The French League has a negative stigma for being below par when compared to the rest of the European Leagues. Paris Saint-Germain have been the only regular performers in the Champions League over the past five years and ex-giants Lyon and Marseille have fallen to bits since their respective heydays, while nouveau riche upstarts Monaco have failed to capitalise on the lack of competition at the top.
With PSG struggling to churn out performances under new manager Unai Emery, Monaco and lowly lying Nice have grasped their opportunity to create some tension at the top of Ligue 1. While Nice are riding a wave of form, euphoria, and Mario Balotelli, Monaco have strength in depth and look the more likely to topple the capital club from their perch for the first time since the turn of the millennium, and end PSG’s four-year winning streak.Stade Louis II (Photo: WikimediaCommons)
The Principality based club, which was successful in the 90s under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger, suffered from backbreaking financial difficulties and poor ownership which quickly snowballed into relegation from the French top division in 2011. The club was saved, however, the following season by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev who bought 66.67% of the shares while Monaco were rock bottom of Ligue 2. With a few new additions, including current Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri, Monaco managed to gain promotion back to the top flight in 2013 and went on to pay a club-record £50 million for Radamel Falcao that summer.
Monaco struggled, however, to make any real impact on PSG’s dominance despite their lavish spending. Similarly to Manchester City, Monaco learnt the hard way that spending huge amounts of money on word class players does not equal immediate success. Instead, like City’s ownership, the club invested in infrastructure, youth development facilities and scouting systems and are only now reaping the rewards.
Their manager is the relatively unknown Portuguese mastermind, Leonardo Jardim, whose previous jobs most notably consisted of Olympiacos and Sporting Lisbon before moving to the South of France. The 42 year old plays expansive attacking football on the counter attack in a similar way to Leicester City last season: a 4-4-2 formation with fast wingers and clinical strikers while their defensive strategy consists of soaking up possession in a no-nonsense style.Glik (@WikimediaCommons)
At the hub of everything good about Monaco this season is their destructive centre midfield partnership of Tiemoué Bakayoko and Fabinho. At just 22 and 23 respectively, these burly youngsters play the N’Golo Kanté–Danny Drinkwater roles of being an all-round nuisance in the middle of the park. Sitting behind the duo in defence are the equally as tough partnership of Kamil Glik and Jemerson. The Polish centre half arrived from Torino last summer to add steel to Monaco’s ranks while Jemerson has grown into a very capable defender and could be on the fringes of the Brazilian national team in the not-too-distant future.
While their defensive capabilities are commendable, where Monaco really come to the fore is in creating opportunities and scoring. The French side are averaging a total of 2.9 goals per game in the league. Two point nine. Per game. That is more than Barcelona, Real Madrid, Napoli, Bayern Munich… it is more than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues. Their main threat is collectively from the wings. On the left, the combination of Benjamin Mendy and Thomas Lemar have terrorised relentlessly while the on the right, the more intricate duo of Djibril Sidibe and Bernardo Silva have consistently caused overloads in the wide areas. One of the more impressive facets of this persistence on the wings is the fact that the average age of the players mentioned is 22 years old, meaning that, scarily, there is plenty more room for growth.
With the flanks being relentlessly exposed, the strikers better be pretty ruthless footballers to be tucking away all the chances, right? How about failed Manchester United striker Radamel Falcao and ex-benchwarmer/loanee Valère Germain. Jardim has seemingly accidentally struck gold with the unorthodox pair with Falcao scoring 17 goals in 17 starts while Germain has eight in 22 from a deeper position. Even better for Jardim is the emergence of the fiftieth ‘next Thierry Henry’, Kylian Mbappe. While Antony Martial may be in the mould on the ex-Arsenal superstar, Mbappe looks to have been forged from the same refinery. The 18-year-old has started eight games in the league and hauled in six goals and three assists in that time.
Goals are the name of the game with Monaco, and with a +52 goal difference in Ligue 1 the coastal club are sitting pretty atop of the table, with PSG hot on their heels. Whether Monaco can keep up the tempo, only time will tell, but their clash with Manchester City in the first round of the Champions League knockout stages will be a thigh-rubber of third degree burn proportions.