While rumours while likely continue to swirl around Thomas Lemar, Fabinho and Kylian Mbappé until the close of the transfer window, the smart money at this point in the summer should be on an end to Monaco’s frenzy of selling players. The sale of Benjamin Mendy to Manchester City means that the club will have brought in a staggering amount of money this summer, in the neighbourhood of €170m. Mendy, Tiemoué Bakayoko and Bernardo Silva generated the biggest fees, but one shouldn’t underestimate the importance of players like Valère Germain or Nabil Dirar in last year’s team; the depth that they provided will be sorely missed, especially if Monaco have a decent level of success in progressing in Europe and in France’s two cup competitions.
The team have been proactive in bringing replacements, to be fair, with Youri Tielemans and Terence Kongolo, both full internationals despite their youth, the key signings to date. Tielemans’ dynamism and attacking flair could make him an immediate upgrade on Bakayoko in central midfield, while Kongolo offers versatility in being capable to play both at left back and in the centre of defense. Monaco also have a clutch of highly-touted loanees returning, including Rony Lopes (Lille), Adama Traoré (Rio Ave) and Allan Saint-Maximin (Bastia). Their spells away were a bit of mixed bag, but given the absence of attacking talent brought in, it is obvious that manager Leonardo Jardim will rely on them to some extent.
More germane to predicting how Monaco might approach the upcoming season, which starts in earnest on Saturday against Paris Saint-Germain in the Trophée des Champions in Tangier, would be to assess how Jardim might approach the season philosophically. In his first season in Monaco, 2014-15, the team were somewhat dour and negative, and even though they impressed in advancing to the quarter-finals of the Champions’ League, they only really started to impress once the likes of Silva, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Anthony Martial were given free reign in attack. The departures of Ferreira Carrasco and Martial the following summer, along with Layvin Kurzawa and Geoffrey Kondogbia left Monaco a team rather lacking in identity the following season, with a raft of underwhelming loanees playing extensively.
The story of Monaco’s most recent season, however, needs little retelling, as Jardim took the bold step of making the returning Radamel Falcao and two summer signings, Mendy and Djibril Sidibé, integral in a 4-4-2 that, was, to say the least, attack-minded.
A French title and an impressive display in Europe were the result, but now Jardim must once again demonstrate his adaptability in constructing a squad and indeed, a first-choice eleven, from the set of players he has been given. It seems unlikely, with the effervescence of Mbappé and the presence of Falcao, that Jardim would presume to deviate from that 4-4-2, and in Tielemans (or Joao Moutinho) and one of Kongolo or Jorge, he has seemingly natural replacements for Bakayoko and Mendy.
What complicates matters, however, is the role that Silva played in the team. Nominally the right-sided midfielder, the little Portuguese was never limited by his position, popping up on either flank or centrally, controlling matches not merely by dint of his individual ability, but by an innate, uncanny ability to adapt his role in different situations.
Adept at scoring, playing the creator, cutting inside or stretching play, Silva contributed a thoroughly unique skill-set to Monaco’s approach. Lopes and Saint-Maximin are both capable of supreme bits of skill, but neither have really been tested at a European level. Saint-Maximin is a superb talent, but often cut a frustrated figure at Bastia, while a season of managerial tumult and injury made Lopes’ loan spell at Lille more often than not underwhelming.
Both are, to wit useful players still full of potential (Lopes is 21, Saint-Maximin 20), and will certainly be called upon as the team rotates ahead of European fixtures, but shouldn’t be counted upon. In Monaco’s friendlies to date, Jardim has persisted with a flat 4-4-2, with both Lopes and Saint-Maximin played in Silva’s place, with Lopes playing slightly more, (Saint-Maximin has also been used as part of the front two) but could a different formation get more out of the squad, without potentially calamitous reliance on the two returning loanees?
Monaco have played different systems under every season of Jardim’s stewardship, and while it is understandable why he would seek continuity after the success of last season, might he do better with a tactical wrinkle? Thomas Lemar has been sublime on the left since arriving from Caen, but he has also met with a modicum of success playing as a number ten, notching several appearances in a central role in 2015-16.
Freed from having to do the yeoman’s work of covering the runs of an overlapping full-back, it is even possible that Lemar’s already high stock could further improve. Playing Lemar off the front two could also give more license in attack to Tielemans (18 goals, 15 assists last season in all competitions) and Moutinho, who occasionally struggled when deployed as part of a two last season.
Jorge and Terence Kongolo are battling to supplant Mendy at left-back and Sidibé is firmly installed on the right, neither situation ideal, as a diamond would force more positional responsibility from the fullbacks, a department in which the Frenchman is particularly deficient. It could, however, see Almamy Touré used more often; the youngster is a much more capable defender than Sidibé, even if he is a bit over-reliant on his pace in attack, and may already be a more complete player than the former Lille man.
Whatever Jardim decides to opt for tactically, a bigger concern could be depth. Much of Monaco’s rotation last season was down to Silva, Andrea Raggi and Sidibé, a trio of versatile players who can play multiple positions. However, with Silva off to Manchester, Raggi recently 33 and Sidibé doing nothing to convince at left back, the team are severely lacking in options from the bench.
The willing workers Germain and Dirar are big misses, but Guido Carrillo is a decent enough third striker, and Saint-Maximin, having played a variety of positions in Corsica, may be better suited as a bench player for the time being, given his ability to play across the attack. In central midfield, academy product Kévin N’Doram has been an increasingly key component in the team’s friendlies, while former Lille midfielder Soualiho Meïté has also been used extensively, completing a massive overhaul of the side.
The bottom line is that, whether with changed tactics, a less attacking philosophy or some degree of continuity, Jardim will be forced to rely on an even younger squad, making the season to come one of immense pressure. It would be foolish to expect the team to contend on multiple fronts as they had last season, but Jardim’s continued willingness to manage without being wedded to any one approach has generally paid dividends during his time in Monaco. If he can get the best out of this callow group, the talent is certainly there for similar success, even if it will take a miraculous effort from the Portuguese to do so.