The difficulty in excelling in a top 5 European league is so often taken for granted, especially when the conversation is about one of the less fancied ones; namely Ligue 1 and Bundesliga. People automatically assume that anybody would flourish in these places, because they don’t have the glitz and glam of the more popular leagues like the English Premier League. As Lionel Messi, undoubtedly the best player of the 2010s generation, found out, it just isn’t that straightforward. If he, of all people, could struggle as badly as he did in his first season in France, then maybe no one is exempt.
The factors that contribute to players doing well below expectations are numerous and never as simple as they look. Too many things come into play, and intangibles as forgettable as stability and continuity can have a big say in whether a signing is successful or not. Football aficionados are too used to focusing on the inconclusive and often narrative-driven surface stuff – league A is simply harder than league B, so this player obviously isn’t good enough to step up in league A – that they get shocked when players go to places like France or Germany and don’t do well. In reality, these issues are never black and white.
Monaco have had their fair share of flops. Even more remarkable is the fact that they have had players who were originally viewed as flops before they turned the tables and became successful to different degrees at the club. Aleksandr Golovin is the most recent and obvious example of the latter. The fanfare and hype that followed his World Cup 2018 performances meant that everyone expected him to be an instant hit in Monaco, especially as the rumoured move to Chelsea didn’t happen – considered a more daunting challenge.
Golovin’s first two years at Monaco were underwhelming, and talk about him evaporated. Many people wrote him off, putting him in the same box as those whose performances at major tournaments were deceptive and didn’t represent their true levels. The 20/21 season saw a reborn Golovin, coinciding with a reborn Monaco who drove up the table and put in a strong title challenge late on.
Takumi Minamino arrived at Monaco after a frustrating spell at Liverpool. For many, he just never got continuity there, predictably so considering the calibre of players ahead of him. He was never expected to be a star in England, just an impactful player from the supporting cast.
There was a feeling that he never quite got as many chances as he could have, especially considering his form in his final season when he scored 10 goals in 24 games, albeit in lesser competitions, but it was still quite understandable. Monaco was supposed to be the destination to relaunch him and help him rebuild his career. The script could not have been more anti-climatic.
He made his debut against PSV in the UEFA Champions League playoffs. It was an average and forgettable performance, and he was taken off before the 70th minute as Monaco drew 1-1 at home. Minamino’s subsequent performances failed to alleviate concerns. Muscular issues further hampered his integration into the squad, and positional experimentation, as well as changing formations, did little to enhance his impact – he played as a right winger in a 4-2-3-1 and in a 4-4-2, and as a left winger in a 4-4-2.
His overall season was characterised by an inability to secure a regular spot, leading to him only finding the net once in 25 matches, in a game against Reims in which he came off the bench. The lack of continuity, a persistent issue from his Liverpool days, manifested anew in Monaco.
In the entire season, Minamino did not complete a single league game. He was left on the bench for different stretches of league games, including the entirety of January, ultimately averaging 40 minutes per game, with chances few and far between. Whenever he showed any flashes, he found himself on the bench again. When he did poorly, which happened quite often, he was punished with even more bench time. He just couldn’t win.
Takumi Minamino has started the 23/24 season on fire, in sharp contrast to his first season in France. In just 13 games so far, he already has 5 goals and 4 assists – last season, he registered just 1 goal and 4 assists in 25 matches across all competitions. After returning from the international break with a goal and an assist against PSG, he opened the scoring within 9 minutes as Monaco beat Montpellier 2-0, with Wissam Ben Yedder sealing the deal in extra time.
A pivotal factor in Minamino’s revival lies in the shift in his tactical deployment this season. Unlike the preceding season where he predominantly operated on the wings, he now finds himself positioned in the half spaces, forming part of the duo behind the striker(s) alongside Golovin.
This adjustment positions him more centrally, a departure from his wide roles last season. Monaco’s formation, predominantly a 3-4-2-1 but occasionally adapting to a 4-2-2-2 or a 3-4-1-2, sees Minamino consistently occupying a central role. This change suits him more effectively and has contributed to his enhanced performances for Monaco, who sit third in the table, one point above Lille, two behind Nice and six behind PSG.
The dynamic presence of Folarin Balogun alongside Ben Yedder occasionally prompts Monaco to adopt a two-striker formation. Regardless, whenever Minamino is on the pitch, he consistently operates in the central playmaking role, showcasing a tactical alignment that maximises his impact. Furthermore, increased playing time and continuity have facilitated a more seamless integration into the team’s plans. Notably, he has already completed more full games this season than in the entirety of the previous one.
Takumi Minamino’s prospects at Monaco have taken a positive turn, with renewed confidence in his abilities gaining momentum. The way the rest of this season pans out could be a big indicator of what his trajectory in France will ultimately look like. For now, all eyes are back on him, with a resurgence of expectations regarding the contributions he can make to the team.
By: Astorre S. Cerebróne / @Cerebrone
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Estuo Hara / Getty Images