After that infamous Monaco team of 2016/17 was robbed of its talented young players by some of the best clubs in Europe, the club took a turn for the worse. Two years after winning the league, they fell to an abysmal 17th, three points above relegation zone in Ligue 1. But since that point, significant progress has been made and the team looks to have risen from that dramatic downfall.
Niko Kovac’s side found themselves in 4th place just before the international break, clawing at the heels of Lyon in pursuit of a Champions League spot. Included in Kovac’s versatile 3-4-3 system is a wealthy mixture of clinical finishing, physical presence, and creative ingenuity. In a team that has prowess going forward and reliable youth at the back, their midfield is arguably where they gain the most confidence in their setup. Much of the transitional progression and breakdown of play is centered in this area, giving the team’s wing-backs and center-backs extra confidence when performing their roles.
At the heart of that midfield, and certainly the team’s most prolific player this season, is Aurélien Tchouaméni. Ever since his £14 million move from Bordeaux a year ago, he’s shown incredible signs of improvement and is quickly becoming one of the best midfield prospects in the world. In 29 Ligue 1 matches, the defensive midfielder is currently 1st in the league for tackles plus interceptions (164), 5th in successful pressures (171), and 5th in loose ball recoveries (299).
The 22-year-old plays in a double pivot alongside Youssouf Fofana, whom he interchanges roles with frequently throughout the game. He can either drop and focus on screening the defense, closing down passing lanes and defending the central channel, or he can play in a more box-to-box role, bringing the ball up the field and looking to play through-passes into the on-running forwards.
In order to further understand the quality that Tchouaméni brings to the table, here’s a breakdown of the major strengths and weaknesses to his game.
Positionally, as any great holding midfielder should be, Tchouaméni is very well educated on being in the right place at the right time. As the opposition progresses in their buildup, he’s constantly looking over his shoulder to see which players are checking for the ball. In predicting the opening of a passing lane, Tchouaméni is able to disrupt the play and intercept passes before they can break down his team’s defense. In addition to being 4th in total interceptions (49), his presence in the middle has led to Monaco allowing the 2nd least passes leading to shots (279) and the 2nd least shots per 90 (8.67).
His awareness and ability to scan also comes in handy during transitional phases in the game. When the team loses the ball, his ability to counterpress and anticipate the opposition’s counter-attack make it easier for Monaco to win the ball high up the pitch. The club have won more tackles in the attacking third than any other team in Ligue 1 (98), with 16 of them coming from Tchouaméni. If you take some of the best holding midfielders from recent times, like Sergio Busquets for example, the ability to anticipate and counterpress when their teams lose the ball was a prevalent attribute in their skillset. It’s great to see that Tchouaméni has that quality, and he can only build upon it as he gets older.
The 22-year-old’s athleticism also plays a big role in his defensive abilities. When tracking and marking players in the middle, he can be quick in short bursts and quite difficult to get away from. His strength and aggression make him a fierce tackler of the ball and a serious threat when applying pressure to the player in possession. Being 5th amongst midfielders in percentage of dribblers tackled (45.7%), his agility when reacting to opposition movements make carrying the ball through the midfield a real challenge for the opponent. In addition to being good on the ground, he’s also good at contesting passes in the air, winning just above 70% of his aerial duels this season.
His capacity to play in either the holding 6 or box-to-box 8 positions comes down to his collected ability when the team is in possession, either in receiving or when playing a pass.
When you come to think of it, a lot of his passing technique is oddly similar to the style that Sergio Busquets uses. If you analyze the way in which the Spaniard progresses the ball, you’ll notice that he often uses deception to his advantage. Instead of telegraphing the player he’s going to pass to, he’ll point his body in one direction but pass the ball slightly to the left or right. This makes it incredibly difficult for defenders to anticipate and read his passes because their direction is virtually unpredictable. Tchouaméni uses this skill to great effect, demonstrating the flexibility in his leg swing to propel a pass into a different direction from his body.
His forward passing is also an integral part of the club’s attacking threat. He’s currently 5th amongst midfielders in the league for progressive passes (137) and 6th for passes into the final third of the pitch (131), showing his desire to move the play upfield and get the ball into the forwards. He’s great at using his through passes to send players in, or using his fizzing long balls to set up the wide players with opportunities to attack the box.
In buildups, Tchouaméni is very good at breaking away from defenders and getting into pockets of space to receive. He’s clever in the way he creates passing angles, using his bursts of speed and quick feet to shift the defender’s momentum away from him. When he loses his markers, it frees up more time for him to pick a pass, which is often why many of Monaco’s attacks begin through him. Every top midfielder in the world knows how to create space for himself on the pitch, indicating that the 22-year-old has the ingredients to be in that category some day.
Tchouaméni is a great talent, but like any young player, there are areas in his game that can certainly be improved upon. The fact that he’s executed the 2nd most passes under pressure in the league (257) truly does get to him at times. When he receives a pass, he can sometimes stall the play with his touch or turn in a manner that creates danger for his side. When playing in the most congested part of the football field, touches have to be into space and away from pressure, which is what he sometimes fails to execute.
Passes with his weaker left foot have also proven to be a little shaky when under pressure, giving away the ball in positions that offered great opportunities for the opponent to score. Although it’s a quality that can be exploited by other sides, weak foot ability is something that can be improved upon over time.
Aurélien Tchouaméni is a unique player. The only other footballer that really compares to him statistically is Wataru Endo, a defensive midfielder who plays over in Germany with VfB Stuttgart. Their progressiveness on the ball and reliability in defense are comparable, although Tchouaméni is certainly the more athletically imposing of the two.
There hasn’t been any concrete evidence of interest from major clubs in Europe, but there’ve been rumors that Chelsea and Real Madrid are possible suitors for the player. These transfer options are difficult to stack up though, seeing that both of these clubs’ midfields would be incredibly difficult to break into. Tactically he fits in at both clubs, but would probably thrive more in the familiar 3-4-3 system that Thomas Tuchel uses at Chelsea.
However, the best option for him right now would be to stay at Monaco and develop his football for another year or so. Since he hasn’t had the opportunity to test himself in European competitions like the UEFA Champions League or Europa League yet, he should experience that with Monaco first before advancing his career with a bigger club.
The young Frenchman has proven to be one of the most important pieces in a year of revival for Monaco and will continue to be so as long as he’s there. He’s improving each and every game, learning from his mistakes and continuing to control the midfield with the mental and physical strengths of his game.
After coming off back-to-back Man of the Match performances against Lille and Saint-Etienne in Ligue 1, Tchouaméni got called up to the France U21 squad for the European U21 Championship that’s currently underway. If he performs well in the tournament, it’ll be a good platform for him to show the scouts his wonderful footballing talents.
Written by Gabe Neves (follow us on twitter @pythaginboots)