When Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev decided to purchase a 66% stake in Monaco just over six years ago, the plan was very simple. Spend until we are at the top. But with millions being spent on the likes of Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho, the club lacked a clear structure to abide by under Claudio Ranieri and lost its purpose. That was the cue for Rybolovlev top rip everything up and start again with Leonardo Jardim, who held strong values on youth.
Out went Falcao and Rodriguez and in came Bernardo Silva and Tiemoue Bakayoko, who instantly fit the profile of a new side who wanted to sit deep and counter attack. They conceded just 37 goals in all competitions during the 2014/15 season, keeping 16 clean sheets and enjoyed an impressive run in Europe as well, famously knocking out Arsenal on away goals in the Champions League. Monaco were now a side with clear aims, ideals and a point on which to build on under Jardim whose stock has only continued to grow.
In the Old Testament, Jeremiah famously said ‘a leopard can’t change its spots’, but that’s exactly what happened in Monte Carlo as Les Rouges et Blancs went all out attack. In what was a seemingly effortless transition, a squad originally built to defend had turned into one of the most prolific in world football. In Ligue 1 alone, Monaco scored 107 goals last season, 24 goals ahead of PSG in second place and 44 goals ahead of Nice in third. Inspired by the likes of Benjamin Mendy, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar and Kylian Mbappe, who were all under the age of 23, they became one of the most exciting and sought-after sides in Europe
Paris Saint-Germain, humiliated by their incredible capitulation in the Champions League, also surrendered their domestic crown to this vibrant Monaco side, failing to win Ligue 1 for the first time since 2012. They salvaged the Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue but in the words of club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, it was a difficult campaign. Their signings – particularly Hatem Ben Arfa, Jese and Grzegorz Krychowiak – failed to shine, while they lost their focal point in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and with that, the club has recognized a need for change.
The Qatari businessman acknowledged twelve months ago that “after five years, you must start a new cycle” and started, belatedly, to act upon it. Unai Emery, the club’s manager, was assured of his position despite the twin disappointments in the league and in Europe; while Antero Henrique has arrived from Porto as the transfer market guru. Even Maxwell, the recently retired defender, has been employed to bridge the gap between the executive suite and the players. Mistakes were made but you could be certain that they wouldn’t happen again.
Cast your minds back to 2012, where Khelaifi identified Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva as the players who would provide a new era for the Parisians. Two established names behind their new identity. Five years on, he has settled on Neymar and soon to be Mbappe as the spiritual heirs to Ibrahimovic and Silva – two brilliant players with frightening potential who can help PSG finally punch through European football’s glass ceiling.
The Brazilian, at 25 years of age, fits that profile perfectly, even more so even than Cristiano Ronaldo whom they tried to sign earlier on this summer: He is seven years younger; his social media presence is more personal and genuine, he carries a true millennial authenticity. He also has the talent to win matches against top opposition, as PSG discovered this spring. Signing Neymar was more than capturing a player; it provided a status. That, to Khelaifi and to the club, is worth any price at all.
Mbappe on the other hand is already the poster boy of French football and he’s only 18 years old. Quick, skilful, a natural in the inside left channel and clinical in front of goal, it would surprise many if he were not to win the Ballon d’Or later in his career, and the best part is, they’ve poached him straight from their nearest rivals. Many thought it would be Real Madrid or bust for the teenager this summer, but the Parisians have flexed their financial and mental muscle again, and to great effect.
But what of Monaco? Jardim’s men have been picked apart by Europe’s elite this summer, and despite adding well in the form of Youri Tielemans and Adama Diakhaby it’s unlikely they will reach the heights of their last campaign. And what of Ligue 1? Lyon have lost Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso, arguably their two best players and have struggled for consistency. Lille are also building an exciting project but remain in transition under new manager Marcelo Bielsa, while Marseille continue to blow hot and cold under Rudi Garcia. Bordeaux boast plenty of talented attacking options but like many of their peers won’t be able to sustain a significant title challenge.
There is nothing worse than people talking lowly of other leagues, but Mbappé going to PSG, on top of Neymar, could kill title competition in France for the next five years at least. It was so refreshing to watch a young, vibrant Monaco side kill the status quo last year – all for what? Another era of Parisian dominance.