By Stephen Ganavas (@Marottanomics)
AS Monaco (and the rest of Ligue 1) have been operating in the long shadow cast by the all-conquering PSG for four seasons now. Qatari investment has led to the formation of a hugely expensive and hugely talented squad that has led the club to consecutive domestic trebles in the last two seasons.
In 2013, backed by Russian billionaire owner Dmitry Rybolovlev, Monaco sought to destabilise the status quo. With the dual-signing of Porto stars James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho, followed by the mega-money deal to bring Radamel Falcao to the Stade Louis II, the club showed its intent. The arrival of players such as Anthony Martial and Geoffrey Kondogbia raised the combined summer spending total to over €150 million.
The initial results were pleasing. After their promotion the previous season, Monaco marked their return to Ligue 1 with a second place finish and automatic Champions League qualification.
But their high-roller status would only last a season.
Confronted with multiple problems; ranging from Rybolovlev’s multi-billion-pound divorce, to Financial Fair Play rules, an FFP ruling that Monaco must pay around €50m in order to safeguard their player’s tax-free status (French clubs pay their players on a 75% tax rate) and finally a lack of new revenue streams, the club was forced to be slightly more tactful.
James was sold for €75m to Real Madrid, Falcao was sent out on loan to Manchester United while some of the incoming names included Bernardo Silva, Aymen Abdennour and TIemoue Bakayoko – a transfer window that could easily be seen as underwhelming after a €150m spend the previous season. But the change in policy was laying a foundation for a similar – albeit slower – challenge to PSG’s domestic supremacy.
The principality club laboured to a third place finish in Ligue 1 and enjoyed a prolonged run in the Champions League, eventually losing to finalists Juventus in the quarter-finals. After the successful season, the club boosted their coffers again through the sales of Martial, Kondogbia, Abdennour, Layvin Kurzawa, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, Lucas Ocampos and another expensive loan of Falcao, for a combined fee of almost €160m.
Losing to Valencia in Champions League qualification was a hitch, but the club’s transfer window did not suffer. Youth became the target. Spurred on by the sale of Martial, the club identified that a model similar to that of Benfica would enable them to be sustainable in the long-term, while not compromising too much competitiveness in the short term – even amongst the great displeasure of the club’s supporters.
"We still have ambitions," Monaco Vice-President and Rybolovlev’s right-hand man Vadim Vasilyev said in late 2014 after his side had drawn Arsenal in the Champions League round of sixteen.
"We still have ambitions. We have to re-size the project. I understand people, the supporters, are disappointed, but it was necessary and it will bear fruit. It’s a long term project.
"The president still wants to do it – he is still passionate about it. He loves football. You need to have a reasonable project in line with your means. So we needed to modify the project," Vasilyev said.
Vasilyev stayed true to his word, piecing together one of the finest transfer windows in recent memory in the summer of 2015/16. Thomas Lemar (€4m), Fabinho (€6m) Gabriel Boschilia (€9m), Allan Saint-Maximin (€5m), Corentin Jean (€4m), Guido Carillo (€9m), Jemerson (€11m), Rony Lopes (€12m), Under 20 World Cup golden ball winner Adama Traore (€14m) and eventual flop Ivan Cavaleiro (€15m) were all twenty-four or younger at the time they were brought into the club. The club made just one signing over the age of twenty-four that summer, €1.5m Wagner Love.
But in attributing such praise to the club’s directors, one must acknowledge Leonardo Jardim, the man entrusted with developing these fine youngsters.
Since taking over the reins from Claudio Ranieri, Jardim has overseen a drastic change in club direction and has entirely papered over the cracks – at minimum qualifying the club for the Champions League qualifying round every season he has been in charge.
His ability to instil discipline while still allowing his young starlets to shine in the final third must be commended. Supporters of the club are beginning to see the fruits of his labour, as the team now combine the rigid and composed defending of the last two years (mainly 14/15) with some of the most fluid and beautiful attacking moves in Europe.
The real leader and conductor of the pack in the centre of midfield for Jardim is his captain Fabinho. While able to play at right-back, Jardim prefers to play the Brazilian centrally as his conductor. Fabinho excels there as loves to recycle and turn over possession, but he still retains the powerful running engine and burst of pace and imposing power of a 1.88m right-back.
But Fabinho is not alone. Jardim has built his side on strong leadership and a stable core. Bringing in experienced Polish centre-back Kamil Glik (28) from Torino over the summer was a slight shift in transfer policy from Rybolovlev and Vasilyev, but one which promises to continue the growth of Jardim’s side from this aspect.
Glik and Fabinho form the basis of Jardim’s tried, tested and trusted 4-4-2/4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid formation. The Portuguese manager interprets the formation as requiring stability and rigidity in the central areas of the pitch, while entrusting his wide players with the license to roam– unless veteran Andrea Raggi is playing at right-back - as the formation turns into more of a 4-2-3-1 in attacking situations.
Almamy Toure (RB), Thomas Lemar (RW), Djibril Sidibe (LB, but can play on the right too) and Joao Moutinho (LM) are constantly interchanging as Monaco shift into two banks of four when defending. Their willingness to run, cover and even double-up on opposition players is impressive. However, nor does it impact on their ability to be free-flowing in attack.
Now, they also have some brilliant options to target. Falcao is one, but the standout is Bernardo Silva. Dropping deep, sitting wide or making runs in behind, Bernardo is the glue that sticks all of Monaco’s attacks together. Rarely standing still, the Portuguese international is constantly taking defenders out of position and making space – he is incredibly positionally aware. When he gets on the ball he is similarly devastating; a neat dribbler with an impeccable left foot – just ask any Spurs fan.
Now that is a team to be excited about. But what about PSG?
Well, Monaco currently sit three points ahead of their Parisian rivals and beat them 3-1 just a few weeks ago at the Stade Louis II. PSG do not look like the side that walked Ligue 1 by 31 points last season. Gaps are being bridged at an alarming rate for PSG; from Ibrahimovic, to Emery and a lack of real quality options and experience at centre-back when injuries strike (and Thiago Silva is forever injured).
However, Monaco do not look as frail as the side who conceded that 31-point margin.
Buoyed by a stellar transfer policy and recent transfer windows, a tactically astute manager, a thrifty owner and a whole load of talented players – can Monaco win Ligue 1 this season?
Its time to head down to Monte Carlo and start placing your bets.