On Friday night, Monaco, without Radamel Falcao beat Dijon 4-0 and held onto their position as the second-best team in France.
This season, with considerable pressure from Marseille and Lyon, the fight for the second automatic place in the Champions League group stage is as hot as it has ever been.
From the moment they were eliminated bottom of their Champions League group the reigning Ligue 1 champions knew they had to improve and concentrate on their league objectives.
“We missed the goal of qualifying in the Champions League; now we have to move on and think about the current goals: Ligue 1 and the two domestic cups,” said coach Leonardo Jardim.
It was always going to be difficult to progress from their heroics last season. Winning the title, beating the rich neighbours from the north – it was the culmination of three years of hard work.
From around 2014, young stars such as Liverpool transfer target Thomas Lemar, as well as Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and Fabinho, were brought in and blossomed into the best team in France.
Many hoped they would stay together, growing even further, but for a side who have been smart in their business since Dimitriy Rybolovlev bought the club in 2011, it was the end of Phase Three.
After purchasing the club while they were in Ligue 2, the Russian, along with the help of vice-president Vadim Vasilyev, first helped them to win promotion back to the top-flight with a number of smart, less eye-catching signings. Phase One.
Once in Ligue 1 they went big, signing James Rodriguez, João Moutinho, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Falcao. This was Phase Two, specifically planned to get them back towards the podium of France’s top-flight.
Finishing second and third twice helped the third phase of Monaco’s team develop fully. By the time they beat Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund to reach the semi-final of the Champions League, players who were relatively unknown upon their arrival were being scouted and wanted by Europe’s best.
The departure of Tiémoué Bakayoko to Chelsea and Mendy and Bernardo to Manchester City were expected. Losing Kylian Mbappé to Paris Saint-Germain was not. But they will receive £166million for a player who only spent half a season as a first-team regular. It was hard to say no.
“I am confident. I have confidence in our project but we cannot ask for impossible things,” admitted Jardim after their European elimination.
“This is my fourth season here and the project has always worked. In four years, we made a semi-final and a quarter-final in the Champions League. We finished on the podium in the league three times, being champions of France as the outsider.”
“We managed it all with, each time, 12 to 15 players who were very young; and I do not make the calculation of our sales, of which you know the amount.”
In the summer it was time to rebuild again, using the £200million they accumulated in sales to bring in the next wave of talent. Eight players arrived costing £123million. Some were unknown, but in Keita Balde, Pietro Pellegri and Youri Tielemans they beat off stiff competition to land several very exciting names.
When they arrived, Lemar, Bernardo, Bakayoko and co. failed to hit the ground running. They took time to settle. Now, the expectations are higher and whoever plays for Monaco has to live up to the pressure, especially with a target on their backs.
Pellegri arrived on January deadline day and made his debut against Dijon. It was only a four-minute cameo, but there is a lot more to come from the Italian youngster. Midfielder Soualiho Meité joined Bordeaux on loan so he can gain more minutes, as did Dutch defender Terence Kongolo, leaving for Huddersfield after three league appearances.
In terms of minutes played, Keita Balde leads the way for the new arrivals. But he only ranks 11th in the squad, which shows how Monaco do business. It’s slow and it’s cautious but, overall, it’s smart.
Stevan Jovetić has scored four goals in four starts, but at 28, he is there for cover; to relieve Falcao of having to start every game and help the youngsters.
One player they have high hopes for is Adama Diakhaby. Just like Bakayoko, he signed from Rennes. The 21-year-old can play on either flank, but also as a No.9. Initially labelled as Mbappe’s replacement, he has done well in patches.
Despite scoring in the 6-1 win over Marseille in August, he had to wait until the draw against Nice in February to add his second.
Playing on the left-wing he has had to share minutes with Lemar or wait for the Frenchman to move inside to play No.10. But when you compare the numbers the two players managed in their first full season at the Stade Louis II, Diakhaby is behind.
Averaging 1.3 shots per 90 minutes, he’s only completing 0.5 dribbles and 1.2 key passes. Lemar averaged 1.8, 2.5 and 1.4 respectively back in the 2015/16 campaign.
Belgian midfielder Tielemans arrived in Ligue 1 with a huge reputation from Anderlecht. After losing Bakayoko, Monaco needed someone to take his place and the Belgian has earned mixed reviews. He’s not a physical replacement for the French midfielder, who is struggling at Chelsea, winning just 54 per cent of his 5.3 attempted tackles per 90.
Averaging 2.2 interceptions has been his strong point, combining with Manchester United transfer target Fabinho to protect the back line. He is just 0.1 interceptions per 90 behind what Bakayoko managed, but eventually you’d want to see him take more responsibility in the midfield. Tielemans has shown enough to promise more, especially as he is still only 20.
Serie A watchers will not be surprised to hear Keita Balde has been the pick of the bunch. The Senegalese forward has scored eight goals in 15 starts, including huge goals against Lyon and Marseille.
The 22-year-old has shown pace on and off the ball, plus the ability to dribble beyond opponents, commit defenders and get on the end of crosses.
He may not have the same clamour around him as Mbappé did last season, but with 2.4 shots per 90, 1.9 completed dribbles and an xG90 of 0.35, Keita is the summer signing to be most excited about.
Monaco might still lose the battle for second this season but, as long as they finish third, the project is still on course. It may take another three years, but don’t be surprised if they are heading for another scintillating Champions League run.