This feature is part of The Masterminds: 10 Under 45
On 25 February 2015, Monaco boss Leonardo Jardim arrived at the Emirates Stadium with a plan. That plan – executed immaculately by Monaco’s players, which included former Tottenham striker Dimitar Berbatov – served to dish out one of Arsenal’s most humbling European defeats, leaving the Gunners scattered and bereft of a response in front of their stunned supporters.
Thanks to punctilious preparation and a tactical plan informed by Jardim’s perspicacious knowledge of the opponents, Monaco ran Arsenal ragged, emerging with a 3-1 victory that shook regular Premier League viewers tuning in. It was hailed as a tactical triumph – a dissection of Arsène Wenger’s side’s naivety with surgical precision that only strengthened Jardim’s status as one of European football’s most astute strategists.
It was a performance nobody really saw coming, apart from Jardim and his players, who had started studiously plotting Arsenal’s unravelling as soon as they were drawn to play the Premier League side two months before. Jardim’s investigation into Arsenal’s performances leading up to their last-16 showdown revealed something significant. He discovered that Arsenal’s players had a tendency to drop physically in the second half of games. Jardim capitalised on this recurring pattern to form his Emirates masterplan.
The Venezuelan-born Portuguese coach organised his team to be ultra-compact in the first-half, absorb an inevitable heap of pressure from Arsenal and batter their wearying limbs after the break. Leading 1-0 going into the second half thanks to a deflected Geoffrey Kondogbia strike, Jardim’s plan materialised wonderfully. With Arsenal pouring forward, Monaco endeavoured to win possession swiftly and exploit the space left by the home players.
Clinical counter-attacks produced strikes from Berbatov and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco and, although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain curled home a consolation, Arsenal’s European dreams had been crushed for another year. Wenger’s men won 2-0 in the return leg, but it was Monaco who prevailed, their erudite execution of Jardim’s vision enough to see them through in the end.
For Monaco, it was a thrilling vindication for the faith they’d shown in Jardim when they appointed him as Claudio Ranieri’s successor in June 2014. The appointment had drawn raised eyebrows from Monaco supporters who expected an elite managerial figure. Monaco, however, had tweaked their project.
When Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev bought a majority stake in the club in December 2011, he had his sights firmly set on European domination. The club had sought to emulate Paris Saint-Germain by spending lavishly on Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez and João Moutinho after earning promotion from Ligue 2 in the summer of 2013. However, after failing to topple Laurent Blanc’s Parisian giants that season, the club recalibrated its mission statement. Instead of trying to outspend everyone, they committed to a more financially-restrained policy while placing a greater emphasis on developing their youth talent.
Jardim, they believed, was the right man for the job. Jardim is 42 but he’s already a hugely experienced coach. He never played professionally but, like compatriot José Mourinho, that has not been a hindrance for him. In fact, it allowed him to start his coaching career, aged 27, as an assistant at A.D. Camacha, a Madeira-based Portuguese club.
Read | José Mourinho: the early years
After two years as an assistant and five as the head coach, Jardim moved to Chaves, leading them to promotion in his only full season at the club. Stints at Beira-Mar, Braga and Olympiakos followed, but Jardim started turning heads during his time at Sporting CP.
With a production line as famous as Sporting’s (Cristiano Ronaldo and Luís Figo for the uninitiated), Jardim’s mantra at the club was to maintain its’ rich tradition of nurturing emerging talent. Expectations were high – they always are at Sporting – despite their disastrous 2012-13 campaign which saw the club finish an all-time low of seventh position. Jesualdo Ferreira was sacked and replaced by Jardim, who became the man charged with the task of restoring the club’s pride and transforming them into a title-challenging entity once again.
He did exactly that. In the space of one season, Jardim transformed the mentality of the club by leading them to a second-placed finish behind Benfica. Despite losing top scorer Ricky van Wolfswinkel, who embarked on an ill-fated voyage at Norwich City, Sporting became a potent attacking force under Jardim, scoring 18 more goals thanks in no small part to Colombian front man Fredy Montero, a shrewd loan acquisition from Seattle Sounders.
Jardim’s work on the training ground was highly effective. Sporting went from being a dishevelled mess drifting towards mid-table mediocrity to shattering Benfica-Porto duopoly at Portuguese football’s summit. Under Jardim’s auspices, Sporting stood up to Benfica and Porto’s expensively assembled teams by following a philosophy of giving young players a chance to shine. Under Jardim, seven academy products – Rui Patrício, Cédric, Adrien Silva, William Carvalho, André Martins, Wilson Eduardo and Carlos Mané – featured prominently as the club secured Champions League qualification.
Carvalho, in particular, blossomed beautifully under Jardim. The muscular holding midfielder was favoured by his coach as soon as they started working together. Portuguese football experts were surprised to see Carvalho thrown into the first-team after an 18-month loan at Belgian club Cercle Brugge, but he was a total revelation, establishing himself as one of the finest ball-winning midfielders in Europe. Jardim instilled in Carvalho a sense of trust and confidence that was apparent in the midfielder’s play, earning him Sporting’s Player of the Year award, passage into Portugal’s national side and attracting offers from clubs such as Arsenal.
Jardim’s system suited Carvalho, however his remarkable consistency was a result of Jardim’s man-management. The manager’s instructions to Carvalho were simple and effective: win the ball back and move it on to one of the team’s more creative players. Some observers criticised Carvalho’s lack of attacking expression, but that’s not what he was in the team to do. Carvalho’s positional sense, reading of the game and aggressive tackling technique made him a wonderful screen for the back four, made possible by Jardim’s simplistic approach to his emerging talent, which utilised his strengths.
Jardim’s assessment of what is expected from a manager at Sporting highlighted why he was appointed, and why he was popular: “When Sporting hires a coach, one of his tasks is to develop the club’s youth players. It’s not just Carlos Mané. We have other youngsters playing in the senior team who came through the academy. We believe that in terms of the club’s structure, our future is very dependent on our academy. We have many other players either playing in the B team or in the juniors who will be promoted to the first team in the near future.”
It was such a philosophy – and the impressive execution of such a philosophy – that earned him the Monaco job. On taking over in July 2014, Jardim said: “I fully believe in this project and I think that this group can go far. AS Monaco is a team with players full of quality. There are many young players with a lot of talent. I am going to do everything to help them progress.”
This doesn’t read like the usual press release drivel – Jardim remarked that he fully believed in Monaco’s project not simply to placate the fans and generate positive publicity. No, he was saying it because it closely aligned with his plan for the team. Against the backdrop of a more stringent budget, Jardim relished such working conditions because his confidence in Monaco’s squad was genuine.
Read | The Masterminds series
When Jardim arrived at Stade Louis II, he inherited a squad boasting the likes of James Rodríguez and Falcao. However, he knew he would be operating without the duo’s considerable talents as Rodríguez was sold to Real Madrid after a blistering World Cup in Brazil, while his Colombian team-mate was loaned to Manchester United. Unlike Ranieri, though, Jardim did not have access to a generous transfer budget and the lack of world-class reinforcements was derided by some supporters as a lack of ambition.
Jardim certainly doesn’t lack ambition, but he was acutely aware of what he was agreeing to. “This team cannot expose itself so much offensively. One of the virtues of a coach is to adapt to the club, to the moment, to situations. You have to adapt the team to its realities to do as well as possible, to be as ambitious as you can within the scope of its abilities.”
Scope and realities – they’re not words to describe the working parameters of Ranieri’s exorbitantly-constructed Monaco.
There were sceptics who questioned Jardim’s appointment because his teams were not associated with flowing, attacking football. In January of his first season, French football pundit Pierre Menes launched a scathing appraisal of Jardim’s tenure up to that point: “He invented new football tactics – the chloroform tactics. It’s impossible to watch them. Fans are dying of boredom,” he said.
Three defeats in his opening five league games didn’t help such a caustic discourse over his style. However, while his brand of football didn’t emphatically renounce his naysayers, he still guided Les Monegasques to third place and a Champions League quarter-final.
Jardim’s progress was enough indication to onlookers that he was making impressive progress. We’re accustomed to seeing managers – particularly in the Premier League – openly bemoan a lack of investment during transfer windows but, for Jardim, there were no complaints when James and Falcao departed.
Rather than worry about missing the firepower, creative ingenuity and scoring prowess that the Colombian duo brought to the side, Jardim assessed what he still had; a young squad with promise and raw talent in abundance. His first season drew star-making performances from Anthony Martial, Ferreira-Carrasco, Kondogbia Bernardo Silva and Layvin Kurzawa, earning them moves to the likes of Manchester United, Atlético Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain. Granted, some of those players had already made an impression at the club by time Jardim arrived but his flair for communication and impressive man-management accelerated their upward trajectory.
But make no mistake, Jardim’s Monaco were far from being a thrilling symphony of attacking play. Instead, Jardim was much more pragmatic – because he had to be. Monaco were compact, drilled and incredibly difficult to break down. At one stage, they went eight league games without conceding. But it produced results and that was more important to Monaco’s owners than playing attractive football and losing.
Monaco only managed four goals in six Champions League group games but still finished top, then made a fool of Arsenal in their own backyard. As a result, Jardim earned himself admirers in the boardroom and on the training pitch. He arrived in difficult circumstances but still had to deliver, and he ultimately exceeded expectations.
Read | The disputed genius of Arsène Wenger
Although he was only 40, Jardim showed maturity which belied his tender years, and it showed an astute operator capable of adapting and building a system that fits the club’s changing situation. The victory over Arsenal was the shimmering apex to a season of hard graft and efficiency, made all the more poignant by sinking Wenger, the very man who championed youth talent during his time at Monaco, giving Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit and Lilian Thuram a proper introduction into professional football.
His second season in charge saw him in strikingly similar circumstances. Martial, Kurzawa, Kondogbia, Carrasco and Aymen Abdennour were all sold, while Falcao was given a second crack at the Premier League with Chelsea. Jardim was patient, repeating the feat of finishing third. Deep down, he was attracted to the idea of playing an overtly attacking system, but he’s too sensible to surrender to such a temptation. He was patient, methodical and tactful. Then, it happened. The chance for a revolution came, and he seized it.
Falcao returned and was identified as the spearhead for a new project. Valére Germain also returned from a fruitful loan spell at Nice, while Jardim made an overdue assault on the transfer market by bringing in Polish centre-back Kamil Glik (who has become a leader at the back) and attack-minded right-back Djibril Sidibé. Not only did this add steel to the defence, the signing of Sidibé allowed Jardim to deploy Fabinho in defensive midfield.
He also bought Benjamin Mendy, a rampaging athlete of a left-back from Marseille to complete an impressive set of transactions in the window. The new recruits added plenty of options but Jardim also had the chance to build on what he already had. The rapidly-improving Tiemoué Bakayoko had proven himself as a powerhouse midfielder, while Bernardo Silva was the standout option as the side’s creative fulcrum.
With a balanced blend of invention, organisation and work ethic, Jardim’s new Monaco have taken Europe by storm this season, becoming the most free-scoring, relentlessly exciting team throughout the continent. Of course, use those words to describe Monaco to someone two years ago and you’d be heckled mercilessly. But yes, Monaco have become every bit as exciting and glamorous as the fleets of Ferraris and Porsches you’ll find lining the streets of the principality.
At the time of writing, Monaco have scored an astonishing 75 goals in 25 league games and, while Falcao has been the chief contributor with 22, goals and assists have been spread throughout the squad, with no fewer than 16 players chipping in with at least one strike. After two seasons, the pieces fell together for Jardim and he certainly did not take them for granted.
He has not betrayed his natural coaching talents, though, skillfully developing gifted teenager Kylian Mbappe, the explosive forward already drawing comparisons to Thierry Henry. Jardim has used him sparingly and kept Mbappe’s feet on the ground. When he does unleash him, though, he usually delivers, as illustrated by a devastating hat-trick in the 5-0 win over Metz.
This season bares the fruits of Jardim’s labour. He was patient and canny during his first two years at Monaco and now he has capitalised on a framework which allows his team to shine with a fearless attacking verve and intensity. Jardim deserves a lot of credit for facilitating such attacking abandon, emphasising the improvement of technical skills in training, with fitness exercises adapted to always include a ball, which has produced a polished side supremely confident in possession.
He refuses to be bogged down by one formation and prefers dynamism. If he feels Monaco have a better chance of winning by playing two strikers, he’ll do so. It’s Jardim’s hallmark; constantly assessing, constantly adapting and always operating accordingly. His influence at the centre of Monaco’s project can no longer doubted and it’s rightfully seen Jardim’s stock rise exponentially to become one of the most respected, versatile coaches in European football, who is responsible for the slick outfit outscoring Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Bayern Munich.
By Matt Gault @MattGault11
With thanks to Tom Kundert (@PortuGoal1) for his invaluable insight