January 15th. Monaco are top of Ligue 1. Leonardo Jardim’s side left Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome with a triumphant 4-1 win and three points to move them above Nice. And there they remained until Valère Germain rounded off an injury time counter attack to seal a win over St Étienne and the Ligue 1 title in May. That win over Marseille included a brace from Bernardo Silva, a delightful lob from Thomas Lemar and an 89th minute cameo from Kylian Mbappé. Up to this point, Mbappé had started just four Ligue 1 games. Monaco made it to the summit of Ligue 1 without him and a 6-1 win over that same opponent on Sunday night is the biggest signal yet that, even with their prize asset on the verge of joining PSG, they could do it again.
The shift in balance of power between Ligue 1’s top two over the summer has been seismic. Without a ball being kicked, the arrival Neymar coupled with the exodus from the Principality has thrust the momentum back towards PSG. A trio of Neymar led victories later, most notably a 6-2 mauling of Toulouse last week largely with 10 men, the Ligue 1 title would appear to be Paris bound once more, the case for Monaco’s defence apparently thin at best. But Leonardo Jardim and his Monaco side have been here before. 12 months ago, with PSG’s 31-point winning margin fresh in their collective memory, Monaco opened what turned out to be a title winning campaign with an underwhelming 2-2 draw at home to Guingamp and were dismantled 4-0 by Nice in September. PSG were clear favourites once more.
Nevertheless, Monaco were champions, embarrassing PSG on two fronts in snatching their league crown and making the semi-finals of the Champions League, a feat PSG have not achieved under Qatari ownership. Crucially, however, Monaco did it their way. Going toe-to-toe with the spending power of QSI was short-lived as a switch in the club’s recruitment policy forced Monaco’s wily Vice-President Vadim Vasilyev to be more prudent in his transfer dealings. An investment in youth became the focus.
Player turnover and the evolution of the squad is now central to Monaco’s ethos. Their title-winning side was shrewdly built; targets were identified, acquired and nurtured. Rangy Brazilian midfield general Fabinho was enlisted as a full back, initially on loan, before moving into midfield and signing permanently for £5m from mid-table Portuguese outfit, Rio Ave. Now 23, the league’s top performer last season, he is also said to be about to be sold to PSG for a deal likely to be worth €60m. Despite the vast resources of their oligarch backer, Monaco are not PSG, their operating budget for is roughly a third of their rivals, but this, in theory, does not make as sizeable a difference as it might.
Monaco knew they would lose players this summer. Their original plan was to accept the departures of Bernardo Silva, a full back (eventually Benjamin Mendy) and Fabinho’s midfield lieutenant, Tiumonre Bakayoko. The three players sold for a combined £135m, two of which Monaco knew could be swiftly replaced. 20-year-old Youri Tielemans arrived from Anderlecht for €25m to assist João Moutinho in filling the Bakayoko-shaped hole in midfield while Almamy Touré and Jorge, both 21, have shown they are capable of stepping into Benjamin Mendy’s role at full-back. This is a necessary part of the Monaco model, although the losses of Fabinho and Mbappé were ones they hoped to avoid, it is model that has been successful both financially and on the pitch.
Thomas Lemar, Fabinho, Bakayoko and Silva are all examples of players signed for comparatively modest fees from relative obscurity who are now worth upwards of €40m. Looking to repeat the feat, Monaco have again been gathering exciting burgeoning talents this summer. The widely sought-after Tielemans aside, Rennes’ direct, pacey forward Adama Diakhaby, billed as the next Ousmane Dembélé, has joined Falcao in attack, scoring the in 6-1 shredding of a hapless Marseille on Sunday night. Soualiho Meite, 23, was key to Zulte Waregem’s surprise title bid in Belgium last year while Dutch full-back Terence Kolongo was an ever-present with Feyenoord as they recaptured the Eredivisie crown. Anderlecht’s 22 year old midfield fulcrum Leander Dendoncker, some Belgian observers marking his talents as superior to his former partner Tielemans, is ready and on his way to replace Fabinho.
While player turnover has been the most eye-catching aspect of the Monaco off-season, the list of players who have stayed remains encouraging. Their title winning back four remains largely intact as Kamil Glik, Djibril Sidibé (who both scored in the win over Marseille) and Jemerson, who has also developed into an adept and assured centre back over his 18-month spell at the principality club, continue to perform admirably. Despite wide-ranging interest, Thomas Lemar looks set to stay in Monaco’s midfield alongside João Moutinho while Radamel Falcao has started the campaign in outstanding form, scoring 7 in his first 4 league games. The question remains, however, with Jardim’s jewel, Kylian Mbappé, set to join PSG this week for a fee worth up to €190m including bonuses, can his squad cope with the loss?
Players burst onto the French footballing scene with some regularity and are quickly swept off to bigger clubs, it is one the most exciting aspects of following Ligue 1. Ousmane Dembélé, Sofiane Boufal, Adam Ounas and Corentin Tolisso are recent examples but Mbappé finds himself in a bracket of his own. Comparisons with Thierry Henry and Brazil’s Ronaldo are completely justified while, at 18, the €190m price tag is more understandable than many of the fees paid in recent weeks. His unerring finishing and alarmingly quick change of direction alone would make an asset to any team in world football. Nevertheless, returning to January, Monaco made it to the top of Ligue 1 without his influence. In fact, he was not even truly considered first choice until the first leg of the Champions League tie with Manchester City in February. Obviously, much has changed in the capital during their last year and Mbappé is undeniably a world class talent, but Monaco have proven they can succeed without their teenage sensation, even scoring more league goals (56) in the first half of last season than the second (51).
A Mbappé-less Monaco dismantling an admittedly slow and understrength Marseille side was the latest sign that Jardim and his Monaco charges have designs on the Ligue 1 title once more as they continued winning start to the year. They remain an aggressive, attacking and compelling side, they may not score goals at the same rate as last season but clear daylight remains between them and the chasing pack of Ligue 1 clubs. Somehow usurping PSG and Neymar would easily surpass any achievements of last season, especially, as is expected, the Parisians do poach Fabinho and Mbappé before the end of the transfer window. But as Monaco continue to carefully and quietly reconstruct their side, Ajax forward Kasper Dolberg the latest likely arrival, PSG should remember that this time last year, a Monaco title win seemed implausible too.
1 | While Nantes goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu didn’t have quite the same eye-catching display against Lyon on Saturday as he had two weeks prior against Marseille, he nevertheless kept a clean sheet, highlighted by a particularly impressive stop on Bertrand Traoré in the match’s early stages. The clean sheet was his second running, no mean feat in front of a defence that has been hit hard by injuries and suspension. In a season in which they have scored just once as Claudio Ranieri tinkers, unsurprisingly, with his tactics and personnel, Nantes have four points in as many matches, and much of that is surely down to the lanky Romanian. Second to
Guingamp’s Karl-Johan Johnsson in saves per match, the Nantes stopper’s have surely been more impressive than the Swede’s behind a leaky, often makeshift defence. As the attack has struggled after thriving under the departed Sergio Conceição (Rémy Cabella, a potential loan arrival from Marseille, could yet help matters in this regard), Nantes remain above the drop zone, if not comfortably, at least definitively, on the strength of their ‘keeper. The number one with European regulars Fiorentina for the last two seasons, Tatarusanu’s signing was seen as something of a coup by the Breton side, even if the writing was on the wall in Florence given the club’s massive summer sell-off. Thus far, he has looked every inch a fine return on his €2.5m price tag as the quality stopper that the team craved. If Ranieri can figure out the team’s attack, not only will relegation cease to be a worry, but the league’s European contenders could be looking over their shoulders.
2 | Nantes have invested heavily by their standards this summer, and will be frustrated not to have seen more of an immediate return thus far. Their worries in this regard, though, pale in comparison to those of Rennes. Nantes’ Breton neighbors have recorded a net spend approaching €20m this summer, highlighted by the signings of Ismaïla Sarr and Faitout Mouassa, yet they have just two points to show for their troubles, mediocre home draws against Dijon and Troyes. Rennes’ form was perilously poor in the first half of the calendar year, and little seems to have changed despite their investment. Firmin Mubélé opened the scoring at Toulouse on Saturday with a brilliant goal, displaying impressive acceleration as he blew past Yannick Cahuzac to net his third goal in two matches, putting lie to those who would argue the side needs another centre forward to improve.
Despite the Congolese opening the scoring, Toulouse drew level soon enough, with a clumsy foul from Ramy Bensebaini on Jimmy Durmaz earning the Swede a penalty, which he duly converted. The young Algerian is a capable and mobile centre back, but he is never a left back, and his continued inclusion in that position is one of many baffling decisions made this season by Christian Gourcuff, especially with the proven Ludovic Baal a capable option in reserve.
The veteran manager has persisted with his trademark 4-4-1-1, despite, as last season, a 4-3-3 being seemingly a better fit for the talent on hand, with Sanjin Prcic, Maouassa or Nicolas Janvier slotting into midfield alongside the more defensively minded Benjamin André and Benjamin Bourigeaud. Rennes’ hierarchy put their full faith in Gourcuff in a historic summer spending spree, but the manager looks unlikely to repay that faith any time soon, as his stubborn adherence to his preferred system is failing to get the best out of what is undoubtedly a very talented squad. The international break should allow the team to re-focus and hopefully welcome Yoann Gourcuff back into the fold, but if results continue as they have done, the manager could find himself in real trouble before October arrives.
3 | It would have been foolish to expect anything else, given their imperious win over Toulouse last Sunday, but Paris Saint-Germain’s 3-0 victory over St Étienne on Friday laid down another serious marker to any opponents who might have entertained hope of a title race, although perhaps not in the way one might have expected. Oscar Garcia’s inscrutable decision to change tactics to a 3-4-3, with Bryan Dabo deployed on the left wing, made matters slightly easier for the hosts, but with Neymar slightly off the boil, it wasn’t all PSG. There was a bit of fortuitousness to the way that the hosts opened the scoring, with Saidy Janko tugging back Cavani in the box, and by the time the second goal went in, with Thiago Motta prodding home from a free kick at close range, Alphonse Areola had already had to make a pair of fine stops on the break.
The academy product, despite having impressed on several season-long loans spells, found himself largely behind Kevin Trapp last season, the German seen as a safer pair of hands, even as he was far from immune from the odd gaffe. This season, however, Areola seems improved, as he has been beaten only twice in four matches, with one of those being an own goal. Areola will have to face sterner tests in the weeks to come in the form of a league clash with Lyon and the start of the Champions’ League, but for the moment, he looks set to begin to fulfill the promise he has shown. Without him, Friday’s seemingly comfortable win could have been a much nervier affair, and Unai Emery will surely sleep easier given his side’s decisive start to the season, in no small part thanks to Areola.
4 | While it may have been somewhat lost in the shuffle of Saturday’s multiplex, Amiens recorded the shock result of the weekend, winning 3-0 at home to Nice. The Picardy side looked bright against St Étienne last weekend, but were unfortunate not to find the back of the net. They had no such qualms against Lucien Favre’s weary side, scoring twice inside half an hour to claim their first-ever Ligue 1 goals. Gaël Kakuta opened the scoring with a devious free kick routine, and Moussa Konaté added to the hosts’ tally with a vicious header at the near post from a corner, but despite ceding most of the possession to the visitors, Amiens looked as assured and combative as they had the week before.
Combative, especially, in the person of young midfielder Tanguy Ndombélé, who thoroughly dominated midfield despite making just his second start of the season. The youngster was linked with both Lyon and St Étienne over the summer, but has stayed put and looks to be one to watch going forward, and with his combination of bustling energy and ability on the ball, it is no wonder bigger clubs were after his services.