Ligue 1 title contenders AS Monaco have undergone a startling transformation this term.
In his first two seasons in charge of Les Rouges et Blancs, manager Leonardo Jardim was often criticised for the conservative and defensive manner in which his side played.
Now, with less than half of the French season to go, Monaco are being talked about as one of the most exciting football teams on the continent.
Jardim will be quietly pleased to see the critics eat their words. But the metamorphosis he has overseen should not be seen as a deliberate effort to strike back. For the Portuguese, the development of his side is part of a carefully planned process.
That Monaco were conservative was down to his belief that his squad was not ready to play the kind of open and expansive football some demanded.
That they are now the top scorers by a distance in Europe’s big leagues and heavily involved in the Ligue 1 title race is a testament to how he has rebuilt and reshaped Monaco since taking the reins.
When Valere Germain rounded off the scoring in Monaco’s 4-0 demolition of Lorient on Sunday, he was notching the club’s 64th league goal in their 21 Ligue 1 games to date!
Only Liverpool and Barcelona come anywhere close – the Reds managing with 51 goals from their 22 fixtures, while the Catalans have scored the same amount in 19.
Doubtless, Monaco fans will be pleased with the international comparisons. But the most important comparisons for Jardim will be domestic.
Critically, as of last Sunday, his side had scored 23 more goals than champions PSG, who despite Nice’s fine season, must remain the biggest threat to Monaco’s hopes of securing a first league title since the year 2000.
Monaco’s evolution reflects well on the skills of the manager, who arrived at the club just as the effects of Financial Fair Play and the money difficulties of the club’s billionaire Russian owner, Dmitry Rybolovlev, were taking hold.
Jardim was tasked with maintaining Monaco’s competitiveness during the resultant strategic u-turn.
Out went efforts to match PSG in the transfer market; in came a focus on the purchase, development and eventual sale of young talent.
That the former Porto manager has built a Monaco side that has serious hopes of wrestling the title away from Paris for the first time in four seasons, while suffering the losses of the likes of Geoffrey Kondogbia, Yannick Carrasco, Anthony Martial, Aymen Abdennour and Layvin Kurzawa, makes the story all the more impressive.
The current side contains some serious talent too, it should be noted, but the emphasis has been on the collective.
While the revitalised Radamel Falcao is the club’s top scorer with 12 goals in his 14 league appearances up to the Marseille game, the real story is how the goals have been shared across the team.
Fourteen different players have weighed in this season. Indeed, Jardim, who has rotated his forces to take account of their Champions League commitments, has used 24 players in the league thus far without any apparent drop off in intensity and fluidity.
The change in the club’s tack, away from the purchase of ready-made stars, is probably best illustrated by the emergence of Thomas Lemar.
The 21-year-old attacking midfielder has been a revelation this season, drawing flattering comparisons with his hero Andres Iniesta. Seven goals and four assists, plus another couple of goals against Spurs in the Champions League, have drawn the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Monaco would certainly like to hold onto this burgeoning talent. Should they cash in, however, they will make a massive profit on a player they bought from Caen for just €4million in 2015.
One club reportedly interested are Manchester City, who Monaco face next month in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Having beaten Spurs twice in the group stages and given the recent form of both sides, the men from the principality will fancy their chances. Indeed, Monaco have the look of tournament dark horses about them – yet another feather in the cap of their manager Leonardo Jardim.