This summer, while Thomas Tuchel has grappled with his new role as ringmaster of the Paris Saint-Germain circus, Leonardo Jardim has known exactly what is expected of him at Monaco.
The 2016/2017 champions so often speak of their ‘project’ and it is one of perpetual rebuilding. Their admirers might argue it is an altogether more dignified and purer approach to football than what is on display at the Parc des Princes and while it is borne out of necessity, their focus on developing the stars of the future has been more apparent than ever in the current transfer window.
However, of their nine new additions, it is arguably the oldest who is set to make the biggest impact. Judilson Mamadu Tuncará Gomes, better known as Pelé was drafted in earlier this month, tasked with filling the void left by Fabinho’s departure for Liverpool.
Amidst the arrivals of up-and-coming left-back Antonio Barreca and 16-year-old prodigy Willem Geubbels, it is hoped Pelé, signed for a fee in the region of €9million, is closer to the finished article and will be a ready-made fit for Jardim’s preferred formation of 4-4-2, though the Monaco boss showed last season he was willing to adapt.
The 26-year-old was named as Rio Ave’s Player of the Season last term, catching the eye of a number of European clubs – including Premier League new boys Wolves and Primeira Liga runners-up Benfica – due to his composure and passing ability.
While the midfielder represented Portugal at every level between U18 and U21, he eventually opted to play for Guinea-Bissau for whom he has made 28 senior appearances, scoring five times.
“I am very happy to join Monaco, an ambitious club competing in the Champions League and a contender in Ligue 1,” he announced on his arrival.
“It’s great motivation and a dream to represent Monaco. I cannot wait to meet my staff and team-mates.”
There have been previous opportunities for him to make a name for himself at top clubs, having been on the books at both Benfica and AC Milan. Neither felt he was ready for the first team and it is only now he is set to make his entry into the Champions League.
Losing Thomas Lemar to Atletico Madrid has been a further blow to Monaco’s vision, but replacing Fabinho is arguably the more complex job. In his final season at the club, Lemar was moved from out wide to a no. 10 role and Monaco may now revert back to using conventional wingers, especially if they feel Geubbels, who cost €20million, is ready to go straight into the starting XI.
What they have lost in Fabinho, and are looking to find in Pelé, is a midfielder who can pull the strings and link the defence and attack. Incidentally, they have also bolstered their options from the spot as he is an adept penalty taker, but his primary focus will be shielding the back four – or three, as Monaco experimented with at the end of last season – with a license to get forward when required.
In the 2017/18 campaign, Fabinho made more tackles than any other Monaco player, which is one of the main reasons Pelé is a suitable successor. He is noticeably strong on the ball, is well-poised going into challenges and while he can find players accurately with long balls, he prefers to pick out short passes and keep the ball moving.
The principality club have not had to contend with anything like the exodus they experienced a year ago, when Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, and Tiemoue Bakayoko all left the Stade Louis II, yet the central midfield has immediately been identified as the area that must be prioritised in the transfer market. They could have looked to promote players from within the Academy, as indeed they are expected to do again this season, but they also have a fine reputation for improving players brought in from elsewhere, James Rodriguez being an obvious example.
Monaco have spent pre-season focusing on their physical conditioning, which will be particularly important for their new signings as they look to make the step up. Pelé may not have made a huge impression in his first appearances, as he has admitted he needs to work on his fitness. Even if Ligue 1 is often accused of lacking quality compared to the other top European leagues, Monaco hope this is one area in which they can develop an edge in the title race this season, if there is no way they can compete with the absurd expenditure of their main rivals.
It is through no fault of their own that they have ended up with a very different squad to that which won them the title in 2017. As is so often the result of unexpected success, the vultures descended and picked apart a side that had unbelievable potential. The irony is that all it has done is strengthened Monaco’s convictions as they bid to prove that their heroics of two seasons ago were not a one-off.
It will certainly be worth keeping an eye out for Pelé to see how he aids them in their latest period of transition.
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Also published on Medium.