Hoonhout: AS Monaco’s youth leads Champions League run
Tobias Hoonhout | Thursday, April 20, 2017
With Wednesday marking the conclusion of the Champions League quarterfinals, four teams booked their ticket to the semifinals of soccer’s most prestigious club competition. While three of the four teams are traditional powerhouses in Italian club Juventus and last year’s rival Spanish finalists Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, the final team may come as a shock to many.
AS Monaco, from France’s Ligue 1, has never been a traditional powerhouse on the continent. But despite its unheralded pedigree and recent rocky past, the club has ridden a remarkable surge of money and talent, beating German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund 6-3 on aggregate to mark an improbable run to the highest reaches of Europe.
The club has a proud history, historically being one of the best in France, but was floundering in the second division of French soccer before being rescued by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who purchased a majority share of the club in 2011.
Flush with cash, AS Monaco marked its return to the top flight of French soccer in 2013 with a brazen spending spree of 154 million pounds in one transfer window on stars such as Colombians Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez and Portuguese midfielder João Moutinho. Because of its location in the Principality of Monaco, the club was exempt from being forced to pay French taxes, and Rybolovlev intended to use his money to establish a cup winner overnight.
But after a season in which the team failed to overcome perennial French heavyweight PSG, and facing sanctions from UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations, Monaco rethought its strategy. Instead of spending piles of cash on international stars, the club decided to focus on developing an elite academy and raising homegrown talent to both lead the team to success and sustain the system through big sales.
And initially, the focus was on sales. Rodriguez left for Real Madrid after a hefty sum in 2014, and homegrown star striker Anthony Martial was sold to Premier League giants Manchester United for over 30 million pounds in 2015. Meanwhile, the academy and scouting of young talent flourished, and while Monaco didn’t challenge for the title, the team remained competitive enough in League 1 to qualify for the Champions League for this season.
But this year, the team has emerged with a wealth of young talent, and has taken both France and Europe by storm. As one of the highest scoring offenses in Europe, Monaco has bagged dozens of goals en route to leading Ligue 1 and reaching the Champions League semifinals, and while veterans like Moutinho and a recently resurgent Falcao have provided much needed experience, the backbone of the team is built on future stars.
Starting in the middle of the field is 22-year-old holding midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko, whose ability to protect the backline and win back the ball are way beyond his age, and call to mind the talents of his mentor and Chelsea legend Claude Makelele.
The team also has talented wide players in diminutive Portuguese midfielder Bernardo Silva and 21-year-old French winger Thomas Lemar, but the team’s greatest jewel lies up front. Partnering with Falcao is teenager Kylian Mbappe, whose prodigious talent surpasses his age by miles.
The 18-year-old is the youngest player ever to score five Champions League goals, and his dominance against Dortmund over both legs has caused many to wonder at how much he can be worth. While fellow Frenchman Paul Pogba was sold for a world-record 89 million pounds last summer, the young striker, who has been compared to French legend Thierry Henry, may soon surpass that.
While Monaco still faces a daunting task to win the Champions League, its unprecedented run this season has been a testament to the benefits of clubs investing for the future. With today’s game dominated by established stars like Ronaldo and Messi, the band of young talents from France have been a bright spot in the soccer world this year.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.