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AS Monaco – on the cusp of greatness?

There is some element of foolishness to drawing grand predictions from a single match, but Monaco’s 3-2 win over Dortmund is the type of encounter that makes writers salivate over what they’ve seen, not only for what takes place on the pitch, but also for its ramifications for each club in years to come.

Dortmund, perhaps unlucky not to scrape a draw, and playing under difficult circumstances, will undoubtedly keep ticking over, even if they lose the tie, and even if their league placement has dipped this year.

They may come to lose Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang come the summer, but the Gabonese international will fetch a heavy price, leaving the club in better stead than the last time a prized centre forward departed. Elsewhere, the team can also look to the long-term returns of Mario Götze, Marco Reus and Nuri Sahin, a trio who, by their talent, should be among the club’s best players, but have suffered through injury and illness this season.

It may even come to pass that Monaco, despite having three away goals, can be overcome at the Stade Louis II next week. After all, Fabinho will be absent through suspension, and injury questions remain over the club’s dynamic full-backs, Djibril Sidibé and Benjamin Mendy.

However, Dortmund’s budget and history dwarf that of Monaco, which means that the French side make for a more compelling story, especially as they may be standing on the precipice of a more permanent place in Europe’s elite. Leonardo Jardim had his team here two years ago, but were perhaps unfortunate to be eliminated by Juventus, but that edition was a defensively-oriented team, with a considerable veteran presence, personified by the likes of Jérémy Toulalan and Ricardo Carvalho.

Playing a narrow 4-3-3 with Bernardo Silva, Anthony Martial and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco ideal weapons to hit opponents on the break, there was some element of luck to that team’s success.

After a summer which saw Martial, Ferreira Carrasco, Aymen Abdennour, Layvin Kurzawa and Geoffrey Kondogbia all depart, Monaco’s season was all but forgotten within a matter of months. Last season saw a poor defensive team, populated to a large degree by loanees cough up second place and be eliminated in the group stage of the Europa League.

Jardim had done well in 2014-15, yes, but between the team’s economic constraints and his own tactical nous, Monaco looked to be reaching the limits of their means under the Portuguese manager. That defeat of Arsenal was looking increasingly a matter of luck and not ability on the part of the players or manager, especially as the likes of Martial, Kondogbia, and Abdennour failed to improve the lot of their new teams.

Luck continued to be on Monaco’s side yesterday, but in a much different way. Monaco were lucky that Thomas Tuchel foolishly opted to play a 3-4-2-1 with a makeshift centre back in Sven Bender. Monaco were lucky that Bender headed into his own net, lucky that young striker Kylian Mbappé-Lottin happened to find himself in the right place to turn in Andrea Raggi’s cross with his thigh, lucky that the match ended when it did, with Dortmund pressing hard for an equaliser.

But Monaco were also unlucky; Fabinho’s missed penalty, Falcao’s miss after rounding Roman Bürki, and an eleventh hour injury to Benjamin Mendy all were influential in the match’s outcome and could yet be in the way that they tie is settled.

Most winners of the Champions’ League, or at least most unexpected winners have had something of luck in their wins. Whether it was Inter Milan taking advantage of a volcanic eruption to ease past Barcelona or Dortmund themselves avoiding both Barcelona and Real Madrid after Atletico Madrid represented Spain in 1996-97, the unlikely champions of Europe’s most celebrated club competition often seemed to get the rub of the green in some way.

With Monaco getting luck in both directions, though, perhaps it’s not time to look at this team as being lucky, as some had averred when the group stage draw was made, but as being on the edge of Europe’s elite in a sustainable fashion.

With so much of sustained success on the continent, at least for all but the mega-rich (Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, the two Manchester clubs) coming down to purchasing, developing and sometimes selling young players, Monaco are ideally positioned to continue making runs similar to their current one.

Most players on the team, with the exception of the more experienced likes of Moutinho, Radamel Falcao and Kamil Glik, have been linked with moves away, which, given the wealth of the clubs pursuing them, many of them from the aforementioned octet, seems a foregone conclusion. However, might those players stop to consider how greatness is within their reach without leaving?

While this may seem wishful thinking, a ready parallel exists with Atletico Madrid. The Spanish side, like Monaco have some pedigree in Europe, but have suffered a relegation relatively recently. They have some financial backing, but are not obscenely rich, at least to the level of that above-named elite.

They play in an area where they have decent support, but are not the main attraction by any means. They have a proactive approach in transfer dealings that places a focus, for the most part on young players, knowing that the margin of error that is afforded by the league will pay dividends in European competition.

While domestic honours are not impossible, they are not the priority, allowing relatively untested players a chance to develop against a variety of the world’s best sides. If the right price comes along (Diego Costa, Arda Turan, Falcao) the team are unafraid to sell, even if a player seems invaluable to a tactical approach, but they are also unafraid to spend decent sums of money replacing departed players.

Monaco, as in that summer of 2015, have sold players when the situation dictated, but they have also spent on the right sort of players to keep thing ticking over, including Silva, Mendy, Sidibé and Bakayoko.

A loss to Dortmund, or a total fire sale could render this all a moot point, but one should also consider the similarities between Monaco and their opponents, who have also balanced financial sustainability with an approach that privileges young players. Like both Atletico (Koke, Saul, Lucas) and Dortmund, Monaco also have a decent amount of players who are academy graduates playing important roles or looking likely to play them.

Kylian Mbappé is the obvious example, but Almamy Touré, Abdou Diallo and Irvin Cardona have made huge strides this season, much as Sahin, Götze, Christian Pulisic and Felix Passlack are important to the German club (the latter two albeit via circuitous routes).

A win over Dortmund and a loss to say, Real Madrid in a semi-final, coupled with a French title which would see the team seeded in the Champions’ League would thus put Monaco well within their rights to be in that tier of European teams of whom success is regularly expected, not through their financial largesse, but through their sustainably built sporting programs.

The lure, then, of an Arsenal, a Manchester United or one of the Milan clubs would be considerably dimmed vis-à-vis signing up with Monaco, excepting wages. In this example, Monaco would be set up for continued success in European competition as well on the domestic stages.

While wages are not a point to be belittled by any means, the way that many of Europe’s hottest young talents have moved in recent years, at least outside of England, speaks more to a quest for gain of the sporting type rather than the financial, and Monaco are well-positioned to take advantage of that, given their track record of allowing young talent to take its chances whilst maintaining a certain level of domestic success.

There are more factors to consider, including managerial styles and financial strength of other teams in the league, but for now, Monaco occupy a space that is not only unique but filled with nearly unlimited potential for growth, a massive testament to the rewards to be gained through sustainability and youth development.

E.D.

 

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