Tottenham Hotspur travel to Monte Carlo midweek to face AS Monaco in the Europa League on Thursday night, but Mauricio Pochettino’s men will discover a much changed side to the one that overcame Arsenal in the Champions League last season.
Due to their unexpected success, Monaco received substantial offers for a number of their stars this summer, with Geoffrey Kondogbia, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Anthony Martial making the club a significant profit.
Not to be seen sitting still, Monaco reinvested their return, bringing no less than 12 new players into the club. Bigger names, such as Stephan El Shaarawy, Ivan Cavaleiro and Marcos “Rony” Lopes have stuttered at their new home, giving one of the less heralded names a chance to grab the spotlight.
Compared to the welcome that was given to Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez just two years ago, the arrival of Thomas Lemar from SM Caen went almost unnoticed. There was no chartered helicopter from Nice airport, just the standard photographs with shirt in hand.
It was completely understandable, just 12 months before his move Lemar had only played 156 minutes in Ligue 1. Even 10 games into the new season the 18-year-old had appeared from the bench - eight games for just 91 minutes.
The youngster showed his ability from set-pieces when his left-footed corners set up goals for both Nicolas Seube and Sloan Privat in consecutive weeks, but it was in Week 31 that has name caught the eye.
On as a sub with 17 minutes to go, Caen were drawing 1-1 away at FC Nantes. Into injury time Lemar stood over a free-kick deep on the right. His trademark left-foot would deliver a teasing cross towards the back post – it would miss everyone and bounce into the top corner.
It was Lemar’s first goal for the club, perhaps not the finish he would have dreamed of, but a game-winner none the less. His only goal of the season was followed up by two more assists against Lyon and Evian – earning him a place in France’s under-20 squad for this summer’s Toulon Tournament.
The teenager wouldn’t find the net, but he played a significant role as Les Bleus lifted the trophy, beating Morocco in the final. His performances, in front of more scouts than spectators obviously convinced Monaco to make a move – paying £2.8 million for the Guadeloupe-born midfielder.
When he signed, Sporting Director Vadim Vasilyev commented to the official Monaco website that Thomas came from the same generation as Anthony Martial, so was a perfect fit for their project.
During his unveiling, Lemar was delighted to sign with the club, made it clear that he wanted to learn and develop from the players already at the club, and importantly, he said he was just looking to integrate into the team and earn playing time on the pitch.
No one expected the youngster to make an impact at the Stade Louis II, but in their early season struggles, the 19-year-old with a wand of a left-foot has emerged as one of their most dangerous players.
His versatility could become key this season. Leonardo Jardim, without Martial to lead the line, has still to find his favoured combination upfront, but with Lemar being able to play on the left-wing, or to the left of a midfield three – often coming inside to pick up the ball in the No.10 role – it could see him become a regular regardless of formation.
Although he is able to use both feet during the game, it’s his left that will cause damage to Spurs, either from set-pieces, or open play. His first goal for the club away at Toulouse showed his ability to score from distance, but also that he is a pass-first, shoot-second type of player. Looking for a team mate in a better position, he finally decided to capitalise on some poor defending and drove his shot into the bottom corner.
None of Monaco’s other new forwards have found the net this season. El Shaarawy, Cavaleiro, and Guido Carrillo combine for 1149 minutes without a goal – making Lemar Monaco’s top scorer with three.
Jardim has already used 23 different players from the start in just eight league games. This team will take time to settle, and with the quality they have, there are no worries that they can’t turn the season around, but the emergence of Lemar has been a true bright spot.
Before the start of the season it would have been 50/50 whether Lemar would have featured in such a big game, but if there is any justice in the world his meteoric rise and fearless nature will guarantee his place in Thursday’s team – Spurs should be more worried about his left-foot.