By Daniel Rubens
Position: 5th in Ligue 1 (40 points)
After a massive offensive overhaul in the summer, AS Monaco — a club who are located in the Principality of Monaco but play in France’s football system — expectedly struggled to begin the 2014-15 season, slipping all the way to 10th at the end of November. But, since then, their defense has been at the forefront of a charge back up the table for the team that finished second last season.
They burst back onto the European football scene in the summer of 2013, when Russian owner and billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev splashed a cool $210 million or so on a host of new players, including high-priced stars Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez, and Joao Moutinho. Rybolovlev had purchased the team in December of 2011, cutting ties with two coaches before settling on Claudio Ranieri, who led the team to a title and back into the top division in France.
His owner responded to promotion with bucketfuls of money, and the strategy worked, as Monaco finished second in Ligue 1 last year and qualified for the Champions League. They scored 64 goals, getting contributions from a wide variety of sources, with seven players scoring at least five Leagues goals.
The club’s board announced at the end of the season that in order to comply with UEFA Financial Fair Play rules, the transfer budget would be significantly decreased in the summer. But they didn’t expect to lose Rodriguez, who took off at the World Cup and went to Real Madrid for over $90 million, or Falcao, whose wages proved to be too large a burden to bear as he was loaned to Manchester United.
It came as no surprise, then, that Monaco got out to a terrible start, slipping to a low of 19th place in September. They bounced back up into seventh by November, but dropped to 10th when they lost their last game of the month, 2-0, to Rennes.
Amazingly, that game was the last league one in which Monaco gave up a goal. Over a 13-game stretch — eight in the league, four in the French Cup, and one in the Champions League — Monaco have given up just one goal, in the Cup to Lyon, and won all but two games, a pair of scoreless draws in the league.
It’s a shocking turn for a team that gave up quite a few goals early in the season. A back line of captain Jeremy Toulalan, 21-year-old Brazilian Fabinho, Italian Andrea Raggi, and a rotating fourth player has completely shut down opposing attackers, who are averaging under 10 shots per game.
As a whole, the group have been consistently fantastic for two months running. The side have been given a massive lift from the back, and the attackers have found enough openings and won enough games to jump up in the table.
This spectacular run likely won’t last much longer, but if the defense can continue to put in good group efforts, Monaco have the potential to rise in the table as well as continue to fight in the Champions League. They face Arsenal in the Round of 16 in a few weeks, and if the back line is still in this vein of form, Monaco will have a fighter’s chance of advancing. And if the run of form is an expression of true talent level rather than a hot streak, Monaco could just defend their way to the top of the table.