Niko Kovac and his side have had a series of good performances lately, with three wins in as many games since the start of 2021. The Monegasque captain Wissam Ben Yedder even got back among the goals in the win at Montpellier last Friday, keeping AS Monaco in fourth place in the Ligue 1 table. Before a visit from Olympique de Marseille this Saturday (9 PM, behind closed doors),the Croatian coach spoke about the good form of his team to the press. Extracts.
Coach, is this a good time to face Marseille?
This is a difficult question, it will be easier to answer after the game. When a team is in trouble, some people might think so. But on the other hand, it is possible to see things differently. It’s also an opportunity for them to lift their heads and show another side to their play. It can be the best time, as well as the worst because they are going to want to give the best of themselves to get ahead. I prefer that we talk about my team instead. The players have shown signs of progress in the last two games.
Conversely, if we ask André Villas-Boas this question, is this the worst time to play AS Monaco?
We are currently experiencing a good run of form. We are on the right track. Marseille were in the same situation as us in December. It’s never easy to be a coach at a big club like Marseille. I’m not here to criticize our opponent, I don’t want to talk about the problems of other teams. I also have things to deal with on my end. There are still concepts in our play that need to be refined.
Caio Henrique has performed well in the last few games — he even recorded some assists. Do you think he is now showing his true level?
When he arrived, he couldn’t play for six months because of COVID-19. He wasn’t ready for the first few weeks, he wasn’t at the level we expected. He was then injured in a friendly match against Nice. We needed time to get him back on track. You can tell he’s technically very comfortable on the ball, like a lot of Brazilians. He’s come back well, but he can be even better physically. In any case, he is more confident at the moment. He needed time, it’s never easy when you come from another country with a different culture. He gives a lot in training and has helped us a lot for some time.
Your two defensive midfielders have also bee having very good games. What are the improvements can be made in the near future?
I want Youssouf and Aurélien to grow as footballers, but also as men. They are two young players, full of quality. They must be the heart of our team, they are the bridge between defense and attack. They’re the ones who dictate our possession, they have to be available, they set the pace for the team. They are the organizers of the game and it doesn’t matter what the outcome of the game is, even when you are winning 3-0 against Montpellier. They need to be tougher, more focused and disciplined. They still lack communication with each other, but they are working on it. I’m happy with their performance but they still have things to learn in different areas.
Would you like them to take more initiative offensively?
They have a good ability to shoot but have yet to score from outside the box this year. There are a lot of stats out there today, but shooting and scoring from long range isn’t necessarily what interests me the most. I prefer that we prepare our actions as best as possible, so that we have real scoring chances in the penalty area. As a defensive midfielder, I think they are capable of scoring two goals per season, minimum. But once again we prefer to be in the box so as to have more chances to score.
The pairing of Ben Yedder and Volland is working rather well at the moment…
They are scoring a lot of goals. Wissam has scored nine, and it’s ten for Kevin. They don’t just score, they’ve delivered quite a few assists. It’s important to have two goalscorers. We are not dependent on a single attacking player. Sofiane has also scored five goals. All players are important in fostering this team spirit. Football is an 11-on-11 sport, and it’s not all about one player. The players work well together with and without the ball, I am satisfied.
Are departures expected in the transfer window?
It wouldn’t make sense to sell our best players. The current situation is challenging for everyone. We are in a good position in the table, there is no point in changing everything. We want to achieve our goals. It’s difficult to have a financial impact at the moment, so we are determined to keep our players. The only thing I can say is that Strahinja Pavlovic will be leaving on loan to Cercle Brugge. He needs playing time.
You must savor being fourth place in the standings, only six points behind the leader?
I don’t look at the top three places very much. Those behind me worry more because there are very successful clubs. It’s a good opportunity to outpace Marseille, but not just them. We will try to keep or even increase the lead, we will take stock after the next five matches. We had a bad run in December. Today, we are on a series of wins. Football is not just black and white.
Can you tell us more about the condition of Gelson Martins?
Cesc is not available. He’s better, but he’s not ready yet. Gelson will not be available against Marseille either, he has a knee problem. The staff are working hard to get him back. He is not yet training with the team. We will see what happens in the next few days.
Ruben Aguilar started on the wing Montpellier, will he also play this new position against Marseille ?
Ruben had a very good game, even if it is not his preferred position. Djibril was also convincing at right back. I am happy with his performance. Ruben spends a lot of time on the pitch, he gives everything for the team. That’s what I love about a player: his determination. So there is no reason to change things. Golo’ is on the right track, he is making a good comeback. You know, playing with a high level of intensity isn’t the same in training and in matches, so he still needs a little bit more time to be able to play a full game. It’s not enough to have three weeks of training after four months of absence to be able to play 90 minutes. Little by little he is getting back to laying the way he wants to. We don’t want to take any risks at the moment, we’re taking it step by step to make sure he is 100%. But from a tactical standpoint, I see him more as a winger.