Le50 2017 – Ellyes Skhiri
It was another inconsistent and frustrating season for Montpellier, who finished in fifteenth, only reaching safety on the penultimate day. There were unexpected big home wins (Marseille, PSG, Bordeaux) – and some rather larger defeats (Lyon – twice, Monaco, Marseille, Bordeaux). They lost both manager and key playmaker in January, faffed around formationally, and lost their last five matches. It takes a certain phlegmatic character to deal with this sort of thing, and defensive midfielder Ellyes Skhiri has a calmness unusual in one so young.
He’s needed it. His first game for Montpellier, after a fleeting substitute appearance, was to cover for one of their frequent staffing calamities. With Vitorino Hilton and Daniel Congré both unavailable, Skhiri was called upon to make his senior debut out of position, partnering Abdelhamid El-Kaoutari in central defence, away at Lens in May 2015. Not only did he acquit himself well defensively speaking, he also put in the assist for Anthony Mounier’s winner.
His next appearance was similarly enforced, playing at least theoretically on the right wing against Lille in October 2015, but then had to wait patiently until the new year for a couple of substitute appearances and the chance to make his mark. He grasped that with both hands – scoring when given 12 minutes against Lille in the return fixture, and then finally earning a start in his preferred position away at the Parc des Princes, the anchor of a defensively-minded midfield that was key to a valuable point as the champions were held at home to a goalless draw. After that, he was a regular, including in a run of four straight wins approaching the end of the season, key in a creditable twelfth-place finish.
This season he has established himself firmly in the team, being the most-used player by some distance. He is still filling in at centre-back if needed, but mostly providing a shield in front of the defence, with a keen eye for an interception, and efficiency in the air. With 102 interceptions over the season – the most in Ligue 1 – one can only shudder at how bad things could have been for Montpellier without him. Interviewed about this aspect of his game earlier in the season, he confirmed that he sees himself as a number 6, ‘un vrai récupérateur’, and that key to success in this area is reading the game and anticipation.
Despite admitting to some ‘timidity’ at the start of this season, as he took on new responsibility with the departure of Jonas Martin and Bryan Dabo, it didn’t show. Throughout this season he has established himself so firmly that as Montpellier reached May, still not safe and with Hilton absent, the armband was handed to Skhiri three days before his 22nd birthday. The local lad, formed at the club, dealt with that with common sense and maturity, saying simply “le travail paie toujours”.