Last season’s title win for Montpellier was unexpected to say the least. The unfancied outfit from the south pipped big-spending Paris Saint-Germain to the Ligue 1 title by two points despite having finished the previous season in 14th place.
Rene Girard’s largely unchanged squad enjoyed a meteoric rise that showcased some star talent en route to the title, fast-forward eight months though and la Paillade are struggling in ninth place—much to the disappointment of charismatic chairman Louis Nicollin.
What has gone wrong then? How is the Montpellier squad, which includes the majority of last season’s key players and a couple of intelligent additions, struggling to mount a defence of their title?
Crucially, one of the few players that they did lose from last season’s title-winning squad was 21-goal, joint Ligue 1 top scorer Olivier Giroud who departed for Arsenal. The 26-year-old’s goals were a key part of Montpellier’s title success, and the fact that he was playing lower league football less than two years before the triumph make the feat all the more heroic.
Giroud’s departure has meant a change in style for Girard’s men given how prominent he was in last season’s side, both in the build-up and in clinically taking chances. Whilst nobody would debate that he deserved to test himself at a higher level with Arsenal, replacements Emanuel Herrera and Gaetan Charbonnier have failed to adequately fill his boots.
Perhaps a less important factor, but a substantial loss all the same, was Geoffrey Dernis’ transfer to Brest. Dernis’ creativity in the midfield should not be overlooked. The 32-year old contributed five goals and one assist in 20 appearances on the way to the title win and his role as one of Giroud’s main supporting cast meant that MHSC could rely on him to step up on the rare occasion the French international failed to hit the target.
The remaining key players’ losses of form have also played a big part. Influential captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and in particular last season’s most impressive player after Giroud, Younes Belhanda, have looked a shadow of the players that they were last season.
Defenders Garry Bocaly and Henri Bedimo are nowhere near their previous form, and centre-back Hilton’s age has begun to tell. Homegrown goalkeeper Geoffrey Jourdren and Nigerian striker John Utaka have also struggled to replicate their previous consistency. New additions Daniel Congre and Anthony Mounier have also failed to live up to expectations, with the former dogged by poor form and the latter by injury.
The added expectation on the players’ shoulders hasn’t helped.
Also, a maiden Champions League campaign put pressure on a squad that was ill-equipped to handle such responsibility. Montpellier made the most of their ability to pull together as a team and get results in Ligue 1; you can’t expect to do the same in continental competition up against teams that can spend vast amounts of money.
Finances are another factor, though. Whether in Europe or domestically, very rich sides now confront MHSC given PSG’s presence within France. It was impossible to recreate the same form that the side showed last year because replacing a player of the quality of Giroud is an expensive task. Looking for players of similar quality but better value just is not possible now.
Crucially, above all of this, the title win was a one-off and totally unexpected. Montpellier were probably expected to fight against relegation, not challenge for the title and win. Their victory was a product of a good early run of form maintained throughout the season with unerring consistency, nobody should have expected them to repeat it or to even come close, with or without Giroud.
This season’s current disappointment does not mean that there has not been progress,though. Remy Cabella has come into his own and looks a genuine superstar in the making, and under-performing stars such as Belhanda and Utaka are now being shipped out as Girard and Nicollin seek to rebuild the club.
Despite the unexpected success, the legacy of that title win will live on for years to come, and the youngsters who were around that squad such as Cabella and Benjamin Stambouli will now harbour aspirations of recreating those heady days.