Scouting report: 'The dullest team in Ligue 1' aim to bore Arsenal into submission
Who wants to be a millionaire? Actually, the more pertinent question here, really, is who doesn’t? Certainly, dollar bills can’t have been too far from the mind of Elena Rybolovlev when, in February 2014, she was awarded a divorce settlement entitling her to 4.5 billion of them after a messy divorce from Dmitry, the Russian oligarch known in the USA for purchasing ‘two of the most expensive residences ever bought in the United States’ according to the New York Times. He gave one of them to his student daughter, Ekaterina. Just imagine the house parties.
What has all of this got to do with football, you may wonder? Well, as it happens, Dmitry Rybolovlev is also the owner of AS Monaco. He bought a controlling stake in the French principality club back in 2011. At the time, he was 93rd on the Forbes list of billionaires, and the club were in France’s second division. As ‘sugar daddy rescues damsel in distress’ stories go, it was a match made if not in heaven then on reality TV.
So began a whirlwind story of ascent. Monaco had fallen on hard times, but recovered to win Ligue 2 and clamber back into France’s top flight. What followed was an ambitious rebranding project aimed at framing Les Monégasques as European football’s newest superclub. "We are Monaco" the marketing campaigns screamed. Plans to turn the club into a billionaires' luxury chillout lounge were floated – an ‘aspirational, boutique brand’ as Times journalist Gabriele Marcotti explained it, with “high quality, luxury seats for which wealthy Monaco residents would pay around €2000 a game”.
Monaco spent around £150m to lure the likes of James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao and Joao Moutinho to the Stade Louis II. PSG had a nouveaux riche playmate; Ligue 1 had a new rivalry. But it didn’t last.
Though last season they finished second, securing Champions League football, the star names were sold. James Rodriguez left to be the new face of Real Madrid after completing a £63m move, while Radamel Falcao is now ambling around at Manchester United – a shadow of his former self after a serious knee injury from which he's never fully recovered. Other big names such as Eric Abidal departed too.
Monaco planned to burn empires and build kingdoms, but a dramatic administrative volte-face left them pawning off the heavy artillery within two years and retiring to the bunker.
Whether this U-turn was prompted by Rybolovlev’s expensive divorce, the harsh realities of Financial Fair Play, anger at French football’s general hostility to his takeover (the club were made to pay €50m over two years just to play in Ligue 1, a penalty imposed to even out the prinicpality’s favourable tax-free status – part of a wider ‘tax the rich’ agenda exemplified by Francois Hollande’s ascendancy to France’s presidency – but a heist in the eyes of those at Monaco) or something else, this new age of austerity is reflected in the club’s football: Monaco have the best defensive record in Ligue 1 but only four teams have scored fewer.
The Champions League last 16 tie against Arsenal is almost like an awkward reminder of more ambitious times for Monaco, an exciting occasion for the club’s supporters but a reminder of how rapidly the dream screeched to a halt. Few expect them to advance, but a young and organised side aren't to be underestimated.
Defensively, it’s undeniable that Monaco are a strong unit. Leonardo Jardim’s team are on a run of seven wins from their last 10 league games, and five of those have been by a scoreline that will be very familiar to anyone who followed Arsenal under George Graham: 1-0 to the ASM. They also boast the best defensive record in this season's Champions League, conceding just one goal and keeping five clean sheets.
Born in Venezuela to Portuguese parents, Jardim is renowned as an organised, defence-first coach in Portugal. His Braga side posted the fourth-best defensive record in 2011/12, finishing third, and last season his Sporting Lisbon team enjoyed the league’s best defensive record. Jardim has taken this stingy defensive organisation with him to the French Riviera.
Despite claiming when he arrived at the club last summer that he wanted his team “to play top class football”, the reality is that games involving Monaco this term are often exercises in crushing the dreams of football aesthetes in favour of joyless, dull fare.
After the recent 1-0 win against Nice, France Football ran a poll asking if Monaco were Ligue 1’s most boring team. 71% of respondents who arose from their slumber in time to vote said ‘yes’.
Still, they’re a hard side to breakdown. A deep midfield block and a compact shape is geared towards frustrating opponents by closing off any space. It’s not thrilling to watch, but Monaco’s rise up the table to fourth, after a dire start to the campaign, is proof of its effectiveness.
Scoring goals is a problem for the red-and-whites, who’ve managed just 26 in 25 league games in 2014/15 – nearly half the tally of table-toppers Lyon.
The lofty league position barely conceals the reality: that Monaco struggle for firepower. Dimitar Berbatov is their top scorer with six goals but the fact Falcao left the club at the start of September, yet remains their joint-fourth top scorer, says it all.
“We create a lot of chances but we lack efficiency in front of goal,” Jardim has stated. It’s a fair comment: Monaco average 12 shots per game in Ligue 1 – marginally fewer than PSG’s 12.3 per game but have scored 20 fewer goals.
“The quality of our game must improve, that’s a certainty,” club vice-president Vadim Vasilyev rather ominously told Le Figaro recently. “We talk with Jardim regularly about this subject. He’s aware of it.”
The game plan
The seven-time French champions are likely to line up in a 4-5-1 with a tight, defensive block in midfield aimed at stifling Arsenal’s flair players in the middle and forward areas.
With Jeremy Toulalan suspended, Joao Moutinho, Geoffrey Kondogbia and one other will likely pack the midfield with winger Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, attacking midfielder Bernardo Silva and Berbatov looked to for whatever creativity they can muster on the break.
Defensively Monaco are strong, with uncompromising centre-back Aymen Abdennour and promising full-backs Fabinho and Layvin Kurzawa all part of a sturdy unit, though the latter is struggling with an injury.
In the context of a game away at Arsenal, Toulalan’s skill set would have made him the game’s key player from a Monaco perspective. The 31-year-old averages 51 passes per game this season, with an 80% success rate, and is Les Monégasques' top tackler with 3.8 per game – the joint-fifth best ball winner in Ligue 1.
Fortunately for the Gunners, Toulalan is suspended – a major blow to ASM’s hopes. A key player regardless, Moutinho’s passing range and vision make him a useful link between defence and attack, while Kondogbia’s ball retention, tenacity and tackling bring guile to that area too. The pair will have to be on form to ensure Toulalan’s absence isn’t too big a hindrance.
Historically one of Ligue 1’s most successful clubs, Monaco’s alumni is packed with world stars: Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Jerome Rothen, Fabien Barthez, Ludovic Giuly, Fernando Morientes, er… Dado Prso. But the man that stands above them all in ASM folklore is legendary Argentine striker Delio Onnis – the top scorer in Ligue 1 history with 299 goals, 157 of which came in Monaco colours.