FEATURE | European Player of the Season, 10th: Téji Savanier

This article is part of Get Football’s European Player and Coach of the Season series, as we countdown our ranked top 12 in both categories to name the winners ahead of the Champions League final at the end of the month. Read every profile and see the full ranking right here.

He’d only been missing for three games. But, after a 3-1 loss to Saint-Etienne, Montpellier supporters were getting desperate. Ahead of the February trip to Lille, quoting Luke Skywalker, fan site Allez Paillade published an article teasing talisman Téji Savanier’s return from suspension complete with a mock Star Wars movie poster featuring Savanier in full Jedi regalia, holding a lightsabre. Both snarling warrior and distinguished virtuoso, Savanier has become the heart and soul of his hometown club. Things would be very different without him.

Still living with his extended family in the dusty Montpellier suburb of Gély, where a huge wall-side mural has been painted in his honour, Savanier has never moved far from home. Spells at Nîmes and Arles-Avignon were conditioned by neither being more than an hour’s drive away. Montpellier, however, despite failing to transition from academy to the first team, has always been Savanier’s home, as the player told Mohamed Bouhafsi in April: “My dream was to play at La Mosson, to wear the Montpellier jersey and play in front of my family. AC Milan offered me a lot more money but if I went there and I wasn’t happy, what would’ve been the point?… My agent told me I was crazy!”

Savanier’s keenness to stay put, despite such offers, draws parallels to former Southampton striker Matt Le Tissier. Both are lauded for their loyalty as fans of their clubs but Savanier, like Le Tissier, could yet end his career with a sense of disappointment if such mammoth potential and quality is never truly fulfilled as he continues to refuse chances to play at a higher standard.

However, as Savanier told L’Équipe in October, that sense of family and loyalty encompasses his club too. “When I called [Montpellier president Laurent Nicollin], he told me that he couldn’t stop me from playing in the [2021 Tokyo] Olympic Games, that it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That’s why I say that Montpellier is a family. The president sees us as his children.”

Even so, with Lyon and an ambitious Nice reported as interested over the last year, this summer could yet see Savanier do what Le Tissier didn’t and leave home. With just a year left on his contract, Savanier is considering his options despite “the club making an insane offer, which has never been made to another player,” according to local journalist Bertrand Queneutte. At 30, as a late developer and given his style doesn’t rely on pace, Savanier still has several years at his best which, based on his ability, could be spent at the top end of any of Europe’s top five leagues.

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Long-championed for a full international call-up, Savanier has much to offer Les Bleus in that time too. For all the quality in Didier Deschamps’ squad, France lack a true number ten – especially one like Savanier. With Antoine Griezmann struggling for from and Paul Pogba routinely injured, creativity could become an issue ahead of the World Cup and Savanier would be the perfect secret weapon. He admits the World Cup remains a target, saying: it’s “been a dream since I was little.”

Despite lacking the dynamism of Ligue 1’s competing leading all-around midfielders, Savanier excels as equal parts creator, dictator and destroyer. Having helped Nîmes to a ninth-place finish upon promotion to Ligue 1 for the 18/19 campaign (they slumped to 18th without him the following season) Savanier sat deep in midfield as part of a 4-4-2, playmaking and scraping alongside Jordan Ferri. At Montpellier, he’s played both the midfield instigator and outright number 10, proving equally adept at all three roles and often blurring the lines between them.

Fiendishly accurate from set-pieces, contributing 14 Ligue 1 assists at Nîmes – many from dead balls, Marseille’s Dimitri Payet suggested to La Provence that Savanier’s free-kick prowess makes the Montpellier captain the natural successor to Lyon’s noughties free-kick maestro Juninho. “He has a quality of strike and a foot that doesn’t exist elsewhere in Ligue 1,” Payet explained. “He’s way ahead of the others. He has a different way of hitting the ball.” No one has scored more than Savanier’s three direct free-kicks in Ligue 1 this season.

In open play, meanwhile, Savanier’s vision and deliveries in providing either the first or the last pass in a move are often effortlessly exquisite. Despite not being the quickest, Savanier’s slight of foot makes him a tricky dribbler too, aided by his stocky, sturdy physique. Only Mbappé and Sofiane Boufal have beaten more defenders in Ligue 1 this season while no one has drawn more fouls than Savanier’s 92, according to FBRef. There are few more joyous sights in European football than Savanier wriggling away from pressure on all sides before arrowing a pinpoint cross-field ball to create a chance.

There’s a romanticism that surrounds Savanier, as if he was born three decades too late and belongs in Serie A in the nineties. Francesco Totti, Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero are his true ideological and stylistic peers, rather than Kylian Mbappé, Payet and Neymar while comparisons to another Juventus great of the period are common. As France Olympic colleague André-Pierre Gignac explained: “Honestly, no lie, he’s like Zizou. It’s crazy, left foot, right foot…” Montpellier coach Olivier Dall’Oglio, meanwhile, bemoaned having to play without Savanier earlier this season, saying: “It’s like the France team when they played without Zidane. There are still good players, but it’s no longer the same style.”

Despite such quality, Savanier’s highest level has drifted in and out a little at Montpellier, often due to playing facilitator to strikers Andy Delort and Gaëtan Laborde last season. However, in carrying a depleted team on his shoulders, this season has been Savanier’s best yet. Although he’s faded in the last few months as Montpellier realised mid-table nothingness was their lot for the year, from August to March Savanier challenged, and arguably surpassed, Lens’ Seko Fofana and Mbappé to be Ligue 1’s standout player.

Regardless of Montpellier’s descent into the bottom half, which has brought just one win and three draws in their last 12 games, on top of the aforementioned dribbling metrics, Savanier still makes Ligue 1’s top ten for shots on target (8th), crosses (7th), through balls (10th) and shot-creating actions (8th) for 21/22, according to FBRef. Without him, relegation would’ve been a genuine concern and, with Ligue 1 being cut to 18 teams, Montpellier will be hoping their footballing Jedi doesn’t leave to chase his destiny any time soon.

Adam White

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