Although they occupy the relegation spots and despite their latest 6-3 loss away to OM, Metz recently showed some signs of life in the race to stay up after a harsh start to the season.
So, should they be able to escape from a relegation that seems already settled, huge credit should go to their manager Frédéric Hantz. When Les Lorrains appointed the former Montpellier boss to replace former coach Philippe Hinschberger, there were few hopes to save a club that had managed to miraculously avoid relegation last season despite having the worst Ligue 1 defence.
This past summer transfer window also left little doubt that Metz would face another troubled campaign. The arrivals were few and there were few hopes they’d have an impact. Julian Palmieri, Nolan Roux, and Emmanuel Rivière had previous Ligue 1 experience that wasn’t great whilst former Valenciennes centre-back Moussa Niakhatéinexperiencedenced.
With forward Cheick Diabaté back to Turkish club Osmanlıspor and with rising star Ismaïla Sarr sold to Rennes for €17, Hinschberger has been left to deal with the unknown approaching this season.
Hinschberger did not last long, and the news he was sacked in late October hardly came as a surprise. His dismissal was welcomed by many supporters as Metz were in the relegation, zone six points from safety, also recording nine defeats from their first 10 league games. A 2-1 home loss to Dijon proved to be fatal for Hinschberger with the club replacing him with Hantz.
The new manager achieved some success during his coaching career (notably at Bastia) but Hantz was sacked at Montpellier, where he was highly criticised for play attacking football with no worries about defending.
It took some time for Hantz to put his stamp on Metz – their first win with the new manager in charge coming just in December – but his approach worked as the Lorraine club earned 13 points in their last seven matches, being seven points away from the relegation play-off spot. January, loss to OM aside, was marked with an honorable defeat at Monaco (3-1) but also from positive results such as a draw in Dijon (1-1) and two wins against Saint-Etienne (3-0) and Nice (2-1).
The pass map taken from @11tegen highlights Metz’s alignment against Nice, a match Hantz’s side won despite an expected goals rate of just 0.67 against 1.63.
Metz are still last in League 1, but they would be fifteenth counting since Hantz took the job. During this span, Metz recorded four wins, three draws and six losses. Their defence was still a mess conceding 26 goals with an expected goals against (xGA) rate of 24.10 (worst in the league). That said, Metz’s board of directions is pleased with the team’s improvements under Hantz as the new coach installed organisation and toughness into his team, building a side now ready to do everything to reach the final goal to avoid relegation.
But their offense improved a lot with 18 goals scored: it was the sixth best Ligue 1 performance from Hantz’s arrival. The xG of Metz are currently set at 23.81, better than six other Ligue 1 sides. It marks the work Hantz did over there. The new manager put faith in his players’ versatility, building a strong midfield from which to weaponize the attack.
With Moussa Niakhaté and Roux anchoring the back four, Hantz granted Julian Palmieri freedom to push high up the field, providing width and dept on the flank. At the same time, January signing Danjiel Milicevic offered creativity in the middle with the former Gent man displaying some good performances in the opposite third of the pitch while Georges Mandjeck added a strong defensive presence at his back playing as no.6 in front of the backline.
And Mandjeck’s come back on loan from Czech Republic’s Sparta Praha has been pivotal for a midfield that lost experienced Cheick Doukouré during the summer. Mandjeck left Metz for Czech Republic this summer but he made only 13 appearances during his time at Sparta Praha. So, Metz called him back for a six-month loan and the move worked. In fact, the 29-year-old Cameroonian registered 2.5 tackles and 1.8 interceptions per game so far to help a still struggling backline.
On the right flank, Hantz deployed another offensive threat in Florent Mollet who took the edge from playing ahead of Jonathan Rivierez, the right-back usually staying narrow in the way to maintain some defensive compactness and stability at the back. With Mollet more involved, Metz’s offense became less predictable and the team looked more able to connect with Rivière up top.
Metz’s loss against OM didn’t prevent Mollet from showing his technical skills.
As aforementioned, Hantz was criticized for adopting an unbalanced style at Montpelleir. But this approach could work at Metz with his side having nothing to lose being forced to play offensively, in order to accumulate as many wins as possible to close the gap with the clubs that precede them in the league table. So, the Lorrains remain a threat on the counterattack but their manager stressed the importance to improve with the ball at their feet, although Metz’s average ball possession remains low (46.1%) and their passing accuracy is still modest (77.3%).
At the end, we don’t know if Metz will be relegated but Hantz’s offensive approach seems to be the one needed to provide the team with another improbable chance to stay up at the end of this season.