There was little expected of Montpellier at the beginning of the season, but the Stade de la Mosson side have unexpectedly pushed their way into European contention as the halfway mark of the season approaches.
That they find themselves among such lofty company is largely thanks to their defence, which has been the best in Ligue 1 this season. Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco and Nice – last season’s top three – have all failed to beat Montpellier.
With only eight goals conceded from 14 fixtures, it is among the sturdiest in Europe’s top leagues. Indeed, they are the only team to keep a clean sheet against free-scoring PSG this season.
And youngster Nordi Mukiele is establishing himself as a leading figure in this rock-solid rearguard.
The 20-year-old was signed from struggling Ligue 2 side Laval in January 2017 for around €1.5 million and wasted no time in impressing. Indeed, by the end of the season, Manchester City were sending scouts to monitor his progress.
He made his senior debut in the second flight back in 2015, when he was only 17, and has already made more than 60 league appearances, including 30 over the course of this calendar year to date.
An athletic youngster who reads the game well, he is capable of playing across the back line but started out primarily playing on the right. Although he has been used centrally at times by head coach Michel Der Zakarian, his fitness has been one of the aspects that have allowed Montpellier to shape into a 5-3-2 formation that has stifled Ligue 1’s best.
Mukiele is not simply a young man who is content to defend his station, he offers the attributes one would expect of a modern full-back, with a willingness to attack and, crucially, quality when he gets into good areas. His right foot is his most noted weapon and he already has one assist to his credit this term.
The pragmatic Der Zakarian, however, wants his wing-backs to be primarily defensive and that is the role that Pairs-born Mukiele has undertaken.
He was added to Montpellier’s ranks with an eye on his development as a centre-back. “Hilton cannot go on forever,” the late owner of MHSC Louis Nicollin grumbled prior to the addition of the youngster, referring to his redoubtable club captain, who is now the other side of 40.
Nevertheless, with the right-back spot in the national team still seen as up for grabs – in the long-term, at least – that has become something of a target.
“Sometimes I think about it,” he admitted to MadeInFoot.com. “You have to have goals, even difficult ones. I ask myself: ‘Why not me?’ But I’m still far from it.
“I came through the academy in the middle of the defence then played a whole season on the right in Ligue 2, and I’ve adapted to that position. I don’t have a preference because I can play both positions, regardless of the system.”
His versatility is quite remarkable, though has perhaps come from a rather nomadic life on the football field. When he was younger, he admits he was played all over the field, aside from centre forward – “I’ve never been a great scorer,” he concedes.
Nevertheless, it is defenders that he holds in the highest esteem, most notably Chelsea legend John Terry and Real Madrid stalwart Sergio Ramos.
If there is one aspect of his game that needs polishing, however, it is his concentration, which is a vital attribute to becoming a top-class centre-back. Der Zakarian has broadly criticised that failing of his whole squad at moments this season.
“Even if that criticism wasn’t for me, I treated it as if it was,” Mukiele said. “We all have flaws, that’s how it is. It’s up to me to erase them. I was on the bench for a while and it made me think and work a little more.”
Mukiele’s efforts are paying off. He is part of the sternest defence in France and his stock is rapidly rising. A year in the top flight has seen his game come on leaps and bounds, and with his mature attitude and willingness to grow, he can legitimately hope to become the national team’s long-term solution at right-back.