Monaco not gambling on success

Posted by Ian Holyman

It must be difficult to resist the temptation to buy just whatever you fancy when you have more money than the Monte Carlo casino. The 112th-richest man in the world, according to Forbes last year, Monaco owner and president Dmitri Rybolovlev is in that enviable position, but though he has spent €166.2 million of his Himalayan fortune this summer, the size of the bill could have been bigger.

That there were sweeping changes to the side which won the Ligue 2 title last season was inevitable: 'consolidation' was never going to be the watchword with the means at Monaco's disposal. Nor were one-time Liverpool reserve Carl Medjani, workaday German centre-back Andreas Wolf and last season's leading scorer Ibrahima Toure, the backbone of the promotion-winning side, likely to cut the 'moutarde' long in the club's quest to return to the rarified atmosphere of the Champions League.

Yet, despite Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez, Joao Moutinho et al disembarking in the principality drooling over "the project" at the Stade Louis II, the club record start -- ten points from four games and topping the table -- has been in major part down to players who were part of the squad that regained a place in Ligue 1 after a two-year absence. Six of the starting line-up held goalless by Toulouse a week last Friday -- Monaco's first stutter after back-to-back wins -- were not summer additions, while that quotient was only reduced by one for the trip to Marseille on Sunday, a first stiff test of the nouveau riche which they successfully passed, triumphing 2-1 to leapfrog their opponents into top spot.

Unlike their fellow big-spenders, Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco have a rich tradition of youth academy production, having nurtured David Trezeguet, Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry and Emmanuel Petit among others. So it is perhaps only a minor surprise they have maintained that philosophy despite their new-found wealth, notably down the entire left side of the 4-2-3-1 employed by Claudio Ranieri this season where full-back Layvin Kurzawa and midfielder Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, both 20, roam.

Kurzawa had been due to join Brest on loan in January when his route to the first team was barred by Giorgos Tzavellas, but a U-turn has proven remarkably beneficial for the left-back who made his top-flight debut as an 18-year-old. His willingness to get forward allows Ferreira-Carrasco to cut inside or use his overlapping team-mate. Born to a Portuguese father and Spanish mother, say 'bonjour' to another potential world-beating Belgian in Ferreira-Carrasco, whose admirable language skills are not the only reason he is well-suited to providing the supporting cast to the team's new Latin-tinged stars. With a thigh injury meaning Moutinho could not make his L1 debut until the OM game, the double-barrelled Belgian, who joined the club almost four years ago from Genk, took the side's set-pieces, while his willingness to take on -- and often beat -- his man remains a quality rare in the ultra-cautious world of Ligue 1.

While the duo have saved the club money, and Rybolovlev could yet be spared more spending with youth academy graduates in Jessy Pi, 19, and Marcel Tisserand, 20, both being blooded in L1 this season, Monaco have not been shy in also funding promise and potential rather than proven talent. After arriving for €11 million as Ligue 2's most-expensive player last summer and the maiden big-money signing of the Rybolovlev era, Lucas Ocampos has kept his place in the side after promotion. Though the club paid handsomely for the 19-year-old Argentine, his age reinforces the policy that PSG have mimicked with the likes of Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot: bringing in and/or bringing through younger players alongside high-quality, proven individuals to ensure the vast sums involved provide long-lasting success.

"It's an investment for the future," then sporting director Tor-Kristian Karlsen said at Ocampos' unveiling. "His transfer fits into our strategy, which is to build a strong team for the future, in two, three, four years. Perhaps we can't fight for bona fide world stars, but we can at least try to bring in the next ones, given that we have a reputation for allowing youngsters to bloom." Now, it seems Monaco can actually do both.

Emmanuel Riviere has flourished under Claudio Ranieri at Monaco.
GettyImagesEmmanuel Riviere has flourished under Claudio Ranieri at Monaco.

Perhaps the most surprising success has been Emmanuel Riviere -- who could hardly be described as a veteran at 23 -- as he finds the Stade Louis II the ideal environment to rebuild a once promising career. After earning praise at Saint-Etienne following his top-flight debut at 18, Riviere struggled for form and fitness at Toulouse, scoring eight goals in 44 L1 appearances before joining Monaco for €4.5 million last January. Four goals in 14 and promotion followed, but few expected him to be outscoring Falcao -- who cost some 15 times more -- with five strikes in his first four outings of the season. Given he started on the bench against both Bordeaux and Marseille, scoring the winner against the latter after replacing his injured Colombian strike partner, the pacy forward has not been found dozing when called upon despite his reputation for being partial to a siesta.

But for a knee injury caused by a training ground collision with Riviere in pre-season, the Monaco youth-academy-manufactured Valere Germain -- son of a former Marseille player, Bruno -- may also have played a greater role than he has up till now, while Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and the most unlikely contributor of all, 30-year-old journeyman midfielder Mounir Obbadi, have been ever-present as Ranieri has maintained links to the promotion campaign. However, the latter two now face the menace of serious competition for places in the shape of Argentine international Sergio Romero and Geoffrey Kondogbia respectively, indicative of the ferocious dog-eat-dog climate at the Stade Louis II. Given that, perhaps Ranieri's greatest achievement is to have his team playing so fluently from the off, something Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc have failed to do in successive seasons at Paris Saint-Germain.

"I'm surprised by the cohesion within the squad. They're a team ready before their time," said Marseille midfielder Mathieu Valbuena recently when asked to size up Monaco, while Eric Abidal, whose La Liga experience has no doubt played a role in helping Falcao & Co. settle, admitted after beating Marseille even his eyebrows had been raised by the unity reigning within what could have been a mightily fractious dressing room.

"It's even a very good surprise. But there is also a lot of work behind it, and a lot of time to prepare and integrate those who arrived late. We have quality staff, who already know the players, and who adapt training sessions. The coach is very intelligent, particularly in terms of tactics. He manages each individual's physical condition, and proposes a way of playing that we try to respect. For the moment, everything's working for us."

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