Suddenly, within one of Monaco’s darkest recent seasons, there is now a prick of light. Atletico Madrid might have held them at arm’s length in the Champions League on Wedesday night and on Saturday they may have surrendered a lead to lose 1-2 to Montpellier, but – as with the 1-0 victory over Caen seven days ago – there were signs of encouragement.
Thierry Henry’s first steps in management could hardly have been tougher. While Monaco have clearly been deeply underwhelming to this point, Henry has been (and remains) without an entire battalion of influential players who, in time, will hopefully become fundamental to his new side. In addition to those who left over the summer (Fabinho, Lemar, Moutinho), still missing are influential centre-back Kamil Glick, gifted attacking-midfielder Rony Lopes, former Manchester City forward Stevan Jovetic, and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. Henry is a managerial novice and the many formations and players he’s used since taking charge at Stade Louis II betray that, but part of that flux has been instructed by circumstance.
Against Montpellier, there were further signs of recovery. Henry altered the shape again from the win over Caen, dropping Sofiane Diop to the bench, abandoning a 4-2-3-1 for a more orthodox 4-4-2, and pushing new signing Aleksandr Golovin alongside Radamel Falco in attack.
Prior to Saturday night, Monaco had won just two games all season, and just once under Henry. Under those conditions, when a team’s form is so abject, winning and losing becomes almost a secondary concern. Instead, general competence becomes more relevant, so too the correction of the season-long trends which have dropped the club into the relegation zone. In that context, the number of chances created on Saturday was heartening. Before Youri Tielemens gave them the lead on the counter-attack, three minutes before half-time, they might already have been ahead. Benjamin Henrichs had sidefooted a good chance wide after a smart move, while Tielemens himself also saw a low effort flick off the outside of the post. In the second-half, Golovin was worked into space on the edge of box, only for his shot to come back off the crossbar.
Chance creation has been a continuous problem in 2018-19. As Alex Stewart describes in the video below, Monaco have lacked the stability, cohesion, movement and – frankly – the ideas to be a consistent threat and their limp return of just thirteen goals from fourteen games reflected that.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the game showed them as a fluid and consistently dangerous side, but Monaco did exhibit signs of chemistry against Montpellier. A 4-4-2 is generally used as a failsafe; it’s simple to understand, most players have encountered it during their youth careers, and it creates security for fragile players. But while Henry’s side did benefit from that familiarity, they also showed a flicker of chemistry too and enough good football to suggest that Henry’s ideas are taking root.
Their goal was characteristic of that understanding. It owed something to sloppy Montpellier defending and the move itself unfolded almost in slow motion, but the shape of the counter was right and the use of the ball, right up until Tielemens found the net, was excellent.
Inconveniently, it amounted to nothing. Gaetan Laborde’s unmarked header nine minutes from time wiped out their advantage and then, after Jemerson’s catastrophic attempt at a clearance, Petar Skuletic barged through to poke Montpellier into a lead that they wouldn’t lose. As far as defeats go, it will be crushing. Henry is relying on a lot of young players to plug the holes in his team and these kind of experiences will take some getting over. This, in particular, was very harsh. Montpellier scored with their only two opportunities of real note and for developing, pliable footballers that can be a dispiriting lesson to learn.
But in time, once the sting of this loss has been drawn, Henry and his players will likely see this as progress. Not a turning point, obviously, or anything to be overly-enthused by, but certainly a more positive performance which against a lesser side would have been rewarded with at least a point.
So it wasn’t a win, but it might instruct a few before much longer.