Two days ahead of the return of Ligue 1, Niko Kovac gave his first press conference of 2021. The Monegasques hope to end the first half of the season in the best possible way, which will end against Angers, Saturday at the Stade Louis-II. Before the trip to Lorient this Wednesday (9 p.m. behind closed doors), on the 18th Matchday of Ligue 1, the Rouge et Blancs‘ coach spoke about the resumption of competition.
Hello Niko. What can we wish you and the club for this year?
I would say above all good health. For AS Monaco as a whole, for all the people who work at the club. And of course for you and your families in these difficult times. I think this is the most important thing.
What’s the latest on the injured players?
The players are 100% physically ready, they worked well during the holidays. As for the recovering players, they had a good week of training with the squad. As for Benjamin Lecomte and Aleksandr Golovin, despite everything, they will not yet be ready to start the game against Lorient. Aleksandr has missed four months of competition so you have to be patient with him even though he will be in the squad. Little by little, you have to give him time to play. Concerning Benjamin, it is a special role to be the goalkeeper. There is a routine and rhythms to find. Tomorrow there will be training to see, but I do not think there will be anything new in Lorient.
How do you view the return of Aleksandr Golovin?
We have the opportunity to have several options in each position. I’m very happy that Aleksandr is back with the squad. I think his best place is as a number 10, and currently we have Wissam Ben Yedder and Kevin Volland playing as a front two. I would be very happy to give him a few minutes of play to gradually regain his rhythm, but above all we have to be very careful with the medical staff’s instructions for him. He will be with us in the squad for Lorient, and I hope to give him the opportunity to come back.
What’s your opinion on the development of Sofiane Diop since this summer, when he was part of the reserves with Eliot Matazo?
When I saw him in the reserves with Eliot, I saw that they were working really hard. I saw their attitude and their investment day in and day out. So I decided to put them in the first team to reward them and it was a good decision I think. Sofiane is developing very well. He still has progress to make on the defensive side of things in particular. He is on the right path, and he must continue because he doesn’t have everything yet. With the ball, he is obviously very comfortable. We are here to help him develop step by step.
Does he quickly understand what you expect from him?
In general, when you give advice and give direction to a player, it’s satisfying to see that they are receptive. Sofiane is a good guy who wants to learn, he asks to see the videos of his matches. He knows what he’s doing well and what he needs to work on more. He’s following a process, with ups and downs, that’s normal. He is only 21 years old and you will see that in two or three years he will have more experience and how he has grown as a player. Myself when I was 18 I went through this. You cannot buy experience, it is acquired over time.
He took the place of other players in the first-choice eleven …
As a coach, I watch the matches, but also what is done in training and I give the opportunity to those who work the hardest to be able to play. We noticed that Sofiane got involved, so we gave him the opportunity to be a starter. This is football, and this is how it works.
What can we expect in the winter transfer window?
We are happy with our current squad, but like all clubs we are looking at what is possible in the market. This is the job of Paul Mitchell and Laurence Stewart. Right now we are happy with the team we have, but we are keeping our eyes open. We don’t have any specific needs in central defense or for a defensive midfielder. Aurélien and Youssouf do a very good job.
How do you analyze your place in the table?
I agree with Wissam’s analysis that it was a good point against Saint-Etienne, since we were playing with ten against eleven. When you can’t win, you have to know how not to lose, as the saying goes. The relationship between atmosphere and results is an interesting factor. When the results are there, inevitably, the mood follows. We are currently in 6th place in Ligue 1, behind the best teams in the championship, so we are fighting to catch these teams. At present, you have to be honest, it’s hard to get up to their level. Again, as I often say, when you cut back on the little mistakes we might have made in the first half of the season, we can fight for the top spots. The reality today is that we are sixth, and that glass ceiling is going to have to be broken.
How did you manage the health situation as regards Covid-19 during the holidays?
We explained to the players what to do to protect themselves as much as possible. I had it myself and saw the impact it has on one’s body. My brother actually laughed at me on that point, since I’m always the one who reminds everyone to be careful, which proves that no one is safe. The medical staff gave instructions to the players and I think they were really listening and aware of the risks. Whether you are returning from South America or from Paris, the problem is the same. We have also divided the dressing room into four groups of six players, in an attempt to reduce contact between them as much as possible. This is a way for us to reduce the risks. We also have social distancing in place, along with the use of hydroalcoholic gel and of course masks. We won’t be able to reduce the risk to 100%, but if we are already at 99%, it should be enough.