This first appeared on ever-excellent The Set Pieces
It was inevitable that Monaco would be plundered by Europe’s biggest clubs this summer.
When it began, it was still a week before the Champions League final, the tournament’s surprise semi-finalists losing Bernardo Silva to Manchester City. Since then barely a day has passed without the playmaker’s former teammates being linked with money-spinning moves across the continent. An exodus seems imminent as a thrilling young team is torn apart.
Having dared to disrupt the cosseted elite in the upper reaches of the game, it is easy to feel disheartened by the sight of the French champions being stripped of their best players. Kylian Mbappe, the 18-year-old breakout star of the season, is the subject of intense speculation, priced at figures approaching £100 million. Tiemoué Bakayoko and Fabinho are central figures on Premier League shortlists, joined by Benjamin Mendy and Thomas Lemar.
But don’t worry about Monaco. They have prepared for this eventuality and, to an extent, will welcome the interest as part of a business model that relies on constant renewal. It is a sentiment that appears to be at odds with the ransacking of Leonardo Jardim’s squad, but while the players dominate the gossip columns, the club are sticking to a shrewd approach that saw them overturn a 31-point gap in 2015/16 to beat Paris Saint-Germain to the Ligue 1 title a year later. It is a blueprint that rival teams across Europe would do well to copy, but few have the patience to wait for it to pay off.
Monaco’s triumphs this year were not achieved in the manner originally conceived when Dmitry Rybolovlev bought the club nearly six years ago. In 2013, the Russian billionaire bankrolled a £110 million spending spree to acquire Radamel Falcao from Atletico Madrid, and Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez in a double deal from FC Porto. Domestic success seemed within reach as they finished second in Ligue 1 and lost only four matches all season. But suddenly the brakes were applied.
Rybolovlev’s divorce was reported as being the most expensive in history. As it dragged on through the courts, Monaco needed to find another way to operate as the owner’s funds dried up. Perhaps taking note of the transfer policy at Porto, whom they paid £60 million for Moutinho and Rodriguez, the club focused on a similar tactic to buy young, largely unproven talent at affordable fees, which they could then sell on for significant profit should they realise their potential.
It was here that the foundations for their remarkable 2016/17 campaign were laid. In the summer of 2014, Silva arrived from Benfica, initially on loan, as did Fabinho from Rio Ave. Bakayoko was signed for €8 million from Rennes, while Falcao’s wages were shifted off the books and Rodriguez joined Real Madrid for €80 million after starring at the World Cup. Monaco finished third and claimed a place in Champions League qualifying. The spending squeeze did not have the devastating consequences that many had feared.
That was enough encouragement for the club to stay the course. In 2015/16, having tied Silva and Fabinho to permanent deals, they unearthed future first-team regulars Lemar and Jemerson, one of the unsung defensive heroes of the 2017 title success.
Another considerable profit was achieved by the sales of Layvin Kurzawa, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Geoffrey Kondogbia, but it was Anthony Martial’s €50million move to Manchester United that carried the torch for the new era of economic pragmatism. Within two years of being plucked from the youth teams at Lyon for €5 million, the forward was sold for one of the greatest profit margins ever recorded. That might conflict with tales of football romanticism, but it is as misty-eyed as the modern game allows at this level.
Despite the talent drain, Monaco again finished third. In March 2016 they won 2-0 away to a PSG side celebrating a fourth successive Ligue 1 crown, offering hope of a closer battle the following season.
The club’s resurgence turned out to be stronger than almost anyone expected. As well as recruiting Mendy from Marseille, Monaco complemented their host of prodigious youngsters with experience and leadership. Falcao was brought back into the fold and appointed captain, Kamil Glik was a vital piece of the jigsaw acquired from Torino and Valère Germain returned after impressing on loan at Nice. The trio proved influential as Jardim fused know-how with youthful exuberance to surge to the title and a place in the Champions League semi-finals.
Although he now risks losing his star players, Jardim, who signed a new contract earlier this month, has bought into Monaco’s vision. This summer he will do it all again. Silva’s departure will be followed by several more, of which Mbappe would be the most painful. But Monaco have already started the rebuilding process.
Jordi Mboula, an 18-year-old winger from Barcelona, has been recruited for £2.5 million, while a £20 million outlay on Anderlecht midfielder Youri Tielemans immediately looks a sound investment. Soualiho Meïté and Jordy Gaspar are less familiar names, but you wonder if Lyon will eventually curse the latter’s departure in the same way they must regret losing Martial.
With attacking midfielders Rony Lopes and Allan Saint-Maximin returning from loan spells at Lille and Bastia, Jardim’s squad is once again brimming with young talent. And as they prepare for the new season, Monaco will remind themselves they have coped with churn before: three of the players who featured in the 3-1 victory over Manchester City that secured a Champions League semi-final spot were not at the club a year before, while three more made 13 appearances or fewer in the previous campaign.
That spirited resolve to cope with the loss of key players and integrate replacements will serve the club well as they bid to retain their Ligue 1 title and return to the business end of the Champions League. One of their greatest ever sides may be ripped apart this summer, but Monaco don’t have time for pity. If they stick to a plan that has proved more fruitful than PSG’s spending power over the past 12 months, they will be back in contention next season.
Matt Stanger – follow him on Twitter