“People tell me after every match that it can’t get worse, but it does,” observed Thierry Henry after his team’s crushing 4-0 defeat by Club Brugge on Tuesday. That was Monaco’s worst-ever home defeat in Europe, inflicted by a team that had not won a Champions League match for 13 years. It came a few hours after Monaco’s billionaire owner, Dmitry Rybolovlev, was taken into police custody for questioning about corruption after being picked up at his sumptuous and suddenly very inaptly named house, La Belle Époque.
“How can they have fallen so far, so quickly, just a year and a half after wowing Europe and toppling PSG?” asked L’Equipe’s Régis Testelin of a club that reached the 2017 Champions League semi-finals but are now effectively out of European competition and left to concentrate on a domestic league in which they are second-last, above Guingamp only on goal difference. “The balance of a club and of a team is a fragile thing, and juggling players like skittles on the transfer market is fraught with risk but to fall this low: who, frankly, could have imagined this?”
Certainly things are not panning out as Henry envisaged when Monaco’s vice-president, Vadim Vasilyev, visited him at his London home last month to discuss the managerial vacancy that arose following the club’s dismissal of Leonardo Jardim. Vasilyev was impressed by how much Henry knew about the current squad at the club that he graced as a player for five years between 1994 and 1999, and about the plan he set out for moving forward. That plan has no doubt undergone revisions already. His five matches in charge have yielded three defeats, two draws and seemingly endless misfortune, with injuries aggravating a bleak predicament.
Going into Tuesday’s game after an insipid performance and sorry domestic defeat at Reims, Henry hoped to see a positive reaction. His side started brightly but once they conceded, they collapsed. They were 3-0 down by the 24th minute. Henry bemoaned “schoolboy errors” from his players and a tendency to “give up” as soon as things went against them. Most of Monaco’s hardcore supporters had left in disgust before Club Brugge struck their fourth goal late in the second half.
Even the Belgians, whose last win in continental competition came more than three years ago at Besiktas in the Europa League, could hardly believe it. “That was not the best we’ve played in our four [Champions League] matches this season,” said the Club Brugge manager, Ivan Leko, unintentionally riffing on Monaco’s pain.
“It was shameful,” said Monaco’s France international right-back Djibril Sidibé. He himself played badly, as did most of the other survivors of the club’s triumphant 2017 campaign (including Jemerson, Radamel Falcao and Kamil Glik). The most coveted players from that campaign have been sold, of course, with Fabinho, Thomas Lemar and João Moutinho leaving in the summer following the earlier departures of Kylian Mbappé, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and Tiémoué Bakayoko. In the past Monaco have been savvy regenerators – Jardim once saying that his job was to “permanently rebuild” – but the most recent recruits have failed to bridge the talent gap. That should not be surprising. Nacer Chadli has barely flickered, Youri Tielemans has shone at times but not nearly enough. Meanwhile, Aleksandr Golovin, Stevan Jovetic and Willem Geubbels are among many injured absentees.
Against Club Brugge the best home player was Sofiane Diop, an 18-year-old who had not played a senior game before this season. Two of the substitutes that Henry introduced in a slightly desperate search for hope on Tuesday were even younger and less experienced, the 17-year-old pair Han-Noah Massengo and Gobe Gouano.
“I wanted to see if they had the stomach for the fight even if it’s not easy making your debut at 3-0 down,” explained Henry. “I don’t have many players available so I’m looking for ones who are going to run and show desire. If the young ones do that, they will play. Youngsters have no fear and maybe that’s what we need at the moment. We have to get that feeling back.”
Henry, of course, is also a rookie, in managerial terms, and he cannot draw on his playing career for first-hand knowledge of surviving a scrap against relegation. In his five games so far there has been no sign of tactical naivety, no reason to doubt his ideas. The doubt that lingers, however, is about his ability to rally a team by something other than his own exemplary performances on the pitch.
How charismatic is he? His star power evidently is not enough, so can he find the words or gestures to inspire boldness and composure from veterans who seem to have gone into their shells? Is Henry really a leader? This is a tremendous opportunity for Henry to show qualities that he kept hidden during France’s ridiculous 2010 World Cup fiasco, for instance.
At least luck may turn, and some of Monaco’s injured players will regain fitness. Rybolovlev may or may not be in a position to adjust recent policy and approve big expenditure in January, although he has serious legal matters to address.
In the short term, however, things could get even worse for Henry. For Sunday’s Ligue 1 match Monaco will be deprived of Tielemans through suspension, while Glik has been added to very long injury-list. And the opponents are Paris Saint-Germain.