For a few years now PSG has been the envy of French football. However, when you look at the records of the Ligue 1 Champions you will find one anomaly. A blip in their still ongoing dynasty.
That anomaly is AS Monaco.
Monaco overpowered the ever dominant PSG by eight points, winning 30 games to secure the 2016/17 Ligue 1 title.
The story was quite superb.
Given only the third-highest odds to win the title in August, Monaco outperformed their expectations massively, not only beating PSG but doing so convincingly.
Bernardo Silva celebrating after scoring a goal
The season started well for the men in red and white, winning 6 games in their first 8, hot on the heels of 1st place OGC Nice. Their hard work was eventually undone as a streak of bad results had them drop to 3rd with a mountain to climb.
Leonardo Jardim needed a response from his team and what ensued was probably one of the best responses a team could give.
Monaco began to win game after game, scoring goal after goal in an unbelievable streak. They finished the season with 20 consecutive games unbe
aten, winning 18 of them. This was not to mention their impressive journey to the semi-finals of the Champions League, which led to both recognition and adoration by people from all around the world.
Bakayoko and Mbappe celebrating a goal vs City in the Champions League
They encapsulated what every football fan loved. Youth. Underdogs. Scintillating attacking football.
However, this was just the surface.
What lay beneath was years in the making.
Monaco had quite an uneventful pre-season, although we did see the return of a key player and the signing of two very important role players to slot into Monaco’s team.
Radamel Falcao (Returning from Loan) - Coming back from an unsuccessful loan with Chelsea, Radamel Falcao was ready to make things right and establish himself as once again one of the best strikers in Europe. Immediately made captain by Jardim, El Tigre became an instrumental cog in Monaco’s machine.
Benjamin Mendy (€13,000,000) - The promising left-back was signed from Marseille after some encouraging performances last season. His work-rate, combined with his strength and playmaking ability bolstered Monaco’s already powerful left-flank.
Djibril Sidibé ( €15,000,000) - Another full-back added to Monaco’s ranks, Sidibé possessed a more defence-oriented skill set compared to Mendy. His defensive IQ mixed with his strong tackling ability gave Monaco more experience and strengthened the right-side.
From the beginning of Jardim’s stint as manager in 2014, he was heavily criticized for playing a passive style of football. His Monaco teams did not seem to want to put the ball in the back of the net, just stop it from going into the back of their own.
So he listened, unlike most managers who are too proud and stubborn to do so.
Switching things up going into the new season, Jardim started to get across to his players the fluid attacking style that is associated with that team today. He wanted his team to go on the premise that offence is the best defence, which resulted in the forward-thinking style we saw of the 16/17 Monaco team.
Deployed in the 4-4-2 formation, it is seen as a 2-4-4 when Monaco attack, with both the full-backs and wingers pushing up. This ensured that the hunt for goals was never-ending.
We mainly see these aggressive forward runs through the right side of Monaco’s attack, with Sidibé pushing up high and Bernando Silva cutting inside. This movement between fullback and winger was occasionally seen on the opposite flank, but there were some key differences between the players that resulted in a different, more direct play style.
Thomas Lemar, the left-sided midfielder, was not an inverted winger like Silva. He was left-footed on the same side and was better defensively. He was also more of a ‘classic’ winger; stay wide, beat your opposing fullback and take it wide, and put crosses in. This resulted in the space for Mendy to overlap being tightened, prompting fewer forward forays.
Due to the aggressive tactics, Monaco would have been very vulnerable at the back if it hadn’t been for their intelligently engineered midfield. Almost all successful teams require workmen who are willing to play for the team rather than the individual, and Monaco was no exception. Tiémoué Bakayoko and Fabinho represent the perfect midfield-engine in the centre that every team desires.
Fabinho, who was formerly a right-back, was an important part of Monaco’s defensive stability. He would slot into his former position, which was vacated by Sidibe when the French fullback went on forward runs to lessen the danger of a counter-attack.
Bakayoko was a more well-rounded central player than Fabinho, your classic box-to-box midfielder. His high work rate made him a weapon in both defence and attack and since he was given more attacking freedom than his Brazilian counterpart, allowing him to make meaningful contributions in the final third.
It is this defensive core that allowed Monaco the privilege to attack at will. The central defensive unit of Monaco, which comprised of the two centre-backs and the two centre-midfielders, were all comfortable on the ball and had no hesitation recycling it and playing around the back. This gave time for Monaco’s full-backs to make those trademark forward runs and free themselves of their markers before Fabinho played a forward pass into that space.
Monaco Lining up before a Champions League Knockout game vs Manchester City
Monaco preferred to build up the play centrally and then spreading the play out wide which was made easier due to their high numbers in both flanks. If they find themselves congested at one flank they can switch to the opposite one almost immediately. This created shifts in the opposition’s defence, leaving gaps that could be exploited. Jardim trained his players to spot these gaps and to attack them with pace and power, from which Monaco’s wingers, usually Silva and Lemar, could create chances.
But, the one thing people associated with Monaco was goals and the deadly pair of Radamel Falcao and Kylian Mbappe were responsible for most of them.
Falcao with his astounding finishing ability was given the role of the poacher; one who is not that creative, but is excellent in putting the ball in the back of the net. Mbappe was given more freedom to roam around the attack and pop up wherever he wished, which made him a constant threat, very similar to a certain Thierry Henry. These two complemented each other immensely well, and were a big reason, if not the biggest, that this young Monaco team was so successful.
The Role of Youth
When taking over Monaco at the end of 2011, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev wanted to focus on developing youth talent rather than signing big-money acquisitions. This was due to the Financial Fair Play rules being established that year, and therefore the inability to inject large amounts of money into a club without repercussions.
Since then, Monaco’s youth recruitment has been one of the best in the world, signing youngsters like Bernando Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Thomas Lemar from other clubs. Monaco’s recruitment team has shown how a club can still win without huge amounts of money being funnelled into transfers.
Mbappe after signing for PSG on loan
This young core that Monaco had assembled mixed with the experience of dressing-room leaders like Falcao and Subasic, all came together at just the right time for an unbelievable one-season that the world will never forget.
However, regardless of what anyone thinks, football is still a business. The problem with teams that run based on youth is, if they are successful, they will be dissected by the big money clubs and have to start the long and arduous process again. Think about teams like Ajax in 18/19 where they have overperformed with a group of young, talented players and then been picked apart, with the management of these clubs unable to ignore the ridiculous amounts of money clubs are willing to pay for their players.
Monaco was no different.
In the next season, they accumulated €345 million in transfer fees. Silva and Mendy went to Manchester City, Bakayoko went to Chelsea, their star Mbappe to PSG the rest of the key players followed suit.
They managed to cling onto the momentum and finish second the next season, but it all came crashing down as they narrowly avoided relegation by just 2 points.
As the adage goes, “all good things must come to an end.”