After his legendary prowess as a player, Thierry Henry’s first match as a manager was a sharp reality check – a 2-1 defeat against Strasbourg; a sign of the momentous task he has ahead of him to rebuild this once proud Monaco team.
Henry is not used to losing like this. The French national team’s all-time top goalscorer, he was one of the greatest striker of the 2000s, his long peak as an Arsenal great bookended by his rise as a teenage wonder boy at Monaco and his Champions League-winning sunset at Barcelona.
After Henry returned to Les Monégasques, as they are nicknamed, as the boss on Monday, they utterly failed to take control of Saturday night’s game against Strasbourg, a team on the middle rungs of Ligue 1 whose defence Henry the player would have been torn to shreds.
Monaco’s performance was characterised by flaccid midfield passing and nervous defending.
Goalkeeper Seydou Sy showed himself to be a liability, fumbling Strasbourg midfielder Adrien Thomasson’s header into his own net early in the match. Les Monégasques’ attempts to equalise came to nothing except a red card for their 22-year old winger Samuel Grandsir, who had unaccountably thrown himself into a dangerous challenge. Then, in the 84th minute, Sy moved off the line and left the Monaco goal exposed to a deft chip by Strasbourg’s Lebo Mathiba. Aptly enough, seeing as they had only posed a threat from set pieces, Monaco claimed their consolation goal through a penalty in extra time.
Mbappé long gone
Henry’s predecessor, Leonardo Jardim, who was sacked on October 11 after a run of 9 winless games, left Monaco third from bottom of the French top flight, with just 6 points. Not only were they swept aside by Atlético Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, they were also easily overpowered in Ligue 1 by the likes of Nantes and Rennes – hardly word-class sides.
This atrocious form is a far cry from the performances that won Monaco the Ligue 1 title just two seasons ago. Back then, young stars such as Kylian Mbappé and Benjamin Mendy powered the club to victory, with barnstorming attacking football driven by a 4-4-2 formation that switched to 2-4-4 when they had possession.
But now the likes of Mbappé and Mendy – not to mention Anthony Martial, who as a 19 year-old was a key asset in their run to the 2015 Champions League quarter-finals, including a second-round demolition job on Arsenal – are all long gone.
Since Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev bought a majority stake in the club in 2011, Monaco’s overarching strategy has been to sign young players with outstanding potential, reap the rewards of their gifts as they start to become world-class, then sell them off to a major club for a massive profit.
A big part of their current problem is that, these last two summers, Monaco have brought in young players who are, to say the least, no Kylian Mbappés. For example, in 2017 they signed the then 20 year-old midfielder Youri Tielemans from Anderlecht. Coming from the Belgian side that nurtured the likes of Romalu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany as young talents, he was hyped as a shining star of the future. However, by the end of his first year at Monaco, Tielemans was included on “France Football” magazine’s list of the biggest flops of the 2017-18 season.
‘Pelé’ – but not the Brazilian
Monaco also seem to have forgotten their previous policy of bringing in seasoned veterans of trophy-winning campaigns at top clubs, who might be past their peaks but know how to get results. The most prominent of these earlier this decade were Ricardo Carvalho – who won the Champions League with Porto before spells as a defensive rock for Chelsea and Real Madrid – and Dimitar Berbatov, well-known as a calm yet dangerous striking force at Manchester United.
Contrastingly, the most experienced Monaco signings of last summer are 27-year old Pelé, a defensive midfielder who – unlike the Brazilian genius – reached the height of his career last season by helping Rio Ave reach sixth position in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, and 29 year-old winger Nacer Chadli. Admittedly, the latter scored the injury time goal that gave Belgium a 3-2 edge over a fierce Japan at the 2018 World Cup, but his recent club record is not so impressive: a two-year, injury-strewn spell at West Bromwich.
Potential for a comeback
Nevertheless, Henry has the players to get Monaco back into a respectable position in Ligue 1, while plotting a full-blown renaissance to start in next summer’s transfer window. Although recent injuries have marred his form, Les Monégasques’ record signing Aleksandr Golovin played a key role in Russia’s surprisingly impressive run of results as they hosted this year’s World Cup. The club believes the 22 year-old has the potential to develop a Paul Scholes-like ability for conjuring up goals from the midfield.
Meanwhile, striker Radamel Falcao remains a commanding presence. As Henry himself noted, he is “our goalscorer, our charismatic leader”. Despite Les Monégasques’ terrible form this season, the Colombian has managed 6 goals in 15 appearances.
And there are similar opportunities for Monaco to impose themselves on games through their wing-backs, as they did to great success in their 2017 league-winning campaign. Along with Golovin, 21 year-old Benjamin Henrichs is one of their two quality signings from last summer, while on the opposite side of the flanks, 26 year-old Djibril Sidibé is another force to be reckoned with – having played an essential role in the fast-paced, positionally fluid play that won them the title two years ago. Like the team’s 30 year-old centre-back captain Kamil Glik, he has recently seemed constrained by lack of motivation – the sort of problem that a footballing genius as charismatic as Henry could address.
Pep or Wenger?
France’s all-time top goalscorer says he’s taking his inspiration from his former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, which might seem strange, seeing as it was Arsène Wenger who nurtured Henry during his start at Monaco and and his glory days at Arsenal. While Guardiola undoubtedly forms one of the twin peaks of modern football management, along with Sir Alex Ferguson, Wenger may be the man to learn from as Henry kick-starts his managerial career.
Upon his arrival at Highbury in 1996, Wenger had to deal with conditions similar to those Henry faces at Monaco, albeit at a less disastrous level. There was a core of ageing, demotivated players – the likes of Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn – surrounded by young fringe players of dubious talent and one attacking gem, Dennis Bergkamp.
Within a year, the mediocre youngsters were out, the likes of Patrick Viera and Nicolas Anelka were in, and the old stalwarts had mastered a new way of playing. Arsenal battled their way up the table to come third in the 1996 Premiership.
Then, after several years of clever transfer moves, Arsenal entered their golden age, crowned by Thierry Henry’s plethora of outstanding goals. Perhaps he can bring that magic to Monaco. A great starting achievement for Henry the manager would be to find and cultivate a player of the calibre of Henry the player.