“Even if we asked Monaco to play with blindfolds, they would still have been able to score goals.” – Rudi Garcia.
Those words from Marseille’s manager following Monaco’s 4-0 rout of his side in November may have been in gest, but given how seamless their attacking chemistry has been this season, he might not be too far off. Midway through the 2016-17 Ligue 1 season and Monaco, a side Canal+ pundit Pierre Menes once branded ‘impossible to watch’ as ‘fans are dying of boredom,’ have scored the most goals in Europe’s top leagues with a whopping 65 through 22 games. That tally is 14 more than Real Madrid, 13 more than Barcelona and the English Premier League’s leading scorers, Liverpool, and 23 more than PSG as well as perennial Bundesliga leaders, Bayern Munich. Said tally also includes a 7-0 win at Metz and half-dozen each against Montpellier HSC and Nancy.
After Monaco’s 65th goal, a 90th minute equalizer by Portuguese winger Bernardo Silva that earned a precious point at the Parc Des Princes against Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco now lead Ligue 1 on goal difference over surprise challengers, OGC Nice (who they face on February 4) with PSG three points back. Arguably the most entertaining club in Europe this season, Monaco finally look like the serious threat to PSG’s reign of dominance that had made Ligue 1 a mockery for a while. While Monaco themselves took a similar route to PSG in an attempt to replicate their success, the club’s willingness to change direction and let youth be their driving force to potential glory has put them full speed ahead towards possibly ending Paris’ domestic stronghold.
Mired in last place near the midway point in the 2011-12 Ligue 2 season, controversial Russian billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev, bought a 66% stake of the club, with the remainder owned by Monaco’s ruling family, the House of Grimaldi. The following season after the hire of now Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri, Monaco won promotion, allowing Rybolovlev to go on a crazy spending spree, including the purchases of striker Radamel Falcao from Atlético Madrid as well as midfielders, James Rodríguez and João Moutinho, from FC Porto for a combined £90 million. Monaco’s attempt at instant Ligue 1 success fell short in the 2013/14 season as Monaco finished second, nine points behind PSG.
Monaco decided not to renew Ranieri’s contract in May 2014 and their project already faced serious threats. Potential FIFA Financial Fair Play sanctions were coming. Falcao, who suffered a serious knee injury that season reportedly wanted away from the Stade Louis II and Rybolovlev was mired in a ridiculously expensive divorce settlement initially valued at a world-record £2.9 billion (though significantly reduced on appeal in 2015). As a result, the club’s hierarchy were forced to scale back on team investment and had a rethink on their transfer policy, selling Rodriguez to Real Madrid for £71 million and hashing out an expensive loan deal with Manchester United for Falcao.
After settling their Financial Fair Play issues as well as a long-standing legal battle with Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP) over the principality’s fiscal status, the club started fresh, hiring Portuguese manager, Leonardo Jardim, that summer. Team emphasis changed both in the boardroom and on the sidelines as Monaco became more focused on buying (or promoting) young talent while employing a more pragmatic, counter-attacking style; going against the flamboyance representative of the filthy rich principality’s identity. It resulted in continental success as, led by Silva, Fabinho, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, free transfer Dimitar Berbatov and wunderkind Anthony Martial, Monaco reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2014/15, beating Arsenal to get there and giving eventual runner-ups, Juventus, a real scare once they arrived.
Carrasco and Martial were shipped out the following summer, the latter for a reported £36.3 million from Manchester United while Berbatov was released. Nevertheless, the club managed to maintain its top three status in Ligue 1 in 2015/16 despite its leading scorer (Silva) scoring just seven goals and leading strikers Vágner Love and Guido Carrillo mustering a paltry eight goals in the league between them. Averaging 48.6% possession and completing 78.6% of their passes, Monaco were essentially a lite version of Atlético Madrid, relying more on concentration and discipline than flair. It also left them a stupefying 31 points behind PSG, the largest title-winning margin in Ligue 1 history.
However, Jardim has seemingly let the reins loose this season, his team becoming one of Europe’s most dangerous teams in transition armed with speed, silky ball control from back to front and sharp movement. Out of their 65 goals, 41 have come from open play and 13 from set pieces, many of which have been provided by Guadeloupean midfielder, Thomas Lemar, who has proved himself as a revelation both as a central midfielder and attacking midfielder since the start of last season after arriving from Caen.
With seven goals, four assists, an 84% pass completion rate and 70% successful dribbles, Lemar, 21, has been one of many bright emerging stars making Monaco click at such as a scarily high level. Brazilian attacking midfielder, Gabriel Boschilia (20), French international full back, Djibril Sidibe (24) and defensive midfielder, Tiemoué Bakayoko (22), have all proven to be astute buys by the club during this remodelling phase while the returns of strikers Valère Germain from Nice and the aforementioned Falcao from Chelsea have also paid dividends, with the pair notching a combined 19 goals this season.
While Falcao’s reunion with Monaco appears to be one of convenience considering he is in the last year of his contract, El Tigre is back to his predatory ways and giving the Monegasque faithful glimpses of his once world class finishing ability, with 15 goals in all competitions. Another potential starlet, 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé Lottin has also shown flashes of brilliance as a back up to Germain and Falcao up front, with the Clairefontaine academy graduate and former Monaco youth team product netting three goals and five assists in 14 league appearances.
Thanks to this rejuvenating brand of football, Monaco have their destiny in their hands as they seek their first Ligue 1 title since the 1999/00 campaign when David Trezeguet and Marco Simone combined for 51 goals in all competitions and had a squad containing the likes of Ludovic Giuly, John Arne Riise, Rafael Márquez and Fabien Barthez, all under the stewardship of current Southampton boss, Claude Puel. Hopes of repeating their Champions League exploits from 2014/15 will be difficult as they will face Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the round of 16. But with City underachieving domestically and their defense in tatters, Guardiola knows the opposition will present some level of difficulty as he himself witnessed while attending the PSG-Monaco tilt and knowing Monaco’s recent conquests of Arsenal and Tottenham in Champions League play.
For team that plays in an often half-empty Stade Louis II making for a usually sleepy atmosphere, Monaco’s football has truly awaken the masses in the principality and given a needed jolt of energy to a French league suffering from predictability ever since Montpellier stunned the world in 2011/12. In the midst of arguably Europe’s hottest title race, Monaco hope the reshaping of their structure as a club with lead to them standing in the winner’s circle at season’s end. Allez Monaco!