It was not just a successful substitution, it was a sign of a broader transformation.
On a rainy night at Lorient last Friday Monaco were struggling to break down Ligue 1’s bottom team, who were uncharacteristically defiant under their new manager, Bernard Casoni. So after 63 minutes Leonardo Jardim introduced Radamel Falcao from the bench. With his first touch the Colombia striker scored. The floodgates opened and Monaco went home with a 3-0 win that sent them top of the table. It was Falcao’s fifth goal in his past three matches, his seventh in the nine he has played so far in a season in which he is re-emerging, at last, as a forward to fear. Tottenham Hotspur have been warned.
What a difference there is between Falcao now and the player who provoked little but pity during two years on loan in the Premier League before slinking back to Monaco in the summer with his confidence in a bin bag. He scored four goals in 29 forgettable appearances for Manchester United and one in 12 for Chelsea. He looked broken, a sad remnant of the striker who had been classed as one of the world’s most deadly until shredding knee ligaments in January 2014. Now, at the age of 30, there are traces of a renaissance.
All he needed, say Monaco, was time and a little less pressure. On reflection Monaco reckon Falcao was cast into the Premier League too soon after a serious injury.
He is not yet the same player as before and may never be. The explosive acceleration has not returned but his sharpness is back, along with cunning movement and confidence. Scoring twice in Monaco’s last Champions League match, the 3-0 win against CSKA Moscow, was a significant boost to the morale of a player who had not scored in European competition since the 2012-13 season, a campaign he began with a devastating hat-trick for Atlético Madrid against Chelsea in the Super Cup. Being recalled by Colombia this month for the first time in more than a year was another milestone reached on his road back to the top.
The good thing for Falcao – and the bad thing for Spurs – is that Monaco are not dependant on him. He is one of their many goal-getters. Which brings us to the principal transformation at the club: this season Monaco have become a thrilling attacking team.
In the previous two campaigns under Jardim they were a strong, tight, sometimes cagey side but this season they have been far more cutting and destructive, often blowing teams away. They have scored six or more goals three times in Ligue 1, where their 39 goals from 13 matches makes them the highest scorers in any of Europe’s major leagues and even more prolific than Celtic in Scotland. A strike rate of three goals per game is remarkable in a league with a lot of defensive-minded teams and is double the rate Monaco managed in their first two seasons under Jardim. The goals have come from all over the pitch, with 13 players scoring this season. The Premier League’s meanest defence could not contain Monaco at Wembley in September even with a fully fit Toby Alderweireld and when Falcao was making only his second appearance of the season. Spurs will have to excel to shut out Monaco at the Stade Louis II on Tuesday.
Monaco, with eight points (and seven goals) from four Group E matches, need only to draw against Spurs to guarantee progress to the knockout round but will certainly seek opportunities to attack and stay on course to top the group. It is what their players do. Jardim says this season scoring sprees have not been the result of a radical change of approach but rather the fruit of his work in the previous seasons, the blossoming of the young players the club has been signing and nurturing since deciding to tone down its galáctico-style recruitment.
Amid a sprinkling of trusty older players such as the Poland centre-back Kamil Glik and the goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, exciting younger talents are flourishing. Fabinho, the 23-year-old Brazil right-back, has continued his progression whether in defence, or in midfield when João Moutinho is missing. The rest of the midfield is even younger. Tiemoué Bakayoko is 22, as is the superb Portugal winger Bernardo Silva, while the other wide player, Thomas Lemar, has been in such wonderful form he won his first senior France cap last week just days after turning 21.
Monaco’s full-backs, the 22-year-old Benjamin Mendy and the 24-year-old Djibril Sidibé, have thrived since being signed in the summer from Marseille and Lille respectively. And up front the 17-year-old Kylian Mbappé has made goal-scoring cameo appearances when filling in for Valère Germain, Guido Carrillo or Falcao.
When Monaco bought Falcao for £52m in 2013 he was seen as the diamond-tipped spearhead of the club’s attempt to buy their way to superclub status. Now, after more than two years of personal woe, he is one of several examples of Jardim and Monaco’s ability to foster, or salvage, talent. Suppressing Falcao’s revival is one of the tasks Tottenham will have to accomplish to keep alive their Champions League hopes.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010