After a season filled with optimism, joy and most importantly, satisfaction for fans of Les Rouges et Blancs last campaign, automatic Champions League qualification was secured under Claudio Ranieri.
Despite spending almost £140 million on signings last summer, to say Dmitry Rybolovlev’s cash injection had failed completely after finishing nine points behind eventual champions PSG would be very naïve. To put it into perspective, 2011 the word ‘relegation’ haunted the city of Monaco, 2014 sparked a sense of magic into it.
However, after the shock dismissal of Claudio Ranieri; the departure of Colombian duo Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez; and the seemingly new approach that was being put into effective for the forthcoming season after the Summer of financial turmoil, Monaco’s expectations plummeted, leaving many wondering if the club could replicate their successful 2013/14 campaign.
A largely dismal start to the season didn’t help newly-appointed head coach Leonardo Jardim win over the fans in any way either. Consecutive defeats – which included a 2-1 home defeat to Lorient and a 4-1 humiliation away to Bordeaux – in Jardim’s first two games in charge sparked mass outrage in the French city.
Recently however, thirteen Ligue 1 matches and four Champions League matchdays later, Monaco look slightly more assured under Jardim. A hard-fought draw in the Parc des Princes last month and a profound 1-1 draw away to Saint-Etienne a fortnight ago has lifted some of the seemingly never-ending pressure off of Leonardo Jardim’s shoulders.
Nevertheless, the problems throughout this Monaco side are still as clear as day.
Despite Monaco looking somewhat assured at full-back, with Layvin Kurzawa seemingly growing, maturing and improving as each game goes on, the real problem lies at the heart of defence. Jardim’s preference in the centre of defence since he took over has been the seasoned partnership of Ricardo Carvalho and Andrea Raggi. Both experienced – 36 and 30 years-old respectively – but as a pair look very precarious. The defensive showings earlier in the season further exemplify such.
Moving further up the pitch, and we land upfront. The regular choice under Jardim has, and will likely continue to be once he has returned from injury, Dimitar Berbatov. In spite of Berbatov’s somewhat impressive goal scoring record since he arrived in Monaco, when the Bulgarian is fit, it’s impossible to predict which player will turn up: the charismatic Berba, blessed with immense technique and finishing, or the one that wouldn’t dare to move even if there was a bullet heading towards him.
Jardim also has 18-year-old Anthony Martial at his disposal. Having proved on numerous occasions that he has pace, skill and strength all in abundance, he seems to lack that killer instinct in front of goal, scoring just once in 14 appearances this season.
Whether it will come in time is a debate that can be saved for another day, however Jardim cannot afford to continuously grant the Frenchman chances if he isn’t sticking the ball into the back of the net on a somewhat regular basis.
Additionally, 6ft 8ins Lacina Traore – who arrived in Monaco this past January – is another option for Leonardo Jardim. After being sent straight out on loan to the Premier League upon arrival, it seems that the former-Anzhi attacker will take time to settle into life in Monaco. What will be filling the Monaco hierarchy and fans alike with hope however, is the Ivorian’s consistent goal scoring record in Russia with his time at Anzhi.
Being the size that he is, it’s easy to conclude that Traore is a target-man and nothing else, however the 24-year-old netted 13 times in 29 games before the effects of Anzhi’s financial problems kicked in last year. However, similar to Martial, despite the pretty stat-sheet, the Ivorian must replicate his consistent goal scoring record for Monaco for him to aid their top three charge.
Perhaps the strength of fellow Champions League challenging sides isn’t benefiting Monaco’s surge either. Marseille, who vastly disappointed last season, and had all but given up their chances at finishing in the Champions League spot this time last year.
This year, under the spell of Marcelo Bielsa, they have – most certainly – been the most exciting team in all of France. The appointment of former-Reims boss Hubert Fournier in Lyon has also sparked new life into Les Gones after their disappointing domestic campaign last season.
Nevertheless, when you take a glance at both Marseille and Lyon this season, it’s evident that both coaches have specifically focused on having a solid spine to their XI. Marseille have the safe hands of Steve Mandanda, the defensive capabilities of Nicolas N’Koulou, the physical dominance of Giannelli Imbula in midfield and the goal scoring prowess of Andre-Pierre Gignac spearheading the attack.
Likewise in Lyon, with the steadily improving Anthony Lopes between the sticks, Samuel Umtiti in defence, Maxime Gonalons controlling the midfield and a striker that cannot stop finding the net at the moment, Alexandre Lacazette.
The contrasts between the backbone if those two sides and Monaco’s is phenomenal; to put it simply, a functioning midfield will never bail out a shaky back four and a toothless attack.
With an overachieving manager at the helm in Monaco, the possibilities are endless. The Portuguese boss managed to scrape Sporting Lisbon into the Champions League last season, however if Jardim can’t pull his forwards out of their goalscoring rut, and his side fail to shore up defensively, the possibility of a Europa League finish could be out the window before they know it.