Monaco announced Thierry Henry’s return to the club by posting a video on social media showing him then and now with images of their former teenage striker and the hashtag “HesComingHome”. That homecoming has turned into a nightmare.
“He walked into this mess so it’s almost impossible to judge him,” a senior source at Monaco admitted of their new, 41-year-old rookie coach who has been in charge for six games and won none and has looked distinctly uncomfortable.
Monaco have crashed out of the Champions League during that time but that is the least of the worries for a club that won the French League, and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, just two years ago. Now, Monaco admit, it is just about survival. About avoiding the embarrassment and catastrophe of relegation from Ligue 1 even though without Champions League football their business model is badly damaged. But not as damaged as it would be in the second division.
On Saturday Monaco are away to Caen who are two places, but five points, ahead of them in the league, just outside the relegation zone. Another defeat is unthinkable. The only target for Monaco, and Henry, this season is simply staying up. “It is now just about staying in Ligue 1,” the source said. “The situation was bad when he took over and we have to be honest and say it is now even worse.”
Not that Monaco are already thinking of sacking Henry. It has been so bad, they accept, that it really is hard to assess him just yet although there is probably regret that they did not pay the €1 million in compensation which was being demanded by another Ligue 1 club to give Henry an experienced French assistant. Instead he has been left looking exposed and inexperienced.
It almost seems cursed. In Henry’s first game, against Strasbourg, third-choice goalkeeper Seydou Sy fumbled a header into his own net in the opening minutes. There was then a red card for Samuel Grandsir, who Henry had said he was looking forward to working with, within minutes of the winger coming on and the game was lost.
At 22, Grandsir is the kind of young player Monaco have signed, developed and eventually sold on for extraordinary sums of money. That is their approach although it is one that depends on shrewd recruitment and trading at the right time. There is little margin for error. Last summer they let Thomas Lemar, Fabinho and Joao Moutinho go. The summer before it was Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko and, of course, initially on loan, Kylian Mbappe. That is most of their title-winning team.
The cash return – £465m – in the past two years is simply extraordinary and even if Monaco have invested more than £200m of that on new arrivals they have also gone even younger in their recruitment with the likes of Willem Geubbels and Pietro Pellegri, both 17 when signed, while Youri Tielemans has struggled and Aleksandr Golovin, their most expensive purchase at £27m, has been injured.
Injuries have hit hard. It went badly wrong in the summer with Monaco believing they were under-prepared after the World Cup by coach Leonardo Jardim.
Monaco have 24 senior players in their squad and 16 of them were injured for their last league game against Paris Saint-Germain as youth team players were called up. Since the start of the season Monaco have never had fewer than eight players out.
After winning their first game results turned, confidence went and there was suddenly a different mentality needed which the players struggled to deal with: they did not realise they were facing a relegation battle and they had no experience.
Monaco argue they still have a core of five senior players from their title-winning team but the likes of Radamel Falcao and Djibril Sidibe have simply not performed. “Our model is clear. We sell players,” the source said. “But we still have a team good enough to be in the top three. We have to get our injured players back and then we can see how good Henry is. But we also have to assume it is not just about signing players.”
Tactically Henry, who turned down the chance to take over at Aston Villa to return to Monaco, has floundered. He has changed formations, personnel and has looked like he is struggling with the switch to being in charge. His demeanour on the touchline betrays his frustration.
There is also the backdrop of Monaco facing damaging allegations from Football Leaks. The club has been forced to strongly deny it has cheated Uefa’s Financial Fair Play rules and also refute claims that owner Dmitry Rybolovlev personally profited €124 m (£108m) from Mbappe’s €180m (£156m) sale to PSG.
Separately the Russian billionaire has been charged by police in Monaco as part of an investigation into corruption related to an art scandal and a long-running legal saga.
Surely none of that has not helped Henry, either?
Monaco’s plan is to try and survive until the January window when reinforcements – particularly defenders – can be signed although if they are still near the bottom of the table by then they may find it hard to recruit. “For Henry it is not easy,” the source said. “He is motivated but it is difficult for him because he has not had the elements to do the job.” Truthfully it still remains to be seen whether he is up to it. Monaco, renowned for its casinos, knows it has taken a gamble.
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