Monaco winning their first two matches of the season is not a total surprise. But their performances in the 4-2 victory against Clermont on the opening weekend and their 3-0 win against Strasbourg on Sunday suggest their reboot is coming together apace, especially given that other putative European contenders have stumbled out of the blocks.
After a serious injury to Breel Embolo and the departures of Axel Disasi to Chelsea and Kevin Volland to Union Berlin, the team looked weaker than last season. The players brought in over the summer – former Juventus midfielder Denis Zakaria, goalkeeper Philipp Köhn, and defenders Mohammed Salisu and Wilfried Singo – were sturdy additions and young enough to develop further. But with Embolo absent and last season’s top scorer Wissam Ben Yedder another year older, they did not seem to have enough goals in the squad.
There were also concerns after a frustrating end to last season that saw them narrowly miss out on Europe. And even though their new manager, Adi Hütter, has performed well in Austria, his native Switzerland, and at Eintracht Frankfurt, he had been out of work for a year after an underwhelming season with Borussia Mönchengladbach.
However, the players are responding well to Hütter’s thoroughly modern approach. Their current setup, with three at the back and two creative players behind Ben Yedder, is something of a stopgap while Embolo is absent, but it is bringing the best from a talented squad, which is impressive given their slide three months ago.
Ben Yedder is one of the league’s most potent forwards; Aleksandr Golovin is among the most creative players in France; and the Brazilian pair Caio Henrique and Vanderson may be the best full-backs in the league. Naysayers may point out that these players were all in the squad that that lost five of their final seven matches last season, but the change of manager seems to be paying dividends in a big way. Ben Yedder, who has already scored three goals, looks focused and invigorated by the new environment.
But no player looks more improved than Takumi Minamino, who was considered one of the poorest signings in the league last season. The Japan international scored just one goal as he struggled with form and injury, but he already has two in the current campaign – as well as a pair of assists.
Minamino, who knows Hütter from their brief spell together at Salzburg, is playing in support of Ben Yedder, flitting between a creative role and that of a support striker. He was excellent against Strasbourg on Sunday, pressing with determination, setting up teammates and chipping in with a pair of fine goals.
The current approach, though borne from necessity – with Embolo out, the bench lacked attacking options save youngster Eliesse Ben Seghir – is also getting the best out of the team’s new arrivals, none of whom are marquee names.
Zakaria, the immensely experienced Switzerland international who tends to play as a midfielder, was installed in the middle of the three-man defence. Though in an unfamiliar position – and flanked by Soungoutou Magassa and Singo, who arrived only on Thursday – Zakaria put in an assured display, a fulcrum for the team’s play on the counter with his passing while also showing his technical qualities by bringing the ball out from the back.
Next to him, Singo and Magassa were full of running, their hard work allowing the wing-backs the confidence to get forward, and in goal Philipp Köhn kept a confidence-boosting clean sheet – which was important after a wobbly display at Clermont last weekend.
Sterner tests are yet to come, as Strasbourg looked what they are: a team full of intriguing young players that is still finding its feet under Patrick Vieira. But on the evidence on show on Sunday night, a Monaco side playing with this level of confidence and with no European football, there is every chance a relatively small squad can maintain this form going forward.
Monaco’s co-leaders at the top of the table are the unlikely Stade Brestois. Save losing attacking lynchpin Franck Honorat, the team stood pat in the summer and, having narrowly avoided relegation at the end of last season, one had to wonder whether they would face another harrowing campaign. On the evidence of their first two matches – wins against Lens and Le Havre – they will be fine. Brest stayed up last season after winning three of their final four matches and their fighting spirit looks as strong as ever under Eric Roy. Expect them to improve on last season’s finish.
Two matches, two losses, six goals conceded, and Alexandre Lacazette sent off at the weekend: Lyon’s first full season under John Textor is hardly going to plan. The club have done well to fend off interest for promising young attackers Rayan Cherki and Bradley Barcola, but the losses of the defender Castello Lukeba to Leipzig and goalkeeper Anthony Lopes to injury have made the team look vulnerable at the back. It has been an unseemly start to what could be a long season.
Kylian Mbappé is back (of course he is) and scoring (of course he is), but the Frenchman’s appearance off the bench wasn’t enough to prevent more dropped points for Paris Saint-Germain, who drew at home to Toulouse. Last season, Neymar and Lionel Messi looked uninterested at times, but had they not put in such strong performances early on, the title would have surely headed north to Lens. With Marco Verratti and Mbappé himself still potential departures, this team is barely recognisable, and may find it difficult to win the league in a division that is improving quickly.