In recent seasons, watching any side apart from Paris Saint-Germain top the Ligue 1 charts has been a rarity. The Parisien moneybags have assumed the form of being a force to be reckoned with and their financial muscle has complemented them in becoming one of the most feared footballing entities in the world. Although their European accomplishments haven’t matched their financial clout, their dominance in French football isn’t something to be taken granted.
Generally speaking though, whatever goes up must come down and PSG’s fall from grace this season isn’t much of a surprise. But their sudden plunge has been overshadowed by the rise of another force, lurking in the shadows during the Parisiens’ successful times. And Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco have proved that it’s not impossible to shatter the hegemony of the dominant forces in the game.
Currently perched at the top of the league, Monaco have earned a knack for blowing fellow French oppositions away. Despite this week’s 5-3 defeat at the Eithad Stadium to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Monaco still are the most free-scoring side in the Europe. And this change hasn’t come about all of a sudden – a lot of progress was happening when no one was paying attention to the club from the principality.
The most surprising part of the success that Jardim has achieved is that the side is devoid of superstars. While a reinvigorated Radamel Falcao has been vital, the Colombian’s loss in form during disappointing stints at Manchester United and Chelsea had resulted in him falling way down the pecking order of the best strikers in the world. As for ‘the rest’, Monaco’s feat has been a product smart acquisitions and the investment in youth.
The sale of the club to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev back in 2011 brought with it a promise of spending big on players who could well have handed Monaco the title. It was under Rybolovlev ownership that Claudio Ranieri guided the club to promotion in a season that saw Monaco score 64 goals in the 2012-13 Ligue 2 campaign. The promise of spending big was fulfilled before their comeback to the first division kicked-off when Monaco spent a colossal and a club-record £50 million fee on Falcao and a further £38 million on acquiring James Rodriguez from Porto. In total, Les Monégasques spent around £150 million during that transfer window, making them one of the biggest spenders in Europe that year.
Despite spending buckets of money on players of recognisable quality, Monaco failed to claim the much-dreamed about title – PSG finished at the top of the pile by a big nine point margin. This did play a rather small role in teaching the club a lesson about how to go about things, but it was the third-placed finish in the 2014-15 season proved that a change in approach was badly needed.
The transfer budget was cut-down and a limit was placed on the amount of money Jardim would be allowed to spend on player-acquisition from then on. It was during this time that Radamel Falcao was loaned out to Manchester United and Rodriguez was offloaded to Real Madrid for a £68 million fee.
Many believed that both of these moves would signal the end of Monaco’s time around the top four of Ligue 1, but Jardim’s quality utilisation of resources at his disposal made sure that Monaco hung around close to the top of the table. While the transition from a big-spending outfit to a side that places a massive amount of emphasis on youth is always tough, Jardim has made sure that there’s an effortlessness about how this process has come about at Stade Louis II.
At the time the appointment of Jardim was met with criticism – the former Sporting Lisbon boss clearly wasn’t close to being a manager from the ‘top-drawer’ of football. Nor was he known for managing clubs as ambitious as Monaco, but Rybolovlev knew exactly what he getting. His decision to bring in Jardim was tied to his previously decisive commitment to spend less on players and make the manager work under a tight budget, which was something that Jardim had previously done at Sporting and Olympiacos.
Initial performances did nothing to assuage the supporters’ discontent. Despite two consecutive finishes in the Champions League positions, there were accusations of the Monaco boss being too pragmatic in their approach to playing, emphasizing on defending more than attacking. This season though, all of this underwent a massive change.
The average age of the current side is just 24. It isn’t the youngest side in League 1 – Pascal Dupraz’s Toulouse side has an average age of 22.2 – but Jardim has made very effective usage of the side that he has at his disposal.
Many of the players in the side have come of age only this season. Be it the pocket-rocket Bernardo Silva, Thomas Lemar or Tiemoue Bakayoko, many of Jardim’s players have begun to perform to the best of their potential after spending a good amount of time at the club and learning their manager’s philosophy.
The focus of freedom and room for expression for their best players has become a key aspect of Monaco’s play. The 4-4-2 formation allows the likes of Bernardo Silva, Thomas Lemar, Germain and Falcao a lot of space to work about around the goal. After both the strikers had come back from contrasting loan-spells, Jardim took the decision of retaining two recognised goal-scorers. The attack-minded Djibril Sidibe was roped in from Lille, allowing Fabinho to slot into the centre-midfield alongside another unknown commodity – Tiemoue Bakayoko.
The presence of Bakayoko and Fabinho in the heart of the park allows Monaco to have ball-winning, hard-tackling players in a crucial area of the park. The capture of the experienced and reliable Kamil Glik from Torino, where he had often donned the captain’s armband, strengthened a defense that hadn’t exactly managed to get to grips with the departure of Aymen Abdennour to Valencia in 2015.
This tactical re-fit is all the more impressive given that it transpired after a mini-exodus that had left the club reeling. Along with Abdennour’s exit to the Mestalla, Anthony Martial trotted off to Manchester United, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco was signed by Champions League finalists Atletico Madrid, Geoffrey Kondogbia was snapped up by Inter and Layvin Kurzawa was signed by PSG.
The directness and verticality in Monaco’s play has been the cause for devastation. Les Monégasques have scored 13 more goals in the league than Barcelona, 20 more goals than Real Madrid, 22 more times than both Arsenal and Liverpool and 30 more times than Bundesliga’s table-toppers Bayern Munich. While, it does seem strange how a team of relative ‘unknowns’ has outscored the giants of the game, very few had made the effort of sitting up and taking notice. And now that the effects of the process are being seen, the flamboyance of this exceptional host of the players is surprising many across the globe.