Monaco’s shock removal of Niko Kovac over Christmas fell somewhere between eye-wateringly ruthless and bafflingly naive. Before Kovac was appointed in the summer of 2020, relegation was Monaco’s greatest concern. Thierry Henry’s disastrous reign was followed by the ill-advised re-appointment of Leonardo Jardim, who had won the title with the club in 2017, before he was sacked for the second time in 14 months in December 2019. Spanish coach Robert Moreno then lasted just 13 games before Kovac arrived. Monaco barely survived, finishing 17th in the 2018-19 season before struggling to ninth in the following campaign. Nevertheless, Kovac’s team entered the final day of last season with a chance of winning the title.
Although the Croatian benefited from the arrivals of Kevin Volland and Caio Henrique, Monaco’s squad was hardly overhauled during lockdown. Kovac’s energetic young side, balanced out by the experience of Volland, Cesc Fàbregas and Wissam Ben Yedder, played dynamic, effective football in a fluid 3-6-1/4-4-2 system and slowly gathered momentum last season.
Nearly every player improved under Kovac. Most notably, he turned the gifted but slight and often ineffective Aurélien Tchouaméni into one of the most sought after midfielders in Europe and helped young attacker Sofiane Diop transition from a Ligue 2 loanee to a silky and dangerous Ligue 1 creator. More established players such as full-back Djibril Sidibé, Aleksandr Golovin and former Manchester City attacker Stevan Jovetic were cajoled into some of their best form in years. Overall, Monaco picked up the second-most points in Ligue 1 in 2021 and lost just twice in their final 23 games of last season, beating PSG twice to maintain a title challenge into the final day.
They hung on to their key players over the summer and another title charge was the aim this season. However, typically for youthful French sides, Kovac’s team have looked tired while struggling with overlapping European and domestic schedules. They missed out on a prime target for the season when they were beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk in the final qualifying round for the Champions League group stage, going down 3-2 after extra time in the second leg. They dropped into the Europa League and topped a tough group, but they have been unable to muster the same intensity and cohesion in Ligue 1 with the same regularity.
Much like last season, however, Kovac’s players were starting to build momentum. They won three of his last four league games, swatting aside upstarts Angers 3-1 in their best display of the season and beating in-form Rennes. Their only Ligue 1 loss in Kovac’s final seven league games came at PSG. Monaco finished 2021 in sixth place, just four points off Champions League football.
That was in spite of a fairly unsuccessful summer transfer window. Few transfers across the continent have disappointed like striker Myron Boadu’s £15m move from AZ Alkmaar, with just two goals in 27 games. Jean Lucas’ £10m switch from Lyon after failing to impress on loan at Brest last season remains baffling, and goalkeeper Alexander Nübel has yet to prove an upgrade on Benjamin Lecomte.
In explaining Kovac’s removal, Monaco sporting director Paul Mitchell said: “The performances from this summer until Christmas have shown us that we weren’t fulfilling our full potential. After the second half of last season, we thought we had a head start on our rivals. Our owners allowed us to keep all our players and strengthen the group to compete on all fronts but we’ve never been in the top five this season.”
Philippe Clement, who has replaced Kovac, is an exciting appointment in theory. His Club Brugge side pressed relentlessly and displayed ample fluidity in their 1-1 draw with PSG in the Champions League in September. At his unveiling, Clement explained that he is looking for “lots of commitment and desire”, adding that he has “used different systems but always with the idea of being dominant”. He is also seen as less stern than Kovac, saying he wants to “create a family” within the squad.
That style and the fact that he brought through promising youngsters at Brugge – such as 20-year-old attacker Charles De Ketelaere, who is seen as the next Kevin De Bruyne – make him well suited to Monaco. His arrival could prove inspirational, but it’s difficult to see where the Belgian can improve on Kovac’s 1.95 points per game over 18 months in charge.
After spells with Genk – where he won the title in 2019 – and Waasland-Beveren, Clement led Brugge to two more titles. However, his Brugge team also suffered a similarly underwhelming first half of the campaign domestically and trail leaders Union Saint-Gilloise by seven points. He did not have the best start with Monaco either, his new team failing to inspire in a drab goalless draw at Nantes this weekend.
Swapping Kovac for Clement looks like an unnecessary gamble for Monaco. Kovac transformed the side into title challengers in under a year; he had a nuanced and effective style of play; he developed young prospects; and he kept his head above water this season despite struggling through a tough opening run of European games and some summer transfer market dross.
The current Monaco hierarchy made a similarly surprising but eventually shrewd appointment when they brought in Kovac soon after Mitchell’s arrival in 2020. The Croatian’s arrival, after a league and cup double at Bayern Munich, before he was again harshly dispensed with, felt like a coup, and a worthy gamble. Clement’s appointment, however, smacks of desperation and a lack of respect for Kovac – who, oddly, was not thanked in the club’s statement announcing his departure. This time, Monaco’s hierarchy may soon realise their coach was not holding the club back. It was, in fact, the other way around.
Three games in each of Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 were postponed this weekend due to the swathes of Covid-19 cases emerging across French football. The LFP reintroduced mandatory testing for players in both divisions over the winter break and nearly every club was affected in some way. Bordeaux’s game with Marseille barely survived postponement after they suffered 21 cases last week and were forced to field what was effectively a youth team in the Coupe de France loss to Brest. Crowds have been limited to 5,000 in an attempt to control the virus – although the images of the 5,000 supporters who crammed into one section of the Stade Bollaert-Delelis for Lens’ cup game with Lille last Monday suggest the rules still need tweaking.
Even with the reduced crowd and Lionel Messi missing out, PSG’s trip to Lyon remained the weekend’s marquee game. Lyon have often been alarmingly porous this season as coach Peter Bosz has clung to his noble ideas of wall-to-wall attacking football, but they put in an unusually stoic defensive display, picking three centre-backs and producing some precise counterattacks to earn a deserved 1-1 draw. A fizzing long ball from Bruno Guimarães allowed Lucas Paquetá to ruthlessly open the scoring for Lyon but an uninspired PSG side scraped a point thanks to Thilo Kehrer’s late scuffed goal. This Lyon squad has the tools; Bosz just has to use them.