Leonardo Jardim has turned Monaco around again after summer sales
With the soap opera that is PSG at the moment and the telenovela that is Neymar's season, the rest of French football has been a bit -- well, a lot -- overshadowed so far. Take Monaco, for example. Their 3-1 win away at Strasbourg on Friday night was their 14th consecutive league game without losing (10 wins and four draws). Their last defeat was all the way back on Nov. 29, away at Nantes in the dying minutes of the game.
The current French champions, let's not forget it, have been really impressive since the turn of the year and the work done to rebuild the team looks very promising so far. It should not be a surprise considering that this is what manager Leonardo Jardim does: he builds and rebuilds and then builds again. Nevertheless, not many people thought he could get his new team to this level after having lost half of their title-winning team of last season (Kylian Mbappe, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko) and some precious subs (Nabil Dirar, Valere Germain) last summer.
The former Olympiakos manager put it nicely in a recent interview for Le Parisien newspaper: "of course I would love to drive a Ferrari every season." Instead, he starts from scratch almost every summer. "The Monaco project is different than the other clubs. We produce players, increase their value. We can't have a defined style of play because we always have to adapt to the players we have," he said.
So it took Monaco six months to sort of reinvent themselves... again. In the beginning, a lot of things weren't working. The 4-4-2 formation, tailored for Radamel Falcao and so effective last season, was not appropriate anymore. Jardim tried it and it failed, so he changed. The 4-3-3, which he used in his first season at club with success, didn't work much better either.
They had injuries (Falcao, Thomas Lemar, Djibril Sidibe), some dips in form (Jemerson, Danijel Subasic, Fabinho) while a slew of new signings needed time to adapt (Youri Tielemans, Stevan Jovetic), get fit (Rachid Ghezzal, Adama Diakhaby) or both, in the case of Keita Balde Diao.
The Champions League, where they reached the semifinals last year, arrived too early as well. The group wasn't too hard (Besiktas, RB Leipzig and Porto) but Monaco were in serious transition at the time and crashed out with hardly any regrets. "We didn't win a single match [two draws and three defeats], which shows we were not good enough," said Jardim about their European campaign.
Twice they failed to win in four games in a row (three defeats and one draw each time) in all competitions halfway through September and October and again at the end of November. They were never below fourth in the Ligue 1 table but at the end of January, after they drew 2-2 in Marseille, they looked out of control.
Jardim finally found the solution, as he always does and a 4-2-3-1 formation offered the best answers. The current unbeaten run and the way the team is playing, with quick transitions and efficiency all over the pitch, is impressive. The re-positioning of Thomas Lemar in the centre, just behind the striker, was another master stroke. After playing wide for the past two seasons, the France international has been excellent in a No. 10 role.
Jardim's influence is also very much visible in Rony Lopes' performances. The Portugal international winger is unstoppable at the moment with seven goals in his last eight matches. His coach turned him from a promising player into a big candidate for his country's World Cup squad.
Monaco won't be able to catch PSG to retain their title (they are 14 points behind) but they will face them in the League Cup final on the 31st of March. After finishing 3rd, 3rd and 1st since Jardim replaced Claudio Ranieri on the bench, it would be another great chapter in the club's recent history to finish second after everything that happened last summer.
Leonardo Jardim, who is under contract until 2020, is the main reason for that. His current win rate in Monaco in all competitions is a huge 56 percent but somehow, he still seems undervalued both in France and in Europe despite being so successful. Monaco won't complain. They know he's building a new team capable of great things if given time. But will Jardim get the time with the current squad? It looks unlikely. The departures of Lemar and Fabinho, for example, seem inevitable.
How will Jardim react if that's the case? "That's part of the project at Monaco, of the strategy," he says. "Me, I don't have time to whine."
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.