fter 37 years of marriage, Véronique Der Zakarian and her husband Michel do not always agree. “If you want it to last, concessions must be made on both sides,” said Montpellier coach Michel in a joint interview with his wife in L’Équipe last month. Having followed her husband’s managerial career from Nantes to Clermont, back to Nantes, to Reims and now to Montpellier, Véronique scoffed – much as fans of those clubs might. Der Zakarian’s effective but defensive sides have often made obvious sacrifices in the way they play. Now though, with Montpellier, Der Zakarian is finally following his own advice to glorious effect.
Der Zakarian was born in Armenia but spent his entire playing career in France with Montpellier and Nantes, where he won the league in 1983. After working as an assistant manager at Nantes, he was given the top job in 2007 and guided the club back to Ligue 1. He was soon replaced once the club reached the top flight, however, and had to continue his managerial career at Clermont. When Nantes fell back into Ligue 2, they asked Der Zakarian to take charge again.
Having earned promotion in his first season back at the club, Der Zakarian did well to keep the club up for three years. He guided them to a 13th-place finish in the 2013-14 season but a lack of goals was a problem. They scored just 38 goals (the three relegated clubs scored 37 each). Nantes were even less prolific the next season, scoring just 29 goals – the fewest in the league – as they finished 14th. At least Der Zakarian was consistent. Nantes scored just 33 goals in his third campaign in Ligue 1, in 2015-16.
Their position in Ligue 1 was secure, but the club’s cantankerous president Waldemar Kita was uninspired and let Der Zakarian’s contract run down. Kita was so disappointed with the football on show that he supposedly asked the stadium announcer to play music over the Tannoy system to drown out Der Zakarian’s goodbye message to fans.
Der Zakarian took over at newly relegated Reims in the summer of 2016 hoping to pull off another promotion. It appeared to be the right decision for him, but he could only lead the club to seventh in Ligue 2. Again, scoring goals was a problem. Reims scored 16 fewer goals than the club that finished directly above them in the table.
Der Zakarian left the club after one season, taking on the challenge of reviving Montpellier, who had narrowly escaped relegation from Ligue 1 in the 2016-17 season after losing nine of their last 12 games of the campaign. The move seemed to make sense for all concerned. Montpellier needed stability and they are not exactly a club renowned for their prolific strikers. Laurent Blanc, who started out as a midfielder before moving to the centre of defence, is their all-time top scorer with 84 goals.
Playing on the counterattack with three centre-backs, Montpellier have finished in the top half of the table in all three of their seasons under Der Zakarian so far. This campaign promises to be his best. Montpellier are flying high in the Ligue 1 table after three superb home wins over Nice (3-1), Lyon (2-1) and Angers (4-1) in the last week.
His style has evolved. Montpellier enjoyed a standout season in 2018-19, when they finished sixth in Ligue 1, scored an unusually high 53 goals and only missed out on Europe due to surprise cup wins from Strasbourg and Rennes. Much of the groundwork for the team’s current form was laid in that season. The wizened centre-back triumvirate of Pedro Mendes (29), Daniel Congré (35) and Hilton (43, yes 43) are still in place, as are strikers Andy Delort and Gaëtan Laborde, and the unassuming but crucial Damien Le Tallec in midfield.
The wing-backs Arnaud Souquet and Mihailo Ristić arrived at the club last year and their whipped crosses have been crucial in the three wins this week. Their delivery plays to the strength of Montpellier’s aggressive front two, Laborde and Delort, who have formed an unusual partnership. Both put defenders under physical pressure; both gleefully throw themselves at any cross or loose ball; and both run themselves into the ground for their team, allowing Montpellier to play on the counter, or work the ball out wide for crosses. Laborde and Delort understand each other and are willing to make space for each other, which makes them extremely difficult to defend against.
After their three victories in a week, Montpellier are now the top scorers in the league and are just one point behind Rennes and St Etienne at the top of the table. One player in particular has shone in these three games: Téji Savanier. Savanier was outstanding in his first season in Ligue 1 in 2018-19. Even though Nicolas Pépé regularly ransacked defences and Kylian Mbappé scored 33 goals in just 29 appearances, Savanier was the best player in the league that season.
He was playing for a newly promoted Nîmes team that looked destined for relegation, yet somehow guided them to a top-half finish. He set up 13 goals – the most in the league – and scored one of the goals of the season. Savanier played as a protector, creator and dynamo all at once in Bernard Blaquart’s gung-ho 4-4-2 formation thanks to his guile on the ball, his visionary passing from every position and his balletic technical ability.
Savanier has strong roots in Montpellier and still lives with his parents and close family in the dusty suburb of Figuerolles. Montpellier were his first club and he only agreed to move an hour up the road to Arles earlier in his career as his mother agreed to go too. He returned to Montpellier at the start of last season for a club record transfer fee. Injuries held him back but he is now showing his best form again. He scored twice – one of them a nonchalant Panenka penalty – as Montpellier beat Lyon 2-1 and his lethal dead-ball deliveries helped Congré score a brace against Nice. Given his form over the last few seasons, talk of a France call-up this week is criminally overdue. The 28-year-old has plenty to offer Didier Deschamps.
Der Zakarian has never stayed at a club for longer than four seasons but, with Savanier dictating proceedings and his Montpellier team continuing to improve, Michel and Véronique now look set for another long marriage.
• PSG only lost three games in Ligue 1 last season but they approached their game against Metz in midweek having already lost twice. Abdou Diallo was sent off after 65 minutes and it looked as if PSG might be beaten again but Julian Draxler scored the only goal of the game in injury time to secure the three points after a disjointed performance. With Kylian Mbappé restored to the team on Sunday for their game against Nice, they won 3-0. Despite those two victories, the atmosphere around the club seems far from calm. RMC reported this week that Thomas Tuchel may be slowly losing his dressing room. Citing sources within the squad, the radio station claimed that some players were confused by the coach’s use of certain players, frustrated that they “play without tactics,” were fed up with a deference towards the South American contingent and that Tuchel’s only plan is to give the ball to Neymar. After progressing to the Champions League final with Neymar seemingly settled in Paris, a more harmonious season was expected. Tuchel’s sacking is unlikely for now, but pressure is building.
Ligue 1 results
Lyon 0-0 NîmesNice 0-3 PSGBrest 3-2 LorientMetz 2-1 ReimsMontpellier 4-1 AngersStrasbourg 1-0 DijonNantes 2-2 St EtienneMarseille 1-1 LilleLens 2-1 BordeauxRennes 2-1 Monaco
• St Étienne were nearly relegated last season and their finances were heavily affected by the pandemic, so little was expected of Claude Puel’s team this season. Yet they are now top of the league after going undefeated in their first four games. Established stars such as Wahbi Khazri, Ryad Boudebouz, Stéphane Ruffier, Yohan Cabaye and Yann M’Vila have all been exiled or moved on as the club has switched to developing younger players. So far, the new philosophy is working. An impressively mature display in winning 2-0 at the Vélodrome in midweek was followed up by a creditable if frustrating 2-2 draw at Nantes. Adil Aouchiche, the 18-year-old France youth player, scored his first goal for the club on Sunday and has quietly impressed as a creative influence. The bullish and direct Denis Bouanga continues to lead the line expertly. And attacking midfielder Romain Hamouma, one of the few experienced heads in the team, is enjoying perhaps the best form of his career under Puel. Europe – and more big sales to England – may be on the horizon.
Ligue 1 table