The best Portuguese coach in the world isn’t Mourinho
Leonardo Jardim has his side playing in a thrilling manner and has attracted praise from Pep Guardiola – not to mention interest from some big sides
It is curious to note that for the country that gave world football flair-packed stars like Eusebio, Luis Figo, Ricardo Quaresma, Nani and, perhaps most notably of all, Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s top coaches are painfully conservative.
Jose Mourinho’s reputation for winning ugly is well established, while Fernando Santos’s gritty side that won Euro 2016 was every bit as difficult to watch as it was successful.
However, Monaco boss Leonardo Jardim is bucking the trend. His side are arguably the most thrilling to watch anywhere in Europe this season, with the 100-goal barrier long since surpassed and a team in possession of a genuine attacking threat from every area of the field.
Their brilliant offensive play came into the spotlight as they played their part in an enthralling match against Manchester City a fortnight ago, in which their defensive deficiencies cost them a 5-3 deficit.
But that was no fluke.
It is only mid-March, but they have already scored 123 goals over all competitions this term, and their total of 84 in league play surpasses any other club in one of Europe’s major divisions, despite Ligue 1 being notoriously tactical.
“Attacking is a message that I pass onto my players, whether we’re playing against Chambly or against PSG or against Tottenham, it’s always the same,” he explained in February. “We have attacking in our DNA. The team does not change according to our opponents. Maybe the result’s not always the same, but life’s like that.”
Amid the flurry of goals, the repeated high-scoring victories and the promise of silverware that Monaco hold going into the final third of the season, the contribution of their coach has often been overlooked.
On the eve of Wednesday’s Champions League last-16 second-leg clash Monaco are still fighting for trophies on four fronts, and if the European title might be fanciful after a 5-3 defeat at the Etihad Stadium, they are in an increasingly strong position to dethrone Paris Saint-Germain as Ligue 1 winners.
Radamel Falcao, Bernardo Silva and, more latterly, Kylian Mbappe have virtually monopolised the headlines for the principality club, but the man who has woven this side together cuts an altogether more low-key presence in the dugout.
Nevertheless, the 42-year-old’s stock is rising, with Jardim mentioned in dispatches as a potential new boss at several of Europe’s top clubs, including Arsenal, Juventus and even Barcelona. He certainly does not lead the pack in this regard, but there is little doubt that his is a name that is growing increasingly noteworthy.
It is fitting that the leader of a successful side cobbled together from a bunch of prospects both at home and abroad was a relative unknown in France when he arrived in 2014, despite previous one-season stints at Olympiacos and Sporting CP.
When he joined the Stade Louis II club, it was the beginning of their period of transition away from marquee buys to shrewd young purchases. Falcao was soon offloaded on loan to Manchester United and James Rodriguez a big-money sale to Real Madrid. However, having improved a young Sporting side the previous season, he was seen as the ideal man to bring long-term success to the rocky outcrop on the Mediterranean.
Youth has continued to flourish under his charge, with Bernardo Silva having developed into the outstanding contender for Ligue 1 Player of the Year, and Mbappe having been introduced slowly and sensibly before his explosion of goals made a more regular inclusion inevitable. But even the few veteran stars have lauded the coach, with Falcao, in particular, singing his praises.
“He’s a very smart coach, who reads matches perfectly,” he told UEFA’s official website. “He also understands the players very well and perfectly sees their needs. His man management contributes to the good atmosphere within the group. He is aware that he has very young players who need to mature, but he is patient and relaxed enough to move them forward, and that is what matters most.”
Jardim’s rhetoric was bold when he first joined, as he promised not only success, but flair too. He quickly learned that this would be no easy task in France, with a naïve performance in Bordeaux, which led to a stinging 4-1 loss prompting a dramatic change of mindset that saw a talented young Monaco side adopt an extremely defensive approach.
It was a ploy that worked to some extent, as a side led by Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco and Geoffrey Kondogbia reached the Champions League quarter-finals, where they were only beaten by eventual finalists Juventus. Arsenal were their highest-profile victims in the previous round.
What lies ahead on Wednesday is arguably his greatest challenge yet, not only because of the strength of the opposition, but because of a relatively small squad he has been forced to manage.
“We are the European team that has played the most this season,” he pointed out. “Fatigue is not like on the PlayStation – players are not green or red, everyone reacts differently. When my son plays FIFA, he takes out a red player and puts on a green player, but football is not like that.”
Falcao, the scorer of a glorious chip in the first leg, for instance, could miss out after sustaining a knock late on in the victory over Bordeaux last Saturday.
Nevertheless, Jardim can count no less than Pep Guardiola as an admirer of his side. Speaking prior to the first leg, the former Barcelona boss said: “As a fan, it is so nice to see them. I am really impressed by how good they are – physical, strong.
“The full-backs play like wingers, the wingers play like attacking midfielders. The two strikers are fighters and in the box – Falcao, Germain – they are killers.
“Both holding midfielders are intelligent, physically strong, they arrive to the box. They are a complete team.”
City will be on high alert before the second leg, despite their apparently comfortable two-goal cushion.
Regardless of the players he aligns and the outcome of the game at Stade Louis II, a full-throttle approach is inevitable, and Jardim is set to further enhance his reputation as Portugal’s most exciting coach. Of course, he will hope it is at the expense of Mourinho’s city rivals.
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