In selling Aurélien Tchouaméni, AS Monaco have lost one of the world’s best midfielders, and according to Philippe Clement, replacing him will be “impossible.” So, what are Monaco’s options?
When faced with the challenge that a departing player poses, the Principality side often look inwards, leaning on their academy, which has for many years now been an efficient assembly-line of first-team worthy products. But they won’t be able to do that this time.
The sheer size of the hole that Tchouaméni departure has created, means that Monaco will have to dig deep in their wallets to fill it in. Whilst Monaco certainty have some promising midfield youngsters on their books, none quite fit the criteria, whilst the psychological pressure of stepping into the shoes of one of Monaco’s greatest exports in recent years is undoubtedly too strong a burden to place on young shoulders.
Amongst the senior set-up there isn’t a ready-made replacement either, and due to Tchouaméni’s skill set especially in the defensive phase, it isn’t possible to mask his absence from their midfield.
Whilst Youssouf Fofana excelled towards the end of the season, he is not the same profile as Tchouaméni. He certainly couldn’t play as the sitting midfielder in the 4-1-4-1 system that Clement deployed when he first arrived on Le Rocher, and although he has shown himself once again to be adept in a midfield pivot, he needs to be accompanied by a more defensive element. That element won’t be Jean Lucas, who is more of a free-roaming 8, nor will it be the diminutive Eliot Matazo, whose play style more closely resembles that of Fofana rather than Tchouaméni.
Whilst Tchouaméni is an adept progressive midfielder (5.66 progressive passes per/90), this is a function largely shared with Fofana, who is the most progressive carrier of the ball (5 progressive carries per/90). It is in his defensive work that Tchouaméni’s “irreplaceable” qualities become quickly apparent.
Amongst his team-mates, he completes the most tackles (2.92 per/90), despite Jean Lucas applying the most pressures per/90 (23.8). Unsurprisingly, he also makes the most interceptions, and by a long way too. According to FBref, Tchouaméni is in the top 1% of interceptors in world football: the definition of irreplaceable for a team like Monaco.
The data highlight two things: firstly, that Tchouaméni is a world-class ball-winner and secondly that whilst he can be progressive, he very much shared that responsibility with Fofana. From there it is easier to define exactly what profile Monaco should pursue in this difficult recruitment process.
As has already been ascertained, it won’t be possible to bring in a like-for-like replacement, but an imperfect refilling of that Tchouaméni-shaped hole is possible without needing to rip up the entire road and start again.
Other clubs in the past, who have accepted the dangling €100m carrot in the past have not wisely re-invested. Tottenham’s scatter-gun approach to replacing Gareth Bale in 2013, when he was sold to Real Madrid for €101m, immediately springs to mind. But the names being linked to Monaco are indicative of a much more concentrated, tailored approach to fulfilling their needs. In their own way, Danilo and Amadou Onana, both of whom reportedly interest sporting director Paul Mitchell, according to L’Équipe, would go some way towards alleviating the impact of Tchouaméni’s departure.
Speaking in a press conference in early May, Clement revealed his admiration for Onana, telling reporters that he had tried to sign the defensive midfielder whilst he was manager of Club Brugge. Whilst he doesn’t quite boast the statistics of the departed Tchouaméni, it is clear that he is of a similar profile, whilst he also has Ligue 1 experience.
Onana’s 3.45 tackles per/90 is highly impressive, even better than Tchouaméni’s record, and by extension, all of Monaco’s other midfield options. He also boasts 2.06 interceptions per/90, which doesn’t rival Tchouaméni’s proficiency in regaining the ball, but is nonetheless better than all of Monaco’s other midfielders. The ability to intercept is inextricably linked to game intelligence and therefore experience, and at just 20, Onana has the ability to develop in this regard.
The Belgian is also a native-level French speaker, which, should he feature in a double pivot, mustn’t be overlooked. By its very nature, the double pivot partnership hinges upon automatisms and good communication, and as Onana’s likely partner would be fellow French-speaker Fofana, the language barrier, or lack thereof in this case, is another tick next to the young Belgian’s name.
The same can’t necessarily be said for the Brazilian Danilo. However, he wouldn’t be short of compatriots and other Portuguese-speaking players in the squad. Both full-backs, Caio Henrique and Vanderson are Brazilian, whilst further up the field, Gelson Martins also speaks Portuguese.
The Palmeiras midfielder’s profile recently received a boost when he was called up by the Brazilian national team for the first time, after an impressive league season with the newly-crowned Brazilian champions.
A defensive-minded midfielder, Scouted Football’s analysis of the Brazilian international reads strikingly similar to a description of Tchouaméni. “He tracks back well, filling in in the defensive line when required, and he has a strong knack for intercepting cut backs crosses into the penalty area…He will often be asked to back up the press, and he certainly has the energy for such a role… He’s very proactive with his decision making, and looks to engage opponents rather than forcing them to make a decision.”
Although Scouted Football add that he does sometimes get too easily turned and he is sometimes prone to ball-watching, these less desirable qualities are possible to eradicate with good coaching and general maturity. Just like Onana, at the age of just 21, Danilo has a lot of room for growth.
Importantly, both would also fit with Monaco’s philosophy of buying young players with high potential for further growth. Whilst there is an understandable despondency towards the future of Monaco’s future midfield having lost Tchouaméni, it must be remembered that Monaco have an unbelievable ability for renewal.
After losing Fabinho to Liverpool in 2018, two years later Monaco found a replacement who would later garner a €100m fee from the European champions. There is no reason why Onana, Danilo, or whoever else replaces Tchouaméni, can’t follow the same trajectory, and perched upon Le Rocher, they would be in the perfect place to emulate his path.
Photo by Luke Entwistle, Monaco Life