enjoy playing together, they are generous in their efforts. They have to be even more precise though,” Der Zakarian stated on his strikeforce.
Adept at taking advantage of spaces out wide, the way Montpellier push their wingbacks, usually Ambroise Oyongo and Arnaud Souquet, extremely high to add some vital width and additional depth to attacks has benefited them immensely. With a mixture of the wing-back, ball near central midfielder, attacking midfielder or one of the forwards populating the flank, they’ve been proficient at creating overloads to progress through. By generating 4v3 or 3v2 numerical and positional superiorities, this often sees them find the free man so they can fire in dangerous crosses and cutbacks into the box or play in their lethal forwards.
The way they isolate their wing-backs and get them into 2v1s vs. the opposition fullback is another interesting concept, as they thrive at striking crossfield diagonals. Key to this working is how they initially draw their adversaries to one side before then rapidly switching play to the underloaded side.
Possessing many players who can strike some fantastic crosses and through balls into the box, such as the wingbacks and especially Teji Savanier and Florent Mollet, it makes perfect sense that they use these assets. Ranking third in Ligue 1 for most crosses into the box with 347, sixth for crossing accuracy on 32%, first for long balls played on 1137 (more than 100 than any other team), second for headed shots on 43 and first for most aerial duels competed in with 1003, this aptly depicts their philosophy.
Due to their collective movement inside the box, which sees them occupy different heights and areas shrewdly to create dilemmas for defenders, opponents have found it tough to mark them. Persistently getting three or four men into the box to attack deliveries from out wide, it’s been good to see how they stagger their positions to pose a threat centrally, at the front post, the back post or the edge of the box. Excellent at drawing opponents away from usable space and exploiting the blindside of markers, this avenue of offence has definitely been a valuable source of production.
Upon factoring that they’ve scored seven goals from set-pieces, where they make the most of the magnificent service provided by Savanier and Mollet and some smart mechanics, this has only amplified their menace. Whether implementing smart decoy runs to make room for others, using blocks and targeting weaknesses in the opposition’s structure, Montpellier is such a challenge to stop from dead balls. The fact they’ve won 270 fouls (fourth-most in Ligue 1) has vitally afforded their specialists’ many opportunities to weave their magic.
Furthermore having the likes of Hilton, Damien Le Tallec, Pedro Mendes, Laborde and Delort, who all offer wonderful options due to their aerial prowess, has compounded issues for their foes. Although it must be said that they do regularly build out from the back methodically and keep the ball on the deck, there’s no escaping what masters of playing a direct style they are, as Der Zakarian’s intelligently devised system is handsomely paying off at present. Some other numbers that deserve mention and demonstrate their approach come from how they rank 14th for possession, fifteenth for passes per game, 16th for dribbles and are fourth highest in the league for progressive passes and passes into the final.
Capable of hurting opponents in many ways, this physical, intense, aggressive and cleverly coached team are proving how successful playing to your strengths can be, in a season where they’ve been such tough customers to come up against. Gunning for European football next season, if Montepellier can keep all their stars fit and maintain their strong form, there’s every reason to suggest they can push on in the second half of the campaign and fulfil their ambitions.