“Waiting until the last few days to buy or sell players, this is our project, we believe in it but it's not easy to win at the same time.”
AS Monaco Coach Leonardo Jardim was brutally honest after his side had lost their first leg tie 3-1 against Valencia CF in the Mestalla. It wouldn’t get much better for the Portuguese manager, and despite scoring twice at the Stade Louis II on Tuesday, Monaco were eliminated from the Champions League.
The defence was caught cold in opening stages of both games and going 4-1 down, even with 86 minutes to go, proved too big a mountain for the Ligue 1 side to climb.
Once they gained belief in Jardim’s system, Monaco became one of the stingiest defences around Europe last season. Building their success on clean sheets both domestically and in the Champions League got them to a third place finish and a surprise run to the quarter-finals.
One of the biggest components of that success, especially in Europe, was Tunisian centre-back Aymen Abdennour. When Jardim made those comments after the defeat in Spain, he was talking about his African man-mountain.
Despite Monaco’s project being built on the prospect of playing in the Champions League group stage, Jardim wasn’t able to name one of his best defenders for either leg. Monaco were protecting their asset. The coach hinted that it was difficult to play a player like him during the window, describing a player of his ability and worth as someone who comes along two or three times in a lifetime.
“There are no problems with [Coach Leandro] Jardim or the club,” the player’s agent Abdelkader Jilani told Tuttomercatoweb. “But the truth is that Abdennour wants to leave. He wants a new adventure, and there are opportunities in Spain, Italy and England.”
Serie A is still the favourite destination, but with the money that English clubs have been throwing across the channel this summer, you have to believe that if a deal is to be done, Premier League clubs won’t be far away.
At the start of the summer, Abdennour was revealed as a potential target for Arsenal, and even with just a small number of games played this season, it’s clear to see that he would be the perfect move for Arsene Wenger.
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny may be the Frenchman’s first-choice pairing, but after Calum Chambers' performance in their absence against Liverpool on Monday, plus analysis from pundit Gary Neville after the game, it is clear that the Gunners lack a player in the mould of Abdennour.
"We've talked about those players like (Patrick) Vieira, (Emmanuel) Petit, Gilberto Silva, Edu, (Martin) Keown, (Sol) Campbell, (Tony) Adams, (Steve) Bould… all strong people,” began Neville on Sky Sports Monday Night Football. "All of a sudden, the type of signings between 2004 and 2009 – they're certainly not the type of characters that you would want to win you a league.”
The base of any successful team is a strong spine, and if Wenger moved for the Tunisian centre-back before the close of the window, he would be adding a player as dominant as Mertesacker in the air, but as mobile as Koscielny along ground. Plus he is someone that is physically dominant and adds steel, determination and that little bit of nastiness that you need at the top level.
Monaco certainly missed him during their Champions League play-off defeat to Valencia. They looked vulnerable and soft far too often and needed someone to rough up the Spanish attack. Or as they say in Monaco…'Abdennour someone'.
Arsenal saw this first hand last season as the Ligue 1 side impressed at the Emirates Stadium and came away with a 3-1 away victory. The home side may have created chances, but the power and strength of Abdennour often stopped the Gunners from getting better positions in and around the box.
No defender in the Monaco team won more headers than Abdennour last season, winning 2.4 per game. Only young Brazilian Wallace – who played beside the former Toulouse man in a successful partnership – made more clearances at 6.4 and 5.8 per game. Compared to Mertesacker and Koscielny at 5.5 and 5.9 the Monaco centre-back matches up well.
Abdennour has been told by the club that he can move if a big club makes a serious bid.
Milan seems to be his preferred destination, but both Newcastle United and Liverpool have been mentioned. He would be a superb signing for all three clubs, but adding that element of snap and snarl to his defence could be exactly what Wenger needs to take Arsenal a step closer to the very top and career defining move that the 26-year-old is waiting for.
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