Adam White

Biggest Mistake?

Adam White
Biggest Mistake?

This article also appeared on Guardian Sport and GFFN as part of the Ligue 1 review.

Until recently, mistakes were rare at Monaco. Russian duo Dmitry Rybolovlev and Vadim Vasilyev lead Les Monegasques from Ligue 2 to league winners in just five years. But this season Monaco collapsed. “I have had to deal with the club’s problems” read a Rybolovlev statement, “I took a number of difficult, but, in my opinion, necessary decisions.” With manager and director of football replaced, VP Vasilyev has gone too. French football’s master negotiator, however, could prove irreplaceable.

Initially appointed as an adviser in January 2013, Vasilyev was quickly promoted to sporting director and vice president, becoming the club’s spokesperson and spearhead. His strategy centered on realism, revenue and hard-ball negotiating while conceding Monaco are working within certain restraints and that mirroring PSG’s model simply isn’t sustainable. “You need more than money and ambition,” he explained in L’equipe. “You need to be in a big town, to have a population around you, play in a big league. There are several elements which just don’t exist [here].” A situation underlined by Monaco’s 40,000 population and Ligue 1’s lowest average attendance.

In tandem with Rybolovlev's frustration over FFP fines, this ceiling resulted in the scaling back of the spending that brought James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao and Joao Moutinho to the principality. It was hoped, wrongly, that star signings would attract sponsorship. “We thought that Monaco would make earnings much quicker,” Vasilyev previously conceded. Monaco changed tact, morphing from the ultimate buying club into the ultimate selling club, a “project for the long haul. Yes, it takes longer, it is less glorious… but we believe in it,” said Vasilyev, reiterating after Kylian Mbappe’s sale that “everyone knows our philosophy - we are a selling club.”

This switch played to Vasilyev’s strengths. In tandem with director of football Luis Campos, his ability to balance transfer revenue with sporting success proved unmatched. Huge sales were covered with carefully scouted replacements while stubbornly holding onto some marquee players, much to Fabinho and Thomas Lemar’s frustration. Nevertheless, despite the dismantling of two successful teams in 4 years, Monaco have finished in Ligue 1’s top three every year since since promotion and made the Champions League last eight and final four.

Vasilyev’s ability to negotiate gargantuan fees and exploit an inflated market has proved remarkably profitable. Academy graduate Kylian Mbappe was sold for €180m. Lemar, the quintessential Monaco signing - value for money on a burgeoning talent ready for first team football - joined Atletico Madrid for €70m having arrived from Caen for just €4m. Benjamin Mendy, a surprise €12m addition from Marseille, went to Manchester City for €58m. Fabinho, Bernardo Silva, Anthony Martial, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Layvin Kurzawa, Yannick Carrasco, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Guido Carrillo were signed for just over €60m and sold for nearly €300m under Vasilyev who, according to Mediapart, supposedly pockets 10% of all transfer profits personally.

Monaco, largely thanks to Vasilyev, became an example of how build a sustainable, profitable model. However, a catastrophic implosion resulted in Vasilyev’s dismissal last week as Rybolovlev citing “serious mistakes”. Paramount among them was a transfer policy shift that coincided with sporting director Michael Emenalo’s arrival from Chelsea. Since, only Aleksandr Golovin and Jean Ahoulou truly represented the ideas behind previous additions. Instead, raw, inexperienced prospects were the focus.

Despite just 11 senior league games between them, €40m was spent on Pietro Pellegri and Willem Guebbels, both 16, while Sofiane Diop (18) was unsuccessfully given a first team role having never made a senior appearance at Rennes. All three remain talented but none were ready to make a consistent impact. Meanwhile, signed by Wolves, Moutinho’s experience was not replaced - streetwise older pros Moutinho, Kamil Gilk and Falcao have been key to Monaco's sporting achievements but their importance was overlooked. Emenalo was sacked in January, “the mistakes made during the summer transfer window were taken into account,” said Vasilyev, “this winter we have worked more thoroughly to strengthen the team.”

A change of coach proved a massive misstep for Vasilyev. Leonardo Jardim’s ability to swiftly and repeatedly mould a disparate group into a winning team while developing younger players was pivotal for Monaco’s project. Without Lemar and Fabinho, the Portuguese had admitted that repeating the feat this season would be more difficult that ever. Nevertheless, despite a lack of coaching pedigree or any sign he could emulate Jardim’s repeatedly deft and nuanced management, Thierry Henry was handed a squad equally bereft of experience and expected to return the club to the top three. He failed, dramatically.

“I called Leonardo Jardim myself, apologizing for the mistake made back in October and asked him to return to lead the team.” Rybolovlev said. “I have approved all of his proposals in relation to the acquisition of new players.” Youri Tielemans was loaned to Leicester at Jardim’s request while fellow Portuguese speakers, Gelson Martins, Carlos Vinicius and Adrian Silva all arrived - Liga Nos being a favoured market previously. Monaco have 7 points in three league games since Jardim’s return.

“Now it is time for change.” Rybolovlev continued after his countryman’s departure. “Changes relate not only to the players, but also to the top management of the club.” Incoming CEO Oleg Petrov will be that change. Despite little footballing experience Petrov mirrors Vasilyev’s strong business background and negotiating skills but whether he can match French football’s master negotiator remains uncertain. As Rybolovlev admitted, mistakes have been made at Monaco. Vasilyev’s removal may prove their biggest yet.

by Adam White