Ligue 1 has become the land of the unexpected this season. Promoted Lens are on the verge of Europe; PSG have lost the same number of home league games as in the previous seven seasons combined; and even Raymond Domenech (briefly) found his way back into the league. But Monaco’s surprise title charge has quietly become the most eye-catching story of the season. They could yet win it all.
Since their glorious Ligue 1 title win in 2017, Monaco have been marooned in a perpetual state of flux. After the sales of Kylian Mbappé, Bernardo Silva, Tiémoué Bakayoko, Benjamin Mendy and, eventually, Fabinho and Thomas Lemar, their negotiator-in-chief Vadim Vasilyev – despite engineering mammoth transfer profits – was unable to lead the club into another cycle of success. Without the influence of famed transfer guru Luis Campos and the waning effect of coach Leonardo Jardim, Monaco quickly faded and Jardim was eventually sacked.
Thierry Henry’s ensuing reign proved disastrous and relegation loomed before Jardim was bizarrely reinstated. Monaco survived but the manager was unable to revamp the team successfully and he was soon dismissed for the second time in little more than a year.
With the arrival of sporting director Paul Mitchelllast summer, former Spain coach Robert Moreno was not retained and lasted just a dozen games despite demonstrating signs of future success with a gutsy 4-4-2 shape. At a first glance, Moreno’s removal appeared to be Monaco’s latest rash attempt to rip everything up and start again. But this season has been different.
After Moreno’s ruthless sacking, Niko Kovac was appointed as coach last summer in what is proving an inspired decision. “Robert was good, but Niko is a coach with more experience with big teams in Germany … and as a player himself, so he is a leader,” said Monaco vice president Oleg Petrov in December. “He is very strong, very charismatic with the players. You see that, when he talks, the way players behave is outstanding. Paul convinced us that this was the right thing to do. Niko has his own style: very intensive, attacking football. Results driven, less ball possession.”
Kovac started slowly and Monaco sat seventh at Christmas after an underwhelming eight wins from his first 17 league games. However, Monaco have become Ligue 1’s standout side. After their 3-0 win at Bordeaux this weekend, they have now won 16 of the 19 games they have played in 2021.
Balance has been key. The policy of carefully scouting, recruiting and developing young talents alongside more experienced and proven players worked during Jardim’s first tenure but then jumped the shark after the 2017 title win, a shift exemplified by the signings of 16-year-olds Pietro Pellegri (from Genoa) and Willem Guebbels (from Lyon) for a combined €40m, despite the fact they had made just 14 senior appearances between them.
Mitchell, Petrov and Kovac have returned to a more considered approach. Burgeoning talents who are ready for a step up, such as midfielders Aurélien Tchouaméni (Bordeaux, 21) and Youssouf Fofana (Strasbourg, 22) who signed last January alongside summer defensive additions Axel Disasi (Reims, 23) and Caio Henrique (Atlético Madrid, 23) as well as academy graduates such as centre-back Benoît Badiashile have been pushed to the fore. All have succeeded and progressed, nurtured by experienced players such as Cesc Fàbregas, France international striker Wissam Ben Yedder, summer marquee signing Kevin Volland and a rejuvenated Stevan Jovetic.
Having been a little lightweight and inconsistent while at Bordeaux, Tchouaméni has become a powerful, technical and versatile presence who can impose himself on any midfield battle. Attacking midfielder Sofiane Diop, despite floundering under Henry and being shipped off for a loan in Ligue 2, has been transformed as a skilful, illusive creator and he often keeps Aleksandr Golovin on the bench. Chilean centre-back Guillermo Maripan, who was initially out of favour under Kovac, has found consistency and a knack for important goals as he fought his way back into the side.
The Monaco squad is full of players who have visibly improved or subverted expectations. Even captain and talisman Ben Yedder is not assured a start anymore, acting as a super sub in recent weeks. Whoever Kovac picks, Monaco are routinely devastating. Initially utilising an aggressive 4-4-2, Monaco gradually morphed into a 3-6-1 shape. Collectivism is Kovac’s greatest asset. Mirroring their coach, Monaco are a dynamic, astute and fluid outfit. Such versatility helped them pull off two famous wins over PSG in the league this season.
Becoming something of a juggernaut, Monaco are now genuine title contenders with just five games to play. They closed the gap to the top again this weekend thanks to a creaking Lille who only took a point from Montpellier on Friday night. PSG were then presented with the chance to go within a point on Sunday lunchtime. After 75 goalless minutes, all hell broke loose at the Parc des Princes as an unusually bold and competitive Saint-Étienne went ahead through Denis Bouanga. PSG, however, were level less than 30 seconds later via a sumptuous Ander Herrera pass and a deft touch and finish from Kylian Mbappé.
Nominative determinism favourite and Les Verts goalkeeper Etienne Green seemed to have let PSG off the hook when his rash challenge on Mbappé led to a penalty kick, which Mbappé rifled home to give PSG the lead. Romain Hamouma equalised for Saint-Étienne in injury time only for Mauro Icardi to head home the winner with virtually the last touch. Parisian jubilation underlined how far Ligue 1 has progressed this season. Previously, a 3-2 home win over one of their favourite punching bags in the QSI era would be cause for inquiry rather than celebration.
After Monaco beat Bordeaux 3-0, and Lyon beat Nantes 2-1, the top four are now separated by just three points. Lyon host Lille next Sunday before travelling to Monaco a week later. Both meetings will go a long way to deciding the winners of this most thrilling of title races. For now, after a tumultuous few years, it is a climax that Monaco and Kovac are simply happy to be a part of. But, given that they have a wise coach, a talented and developing group of players, a host of options and proof they can beat the best, Kovac and Monaco may only just be getting started.
After Stéphane Moulin, the longest serving and most underrated coach in the top five European leagues, officially announced he would be leaving Angers at the end of the campaign, the similarly under-appreciated Reims coach David Guion followed suit this week by informing his players that he would be departing in summer. When Guion was promoted from the club’s academy set-up in 2017, Angers had just finished seventh in Ligue 2. He built a stylish team that comfortably won the second division title in his first season. He then successfully recast his players into Ligue 1’s most organised and difficult to beat side as they challenged for European football. A considered and intelligent technician, Guion – much like Moulin and Lens coach Franck Haise – should be under serious consideration for openings higher up the French football food chain this summer. Reims may be in trouble without him.
The European Super League does not include any French teams, for the moment. PSG took the surprising step, for now, of refusing the chance to sign up. RMC reported that the club’s close relationship with Uefa chief Aleksander Ceferin was key to this decision and it is a position supported by France president Emmanuel Macron. Often seen as the quintessential branding-building nouveau-riche outfit, PSG should be praised for side-stepping such a dangerous plan designed to benefit a handful of individuals that could potentially mean the death of our sport. Hopefully they, and the rest of Ligue 1, hold true.
Ligue 1 table