“In this project, there are positive cycles, followed by more difficult cycles. We know this, but that does not affect our motivation” explained Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim to Le Parisien in February. The Principality club have just completed their most positive ‘cycle’ since Dmitry Rybolovlev's billions were introduced in 2011. Triumphs of the freewheeling, jubilant gallop to the Ligue 1 title and a Champions League semi final were swiftly followed by the sales of many of those players who brought them. Kylian Mbappe, Benjamin Mendy, Tiemoue Bakayoko Bernardo Silva and Valere Germain formed a 350m Euro exodus from the Stade Louis II this summer. Disappointing in sporting terms, this was always part of the plan.
Having quickly switched tact from the marquee signing policy that brought Falcao and James Rodriguez to Monaco in 2013 to shrewdly identifying talent, given those players the opportunity to develop before selling them on at a profit, the Mbappe lead vintage was merely the latest peak of team which, by design, steadily improves, achieves, is dismantled and then revamped. The previous zenith, a Champions League quarter final in 2015, instigated the sales of Anthony Martial, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, Layvin Kurzawa and Aymen Abdennour for a combined 170m Euros.
As opposed to the usual clamour for a hurried reinvesting of such huge fees after the desolation of such successful sides, Monaco carefully and precisely rebuilt their squad with the longer term in mind. The relative small change of a combined 10m Euros saw Caen midfielder Thomas Lemar arrive alongside Fabinho who was signed permanently after a loan from Rio Ave. Both mean are now worth in excess 50m. Nevertheless, their season and new look side started slowly - only 11th after 10 games with just 3 wins. The second half of the year was a marked improvement, eventually finishing third. Few departures over the off season as well as further reinforcements of Mendy and Kamil Gilk as well as Falcao’s return saw the upward trajectory continue into the following season, all the way to Ligue 1s summit.
Monaco's current campaign has tread a similar path. Any hopes of a renewed title race after a winning start were walked back over the autumn as form dropped away without Mbappe, Silva and Co to maintain it. At one point Lyon and Marseille seemed to be clear favourites for the Champions League places but, just as before, Jardim’s new incarnation of Monaco started to be click. Friday’s 2-1 win over Lille was their sixth in their last seven games and kept them comfortably clear in second place after OM loss in the Olympico while displays are again starting to hint at their effervescent best.
Formerly on loan at Lille 22 year old Rony Lopes is leading the new wave of Monaco starlets. Having always promised much, the stocky, skilful forward has only shone in brief spells across his fledgling career to date and he too has taken time to grow into the season. By no means first choice in 2017, some irrepressible, confident performances in the new year have accounted for 9 goals in his last 11 outings including the superb winner in a 3-2, 10 man comeback triumph over a flagging Lyon.
Fortunately for Rybolovlev and vice chairman Vadim Vasilyev, they have the perfect coach to develop and rejuvenate the playing squad on a season to season basis and who buys into the process. "I am a coach who likes to adapt to the players I have” explained Leonardo Jardim “Once again, some of the major elements of the past season are gone but we recruited young talents. They still need to find their feet at this level. It's normal." Jardim’s ability to cajole the best from less obvious avenues extends to to the more established names. Having struggled with fitness and form upon his arrival last summer, Steven Jovetic has rapidly developed into a crucial cog in the Monaco machine in 2018, showing some of the best form of his career.
Jardim’s talent for adapting to abrupt changes in personnel and direction has become his speciality but he readily admits it has its drawbacks. Monaco’s constant evolution leaves little room for a set identity, as the Portuguese elaborates. “All coaches want to play nice football but sometimes it is not possible and we must be content to seek victory at all costs to give the players confidence and progress. To have a style, it would be necessary to be able to keep the same players each year, or to recruit others with the game which you want to practice in mind. The Monaco project is different. We train players, we value them.”
Meanwhile, the time it takes for new ideas to settle means comparative lean years are frequent. “We have not been at the level of such a competition.” Jardim lamented after his side’s limp exit from the Champions League in L’Equipe, “We need to build a stronger team for next season. The management knows that it happens. It's cyclical. It is necessary to respect the evolution and the progression of the players.”
The dismantling of a team has forever been an unfortunate consequence of unexpected footballing success. A generation of young players might blossom simultaneously or an eclectic group of established names may finally strike the right balance, either way those key to these triumphs are often lured away by the brighter lights of a more prestigious club or a few zeros thrown on the end of their salary. Usually, this marks an end to any such side’s fleeting glory but AS Monaco have made this process the core philosophy of their business and they are on the rise once more. Should the pattern continue, next season could be their best yet.