Montpellier – Managerial Merry-Go-Round, and Courbis, the Return
Here we go again. Back in April, Montpellier announced that Rene Girard was leaving, and Jean Fernandez would replace him. As noted at the time, Fernandez has some form as a second-half-of-the-season recovery artist, but that can be risky if a club hierarchy would prefer not to be deep in trouble at Christmas. With 15 points after 16 games, only two wins, and ten red cards (league and Coupe de la Ligue – which they are out of), Montpellier are 17th in the table and dead last in the fair play standings, and a 2-0 home defeat to Lorient, then only one place above them, was the last straw. Fernandez is gone, and Pascal Baills, who has held a variety of coaching roles at the club since he retired as a player in 2000, will take the reins for the away game in Toulouse this Sunday, but they have already found a replacement: Rolland Courbis, previously manager at Mosson from May 2007 to June 2009, first staving off relegation from Ligue 2 in the last four games of 2006/07, then winning promotion back to Ligue 1 in 2008/09.
Why now? Well, there were fears at the outset that Fernandez would set Montpellier up defensively, but a surprisingly positive performance against PSG in the opening game of the season initially seemed to allay these. A 4-1 hammering away at Monaco followed, but given the stars on show for ASM, the result was seen as perhaps not too problematic. They beat Sochaux, cutting it a little fine with an injury-time winner from Siaka Tiene, but that was OK… then came the draws, and the reality of the énorme erreur de casting. Five in a row, and while a point away to Nice, who were opening their new stadium and giving their eagle a spin, was one thing, the others with whom they shared the points were Reims, Evian, Rennes and Ajaccio. Nerves started to jangle. Then, a totally unexpected 5-1 victory over a full-tailspin Lyon – a bizarre game, seemingly a competition between the teams to see who could control the ball worst. As if to underline that that was a really unusual result, Montpellier proceeded to lose three on the spin, including getting knocked out of the Coupe de la Ligue by Sochaux, scrambled another couple of draws, and then lost away at Marseille (bearable) and at home to Lorient (less so). As bilans go, well… not bon.
So, what’s gone wrong? They are struggling to score (17 so far) as the striker conundrum of last season does not seem to have been solved, despite the return of Victor Hugo Montano (4), shipping out Gaetan Charbonnier who is now not playing much for Reims either, and apparently hiding Emmanuel Herrera in a cupboard. Top scorer, and also best player, is Remy Cabella with six. He was rumoured to be off last summer, but was persuaded to stay, apparently with clearance to leave at the end of the season – if he was to go in January, or get injured, that would be a body blow for the club. Also, they can’t defend set pieces, 6 of the 22 goals conceded coming from corners and free-kicks, 27% of the total versus a league average of 18%, and three penalties, the icing on the disciplinary issues cake – they’ve finished only half their games with a full complement on the pitch. The arrival of Morgan Sanson has been a bright spot, Cabella has been consistently impressive and Benjamin Stambouli a rock, but the shakiness of the defence is not helped by the need for constant red-card-induced rotation. Courbis will presumably cancel Christmas for extra training sessions.
Worryingly, Louis Nicollin has been giving a lot of interviews about the situation – obviously the fans need to be kept informed of what’s going on but LouLou has a history of not helping with his interjections – most recently implying that the decision is in the hands of the fans (and therefore that it will be their fault if it doesn’t work out?). But this morning, he announced his choice – the other names being bandied around included Frederic Antonetti, although not Diego Maradona this time – but Courbis is back.
Courbis’ history is a colourful one, including (according to that link – it’s a strange list) being banned from French casinos for allegedly cheating at cards (1990-96), spending time in prison (1990/1) for taking bungs when manager of SC Toulon, being hit by a ricochet during the assassination of FC Calvi president Dominique Rutily (1996), and seeing betting suspended on the match against Ajaccio on the last day of the 2006/07 season that saw Montpellier avoid relegation from Ligue 2 with Ajaccio already safe. Around all that he has coached twelve different clubs and the national team of Niger (eliminated in the group stage of CAN 2012), including lasting only two games at FC Sion, and more recently leading USM Alger to a fifth-place league finish and double of the Algerian Cup and UAFA Club Cup (formerly the Arab Champions League) in the 2012/13 season.
His new challenge is clear. Montpellier are only five points above the drop zone, and with the three teams beneath them already having changed manager, one can expect a change in fortunes for at least one of Valenciennes, Ajaccio, or Sochaux at some point. Having let Lorient pull away from them, La Paillade need to get themselves back up with the mid-table amblers, starting at Toulouse (14th, on 20 points, but with the same goal stats) on Sunday. After that it’s at home to Saint-Etienne, and away to Bastia, in the run-up to the trêve – and then Monaco as the opener for 2014. Something needs to happen quickly, or that festive chiming sound over Mosson won’t be Jingle Bells but the jangling of nerves getting ever louder.