Monaco’s story has gone full circle. When they completed the signings of Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez for a combined fee of nearly €90 million in the summer of 2013, they were accused by neutrals of trying to buy their way to success.
However, that method failed, as the Monte Carlo outfit only managed to finish second in Ligue 1. This prompted a change in approach, both from an economic and sporting perspective, as they moved away from a big-money policy to one of purchasing potential with the intention of selling on a higher price.
Since Monaco changed tack, they have not only flourished on the pitch and on the balance sheet, but have transformed into one of the most popular and admired teams in the world.
“Transfers are part of the economy of football,” sporting director Vadim Vasilyev told RMC. “Especially for clubs that don’t have great wealth. And Monaco are one of those clubs.
That they have nonetheless come to challenge big-spending PSG – who have splashed in the region of €650m on new players since the club was taken over by QSI in 2011 - outlines just how brilliantly Vasilyev and his staff have done.
The shrewd work completed in the transfer market by the Mediterranean side has put the Monegasques on top of the pile in France and also three games away from being crowned the best side in Europe, a further source of embarrassment to PSG, who capitulated against Barcelona in the last 16 of this season's Champions League.
Their achievements have been made all the more remarkable because of the style in which it has been achieved. Leonardo Jardim’s side have been widely hailed as a breath of fresh air due to their attacking and ultra-expansive tactics, which involve bombing forward in a 4-4-2 formation. No European team has scored more goals than Monaco’s astonishing 145 in 55 games this season.
On Wednesday, the two leading lights in France clash in the Coupe de France semi-finals. It is a match that Jardim has already admitted that he is not prioritising but for PSG, it remains a game they simply have to win; their pride has already been damaged enough.
Ironically, it is a recruit from the reigning Ligue 1 champions who has helped ensure Monaco’s successful transition from big spenders to shrewd operators.
The name of Bertrand Reuzeau is not likely to be one that rings many bells, yet the former Montpellier and Sochaux director is one of the figures behind Monaco’s drive for brilliance in their youth setup.
“You’ll thank me one day,” short-lived Monaco technical director Claude Makelele promised when he lured the once-capped France A internationalist to the principality in the summer of 2016.
Reuzeau left PSG unceremoniously after the arrival of Carles Romagosa – a former chief of Barcelona’s youth system – in 2015 had weakened his powerbase and driven the Parisian club to sack him, a decision the coach successfully sued them for €283,000 over.
The capital side did not put their faith in a figure who had produced numerous international stars, including Kingsley Coman, Mamadou Sakho, Alphonse Areola and Kingsley Coman. PSG’s loss was Monaco’s gain.
“Monaco is the ideal club for developing players, and we need to do everything we can to give them the chance to break through,” Reuzeau, an 11-year veteran at the Parc des Princes, commented as he arrived at the club. He has so far been proven correct, with Mbappe’s explosion to prominence the greatest sign yet that Monaco are doing excellent work with their youngsters.
A focus on youth is not a new phenomenon with Monaco but rather a constant at a club where there have been frequent changes in personnel and policy. At various times, the team from the billionaire’s playground has been laced with top stars, yet for close to 40 years, these have been underpinned by a strong proportion of players from the academy. World Cup winners Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram and Emmanuel Petit all came through the Monaco system, for example.
Real Madrid might have their cantera, the Spanish word for quarry, yet the beating heart of Monaco’s youth system is found quite literally in a disused stone quarry. La Turbie, which is actually in France, is the location where players have been bred since 1981.
Unlike a traditional academy, though, Monaco do not draft in players at the ages of eight or nine. Instead, due to a lack of talent pool in their immediate vicinity, they are forced to wait until the youngsters have graduated through one of the French FA’s youth academies, such as Clairefontaine. With an intake smaller than their rivals, they are forced to focus on quality as opposed to quantity.
Nevertheless, the scouting process begins several years earlier.
“What I learnt during my time at Monaco is that the club had the best youth scouting network in France,” Tor-Kristian Karlsen, a former sporting director, told the Guardian. “Players down to the age of 11 or 12 were tracked all over the country. They have highly qualified scouts in all the regions and the identification process is probably the single most important factor in the work of an academy.”
Of course, it is not just the youngsters who have propelled Monaco to the top this term. Their foundation has been built around a terrific player recruitment strategy – one that has utterly eclipsed that of PSG, who have floundered so much under Patrick Kluivert that he is expected to depart after only a year as sporting director.
Luis Campos, a former scout for Jose Mourinho at the Bernabeu, was central in luring Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez, Bernardo Silva and Joao Moutinho to Monaco thanks to his relationship with super-agent Jorge Mendes. When Monaco announced their shift in policy, though, he was versatile enough, to capture promising young players Bakayoko, Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Mendy, who have been central to the club’s propulsion up the league standings.
All were persuaded to come with the carrot of developing their game in the principality. Indeed, Sidibe even rejected the chance to move to Arsenal due to Monaco’s approach.
“I was really just an inch away from signing,” he told Le Parisien. “Normally, you jump right at the chance but, after reflection, I didn’t think my game time would be guaranteed. I would have played 25 matches this season, including cups.”
At Monaco, he has featured over 40 times, a tally that would have been greater but for appendicitis, and has ventured further in the Champions League than the Gunners’ have managed in close to a decade.
Campos was central in selling the Stade Louis II side to the likes of Sidibe, but his brilliance has been lost to Lille, where owner Gerard Lopez hopes to build a similar project to Monaco spearheaded by a talented group of executives off the field and exciting coach Marcelo Bielsa on it.
The principality club will only discover in the summer just how hard his loss will hit them.
Where PSG have suffered from numerous misses in the transfer market and yet to see any of their signings over the past 12 months explode, everything has fitted together perfectly at Stade Louis II.
It seems that this Monaco team has been playing together – and winning – for years. As the season enters its final stretch, they look like champions on the field, but much of that has been brought about because of the hard work away from it.
In the richest principality in the world, they have finally discovered that money does not always buy success.