AS Monaco are not only top of the league, but also top-scorers, and there is evidence of a potential to challenge for the Ligue 1 title.
The arrival of Luis Enrique, as well as a significant summer recruitment drive, which saw the club spend almost €350m, alluded to another year of dominance for Paris Saint-Germain. Whilst they only beat RC Lens by one point last season, a true title challenge arguably never took hold.
However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for PSG this season. They look much more at ease against stronger opponents, which could serve them well in the Champions League, however, domestically, against teams that are comfortable sitting in a low block, Les Parisiens are yet to find the answers. Against sides such as Clermont, with whom they drew at the weekend, Luis Henrique’s style is seemingly ill-suited to breaking down defences. Granted, it is difficult to break down two banks of five, but Monaco managed it on four occasions on the opening day of the season.
Given the flaws displayed by PSG in these opening game weeks, hope is being offered to their rivals. OGC Nice temporarily took top spot last weekend, but Francesco Farioli has sought to downplay his side’s chances of mounting a title challenge; their draw against Stade Brestois, who went into this weekend top of the table, shows why. The problems encountered by Farioli are actually not dissimilar to those faced by Luis Enrique.
Monaco manager Adi Hütter is another manager who has downplayed his side’s chances of challenging PSG. “We have to improve a lot. So many people think we are a top team. I think we are a good team, but we have a lot of work to do,” he said after defeat to Nice. Was that genuine pessimism or smoke and mirrors? If it is the former, it is perhaps not so well-founded.
Granted, there are problems in this Monaco side. Guillermo Maripán is the only centre-back regularly starting for Monaco who was also at the club last season. There is little continuity in this sector of the pitch and little experience. But Wilfried Singo and Soungoutou Magassa are showing that age is just a number. Whilst Maripán has struggled, Singo and Magassa have thrived. The latter is an academy product, a midfielder by trade, but well-suited to Hütter’s system, even if he is sometimes caught too high, leaving his teammates exposed. However, it is a lot to ask that they perform for the duration of the campaign, and the lack of depth in defence is a little unsettling.
Whilst there are undoubted weaknesses in this Monaco side, there are equally many strengths. Monaco’s 3-2 victory over Olympique de Marseille on Saturday was an exposition of the strength and depth up front in particular. Aleksandr Golovin was absent through injury, whilst Takumi Minamino missed out with adductor discomfort. The duo have, alongside Caio Henrique, who could be out until the end of the season, been Monaco’s best players. But their absence was not felt.
Balogun to make the difference?
Their absences forced a tactical switch from Hütter with Maghnes Akliouche placed behind the duo of Folarin Balogun and Wissam Ben Yedder. Akliouche, a product of Monaco’s prestigious La Diagonale academy, had the best game of his career, netting twice and setting up the third. Eliesse Ben Seghir, a breakout star from last season, is also set to return. In a season without European football, Monaco have the strength and depth up front to be the most potent attacking force in the division.
Goals weren’t exactly the issue for Monaco last season, but they look set to score plenty more this season. The importance of Balogun’s arrival has perhaps been understated. In his debut season in Ligue 1, he scored 22 for Stade de Reims. He already has two for his new club, despite two penalty misses against Nice. Nearing, or even bettering his tally from last season could be a decisive factor in deciding whether Monaco do in fact challenge Les Parisiens.
But for Monaco, the overwhelming positive to take from these opening matchdays is that their major strength is PSG’s major weakness. Les Monégasques have no issue in breaking down defences, no matter how deep and compact the block. With most sides likely to sit deep against Luis Enrique’s side, problems are envisageable, although they could be ironed out. PSG have won their previous titles by avoiding slipups against small sides, affording them a margin for error against sides like Monaco, against whom they took just one point last season. Faced with a Monaco side so effective at breaking down low blocks, PSG may need to perform better against those around them to retain their title this time around.