Association Sportive de Monaco Football’s recent story reads out like a moral lesson to all football clubs who think they can buy their way to glory. In the short term, it may work out successfully to some degree but the longer a football club buys into that philosophy, the deeper the risk of mess they could eventually become. There is only one way to guarantee or ensure long-term success in a football club, and that is to place the utmost emphasis on their youth development.
To talk about Monaco’s success this season, we would have to go back to 2011 when Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev purchased the club with a promise to outspend Ligue 1 title rivals Paris St. Germain, after all, this was the flagship club of the richest principality in the world, boasting the highest density of billionaires. Monaco went on to spend the £150million+ over the next 2 transfer windows to catch up with their French counterparts PSG, but failed to usurp them as Ligue 1 champions.
After 2 years of unsuccessfully trying to purchase their way to the top, the club employed Leonardo Jardim and with his appointment came a change to the club’s objectives. They were to focus on their academy rather than buying high-profile players year after year. Naturally, the transfer budget was reduced by a huge margin. Rybolovlev’s shrewd decision to bring in Jardim was also tied to the Portuguese’s previous success working under stringent conditions at Sporting Lisbon and Olympiacos.
At the time, appointing Jardim was met with heavy criticism. Early performances did nothing to allay the supporters’ discontent. He was blasted in the media for being overly cautious with his tactics and Monaco’s run of 3 losses in his first 5 games in charge did not help in any way. Many had already concluded that the decisions (to focus on the youth academy + Jardim’s appointment) taken by the club’s higher-ups were doomed to fail, but Jardim has never lacked ambition, and he was very aware of the situation he was getting into. “This team cannot expose itself so much offensively. One of the virtues of a coach is to adapt to the club, to the moment, to situations. You have to adapt the team to its realities to do as well as possible, to be as ambitious as you can within the scope of its abilities,” he said in 2014.
While the transition from a big-spending outfit to a side that places a massive amount of emphasis on youth is always tough, Jardim proceeded to make sure that there was effortlessness about how the process panned out at Stade Louis II. Jardim’s judicious utilisation of resources at his disposal made sure that Monaco hung around close to the top of the table come the season’s end, even though his brand of football did not particularly please the “Einsteins” of football as Jose Mourinho will say.
Fast forward to 2017 and Monaco are Ligue 1 leaders with the 3rd youngest side in the league, and are managed by the 2nd youngest coach. They are also the most devastating attack on the continent with 78 goals scored. The new class of Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar and Bernardo Silva have been grabbing headlines for the principality club this season and all for the right reasons. AS Monaco’s under-23 players have had a direct hand in 68 out of the 78 goals (37 goals/31 assists) scored in Ligue 1 by the club this season. Monaco have earned a knack of blowing fellow French opposition away as though they were playing against players from a younger age group. This change did not come about out of the blue – a lot of progress was happening when no one was paying attention. The average age of the current side is 24. It isn’t the youngest side in Ligue 1 but Jardim has made very effective usage of the side that he has at his disposal. Many of the players in the side have come of age only this season. Be it Bernardo Silva, Kylian Mbappe, or Thomas Lemar, many of Jardim’s players have begun to perform to the best of their potential after spending a good amount of time at the club and learning their manager’s philosophy.
As at March 1, 2017, Les Monégasques have scored 13 more goals in the league than Barcelona, 18 more goals than Real Madrid, 23 more times than both Chelsea and Liverpool and 24 more times than Bundesliga’s table-toppers Bayern Munich. While, it does seem strange how a team of relative ‘unknowns’ has outscored the giants of the game, very few had made the effort of sitting up and taking notice.
Thomas Lemar is exceptional at both teeing up others and scoring himself from dead ball scenarios, and given that two of his three league assists came from corners, the statistics back this up too. Yet for all of his set-piece precision, the Guadeloupe-born attacking midfielder offers far more than that alone. His incredibly sticky first touch and his dribbling enable him to wiggle his way out of tight spaces effortlessly. This is perhaps one of the reasons why he looks most comfortable in the No. 10 role, as he can duck and weave his way clear of oncoming traffic, shielding the ball as he does so, before picking his moment to release possession. Throw in his low centre of gravity – Lemar stands at a decidedly diminutive 5’6inches tall – and he is not the easiest man to dispossess. His per game averages of 1.4 tackles per game, 1 interception per game, and 0.3 clearances per game show that he understands the defensive aspect of the game as well. For a man whose former Caen teammate (Alaeddine Yahia) compared his left foot to a hand, such is its accuracy, his career appears to be headed one way: up.
In Monaco’s treasure trove of talent, Kylian Mbappe is the crown jewel. Watching Mbappe glide around the pitch is seemingly watching a reincarnation of Thierry Henry. Their body movements, style of attack, mannerisms are eerily similar you would be forgiven to think you were watching a compilation of the Arsenal legend in his early career in Monaco. Mbappe is a right-footed wide player with raw pace coupled with the capacity to attack a defender on the inside or outside, alongside a sound knowledge of how to create and exploit space. The 17-year-old can play either in a central forward position, or on either wing. With a clinical eye for goal, he broke Thierry Henry’s record in becoming Monaco’s youngest ever goalscorer (17yrs, 62 days) during a cameo appearance against Troyes back in February 2016.
His dad, Wilfried, described Kylian as someone who is passionate and “watches everything”, which once again highlights his desire to learn from others and continue to get better. This season he has appeared 27 times-although he has started a game just 13 times for the club- and has returned an eye-boggling 12 goals and 5 assists, including a magnificent hat-trick against FC Metz. This statistic is even more impressive when you delve in further. Mbappe has played just 838 minutes of football in all competitions (equivalent of about 9 full games). Last month against Manchester City, he became the 3rd youngest player to start a Champions League game, and fittingly marked the occasion with a well-taken goal.
Something that usually isn’t spoken of is his unselfishness. He’s constantly looking for movement ahead of him from team-mates in better goal scoring positions near the final third, and this is beneficial as it allows the team an attacking outlet to rely on in tricky situations. It might seem cliché to say Mbappe is the next Thierry Henry, but simply put, he is.
Mostly featuring on the right-hand side, the magical left foot Bernardo Silva possesses means he’ll often cut inside, occupying two, if not three defenders at a time. Doing so opens acres of space for onrushing runners who then have the perfect opportunity to whip in a teasing ball, just as Fabinho did against Manchester City for Monaco’s equaliser. Of course, in situations like this much of the credit will deservedly go to the goalscorer and/or whoever provided the assist. But, time and time again, Bernardo Silva has instigated such moves, helping to transform Monaco into Europe’s highest scoring side this season.
Indeed, Bernardo Silva’s key attributes on a football pitch are obvious for all to see: excellent technique, intricate dribbling and sat-nav vision. He epitomises what a true old-fashioned number 10 should be. The former Benfica man enjoys cutting inside most of the time he receives the ball wide on the right, and will often either make a direct run towards goal, or will simply play in the overlapping runner. The footballing brain Silva has is one of his greatest attributes, and given he’s only 22 years old, his decision-making is at a maestro level. The Portuguese playmaker rarely loses possession and has accumulated an average passing accuracy of 80.9% in all competitions this season, highlighting his calmness on the ball. In addition to his ability to keep possession and make good use of the ball, he has a natural instinct to know whether to dribble, pass or shoot at any given moment. This has been very important for Monaco and was evident against Manchester City, where he provided an outlet as the Monaco defence struggled to soak up an overload of attacks from the English giants.
Although Silva’s physique is by no means imposing – he stands at 5’7 inches tall -, he has shown in his performances both domestically and internationally that he is undeterred by bigger opposition, producing countless vigorous defensive displays. He has averaged 1.2 tackles per game, 0.8 interceptions and 0.5 clearances per game in all competitions. These numbers are excellent for an attacking midfielder in today’s game when attackers seem to forget the importance of defending as a unit. The fact he’s able to devote that much defensively on a game-to-game basis epitomises his work ethic.
Getting this talented crop of youngsters and developing them at Monaco’s youth academy – La Turbie, was an arduous task to say the least. A disadvantage of Monaco’s location is an absence of a local population to pick youngsters from. The population of Monaco is about 38,000 which means their stadium Stade Louis II (18,000 capacity) can accommodate almost half of the city’s population. While other teams have grassroots teams from the under-9s, they have had to start from the under-15s, as it is impossible to recruit youngsters younger than 14 outside their area of origin. Their players join from national institutes like INF Clairefontaine- where Nicolas Anelka, Hatem Ben Arfa, Mehdi Benatia Thierry Henry, Blaise Matuidi, Louis Saha all graduated from – but instead of suffering from this weakness, they turned it into a strength. Monaco were forced to aggressively scout for the best young players in France, while other clubs preferred to develop their international scouting range. Monaco’s success this season should translate to European dominance in 3-4 years but the sad reality is that most of their players will move to bigger clubs to earn top dollar; this is evident as the new wave of players – Tiemoue Bakayoko, Thomas Lemar, Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva – are already attracting interest from Europe’s elite.