Leicester City Following in Montpellier’s Footsteps Despite Arsenal Defeat

Stambouli Montpellier-Lille

Leicester City suffered a slight wobble in their fairytale Premier League campaign, losing 2-1 to Arsenal at the weekend. They are still top of the table, but now only two points clear of Spurs and Arsenal. During their run, parallels have been drawn with Montpellier’s title win in the 2011/12 season; there are similarities between the two underdogs’ unexpected success, but also some interesting differences. And some tips, from someone who still can’t quite believe that happened nearly four years later, on how to weather the end of the season. From a personal perspective I’d recommend getting in a decent supply of chocolate biscuits and wine, but each to their own.

So.

Try to have the top-scorer in the league. Check – Jamie Vardy has 19 so far, with three assists. For Montpellier, Olivier Giroud’s 21 goals won him the golden boot, because he had fewer penalties on his scoresheet than Nene, who also had 21. Had the tiebreaker been assists, however, the PSG man would have taken it with eleven, against Giroud’s still very creditable nine, also making him Montpellier’s top performer in that area.

Giroud is maybe mostly considered a target man, whereas when his scoring run started to jitter for Montpellier, he was still able to contribute significantly – see particularly the cross for John Utaka to get the second in the draw away against PSG at the Parc des Princes, and the assist for Karim Ait-Fana’s winner against Lille in the key penultimate match.

The back-up team to Montpellier’s top-scorer was also slightly differently balanced to Leicester’s: second-top-scorer for the club was mercurial midfield talent Younes Belhanda (more on him later) with 12 goals but only four assists, while Riyad Mahrez is pairing 14 goals with ten assists. This is maybe more similar to Eden Hazard’s swansong performance for Lille in Ligue 1 when he got 20 goals, and topped the assists table with 15 – they finished third.

On the defensive side, Leicester have turned themselves into an admirably stingy opponent but it took 10 games for the Foxes to get their first clean sheet, by which time they had conceded 17, as opposed to just 12 since. This change in focus has supported their top-of-the-table status in the scoring charts, level with Manchester City on 48; their scoring form made up for some early defensive lapses. Conversely, Montpellier came third on goals behind PSG and Lille, but the solid Pailladin defence ended the year joint-best with Toulouse on 34 conceded. A slightly different balance, but the key thing was that it was balanced in that title-winning season.

That balance also meant that Montpellier could weather being outdone on the conversion front (all shots) by PSG, Evian (more on them later), LOSC and OL, while Leicester are the most efficient attacking team in the league. Montpellier were one of the most obviously enthusiastic teams to come across, shooting more than anyone else and getting more on target, and with the third-highest shots ratio (behind OM and LOSC). Leicester’s counter-attacking style understandably makes a difference here; with less than 45% possession they are midtable for shots taken, but rely on getting into better positions and being more clinical.

Then there’s the money – the two clubs are not to the scale of the financial heavyweights in their respective leagues; notable also that both are benefitting from one traditional big hitter being in some bother (Marseille finished 10th that season; Chelsea have had their problems). However, while Leicester have more money in absolute terms than Montpellier had, even allowing for inflation over time, it can fairly be said that the teams with massively higher budgets in the Premier League this season have had the cash available for a while; Montpellier were facing a newly-monied PSG who hadn’t yet had the chance to go full Mammon. Leicester’s financial challenge now is arguably bigger than Montpellier’s was then.

Home form was another key for Montpellier, who lasted the season with only one home defeat, beaten 3-0 by PSG in game 8, which saw the Parisiens take top spot in the table. MHSC took 50 points of their 82 at home, topping the domicile table, while coming a decent third exterieur. Their away defeats were a mixed bag of the understandable (at Lyon in game 4), a pre-Christmas dip with one point from the last three games of 2011, and some jitters later on trips to Nancy and Lorient. Leicester have also only lost once at home, to Arsenal, but Manchester City are currently leading the home form table, where Leicester are fourth. However, they are top for away points, with only two losses, to Liverpool and Arsenal. So again, slightly different, with Leicester showing the value of not being intimidated when rocking up wherever.

On that – it’s a good thing if your rivals are suffering from managerial-discontent-and-rumour knack. After PSG took top-spot back from Montpellier around that pre-Christmas dip, manager Antoine Kombouare left by mutual consent, the club seeking bigger and better things. So, given the managerial to-ings, fro-ings and general bad feeling at some other clubs, while Claudio Ranieri is making cheerful quips in press conferences, that also seems to be a check in the Leicester column…

Also – ‘the pressure’. Montpellier’s chances of holding on for the title were not given much credence until quite late in the season, allowing them to keep playing with the pressure off – when they did start to be taken seriously there were some jitters. Despite the Arsenal result, Ranieri is handling this side of things like the complete pro that he is; all teams will have the odd set-back or dull game. The key thing to do is not panic, which might be easier said than done, particular given the frantic media focus surrounding the Premier League.

One tip would be to try to keep eleven men on the pitch. It may seem obvious but it does really help. Montpellier had a disciplinary nightmare in 2013/14 but the title season also had some moments. For example, getting sent off twice when you’re an attacking midfielder is a bit feisty, even for Ligue 1. Belhanda was the MHSC playmaker and a superb talent, but had a fairly hair-trigger; sent off against Lyon and then again in the home match against Evian in game 35 where it looked like the pressure was finally starting to tell. Montpellier getting two red cards twice in a season needs to be put in perspective; the other red against Evian was for Gregory Lacombe on the bench. But the late-doors punch-up in that match and subsequent missed penalty raised the blood pressure most for the MHSC fans.

Belhanda 3

Going into the Arsenal game, Leicester had yet to have a man sent off – the second yellow for Danny Simpson had serious knock-on effects, as Mahrez then Shinji Okazaki were taken off to try to rebalance the side. Riyad Mahrez looks to have a more measured attitude to being the key player in midfield – not reacting to Coquelin’s baiting as he was substituted, for example – which is a positive.

Around the same time in the campaign, Montpellier lost 1-0 away at Nancy where both Vitorino Hilton and substitute Benjamin Stambouli were sent off, which complicated things slightly. So basically, try not to do that, although Robert Huth looks nailed on for one at some point. In direct parallel terms, Leicester’s game 35 will be at home against Swansea, which doesn’t seem very likely to end in a mass brawl and a key player being banned for the run-in, so all to the good.

If you are going into the last home game of the season needing a win, a) invest in some flags for the faithful (I still have mine – and me (Ed.)) and b) try not to leave it to the last minute. The but dans l’histoire is a great watch now but was maybe the tensest I’ve ever been. Lille had the chance to stay in touching distance if they had won – hence pushing everyone up for a set-piece in injury time and leaving Giroud hovering just inside the halfway line. Everton will be the opponents in game 37 for Leicester, and if they sort out that defence between now and then, could well have something, if not the title, to play for. So be vigilant. Score early. And have flags.

MHSC Flags

Finally, if your final day opponents could not be staging a furious protest against the club hierarchy, again, that would be helpful. Leicester’s last game of the season is away at Chelsea so… moving back to 2011/12. The last two rounds in France are played as multiplexes, but that concept falls down a little if a match runs long because the referee takes the players off multiple times to ensure their safety. While Geoffrey Jourdren and his defence patiently tidied a variety of fruit, veg, tennis balls and toilet paper out of the area in the game away at already-relegated Auxerre, the riot squad slightly less patiently tidied the home fans out of the stand behind the goal. Meanwhile the PSG players were crowded around a TV screen in Lorient waiting to see what was going to happen. John Utaka happened – twice.

Maybe the most surprising thing about 2011/12 isn’t that Montpellier won or PSG came second but that champions Lille didn’t retain the title. They seemed to have everything; enthusiasm and efficiency in attack and defence, Eden Hazard… but they lost 1-0 twice to the eventual champions, and those were the matches that mattered.

All of the above may be irrelevant if Leicester don’t win. But it’s important to return to the parallel coverage of Montpellier’s run to the title – “they’ve started well, but they’ll drop off by October… by Christmas… after the restart… by Easter… oh bloody hell”.

Whatever happens, it’s been a great run. And magic can still happen. Go you Foxes.

Jonno MHSC Champions

Player stats for Montpellier in 2011/12 taken from the LFP, for Leicester this season from WhoScored; game-level shots stats etc from Football-Data.co.uk. Photos from Mel Constantinou and Jonathan Gardiner

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