Paul Mitchell dusts off Tottenham blueprint in Monaco reconstruction project

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AS Monaco sporting director Paul Mitchell (AFP via Getty Images)
AS Monaco sporting director Paul Mitchell (AFP via Getty Images)

The view from the window of Paul Mitchell’s office provides a neat visual metaphor for the task he took on when he was appointed sporting director of Monaco in June last year.

Yards away beyond the glass, the finishing touches are being applied to the club’s brand new performance centre. Nestling against a rockface in the old stone quarry that has been Monaco’s training base since 1981, the gleaming, state-of-the-art facility has been constructed at a cost of €55million and is due to be completed in March.

As workmen scuttle around the site, Mitchell continues work on his own building project. Renowned as one of Europe’s leading talent-spotters following his spells at Southampton, Tottenham and RB Leipzig, the 39-year-old Mancunian was tempted away from his role as technical director of Red Bull’s football division last summer by the ambitious vision of Monaco’s billionaire owner Dmitry Rybolovlev and the appeal of being able to once again focus all his energy upon a single club. In return, he was charged with the responsibility of putting down solid foundations in a place of shifting sands. Ligue 1 champions and Champions League semi-finalists in 2017, Monaco were nearly relegated in 2019 and finished last season in ninth place after the French championship was prematurely curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. They have also had four coaches in the last two years. It is Mitchell’s job to bring the cycle of boom and bust to an end.

“I’ve got to try and find a way to bring back the success, but make that success sustainable – not hitting the heights of the [Champions League] semi-finals and then nearly getting relegated,” he tells The Independent in a video interview. “The foundations are the crucial part. Monaco gets accused of being very volatile and we need to change that.”

An uncompromising workaholic (he confesses he can be a “nightmare” to work with), Mitchell arrived in time to make a few adjustments to the plans for the performance centre, notably adding sleep pods to the first-team players’ area in order to aid recovery. He has extensively reshaped Monaco’s support staff too, with James Bunce, who worked with Mitchell at Southampton and has also worked for the Premier League and the US Soccer Federation, coming in as director of performance.

Monaco’s new state of the art training centreAS Monaco
Monaco’s new state of the art training centreAS Monaco

Mitchell made his most eye-catching staffing decision within weeks of taking up the role, dismissing Robert Moreno as head coach in late July and replacing the former Spanish national team boss – who had been in the job for less than seven months – with Niko Kovač. The former Bayern Munich coach’s commitment to high-energy football reminded Mitchell of Mauricio Pochettino, who he helped to bring to Southampton in 2013 during his spell as head of recruitment there. But it was a question of substance as well as style.

“It was similar to when we did the profiling to bring Mauricio to Southampton,” Mitchell says. “We wanted to see a certain brand of football. Under Robert the team was quite low-energy – it seemed to physically decrease in certain points in games, past the hour-mark – and we wanted to play with this vibrant, aggressive, linear, modern-day philosophy. Niko has that and he’s coached that for many years. Plus he has experience of winning leagues, playing for trophies and managing high-status players day in, day out.”

As Kovač ramped up the players’ workload in pre-season, Mitchell and Monaco CEO Oleg Petrov set about streamlining the club’s unhealthily bloated first-team squad. By the time the transfer window closed in October, the number of players at the club with professional contracts had been slashed from 77 to 39 (of whom 10 are academy players) via a combination of loan exits and permanent transfers.

Monaco’s post-title struggles having exposed the limitations of a transfer policy built upon stockpiling promising young players and looking to sell them on at profit, the squad now has a more balanced feel. There is still space for gifted youngsters such as 20-year-old attacking midfielder Sofiane Diop and teenage centre-back Benoît Badiashile, but their youthful exuberance is offset by the knowhow of experienced players like Cesc Fàbregas, Wissam Ben Yedder and Kevin Volland, the 28-year-old striker recruited from Bayer Leverkusen in September who is Monaco’s top scorer with nine goals.

Whipped into shape by Kovač, Monaco now cover more ground per game than any other team in Ligue 1 and although results have been up and down, they can provisionally close to within three points of the Champions League places if they win away to Montpellier on Friday night. Yet while European qualification remains the stated ambition for this season, it is not the be-all and end-all.

“Is European football a must? I would say no,” Mitchell says. “The must would be planting the solid foundations to make sure we’re successful in the future. To get to the team that I left Leipzig with or even Tottenham – that dynamic, aggressive, young, hungry, intense team, that can not only play football the right way but also outwork the opponent – is going to take some cycles of transfer windows. We have to be patient.”

With Mitchell piloting Monaco’s renaissance and Pochettino now in the dug-out at Paris Saint-Germain, you could argue that there are two leading Ligue 1 clubs using Tottenham’s transformation under the Argentinian’s stewardship as a blueprint for future success. Mitchell spent over three years working with Pochettino at Spurs and he is looking forward to crossing swords with his former colleague when Monaco visit the Parc des Princes next month.

“I sent him a note to say congratulations and we’ll see him in February,” says the one-time Milton Keynes Dons midfielder. “I’m really happy to see him back in football. I think we all agree he’s an excellent head coach and I think football has missed him.”

Mitchell still keeps an eye on how Spurs are doing and has also been monitoring developments on the other side of the North London divide, where Emile Smith Rowe – who Mitchell brought to Leipzig on loan in 2019 – has burst onto the scene with Arsenal in recent weeks. “He’s a highly talented boy,” Mitchell says. “I spent quite a lot of time with Emile so I’m really, really pleased he’s showing everyone that huge potential that we recognised at Red Bull.”

In recent years, Mitchell has been strongly linked with some of the Premier League’s biggest clubs, including Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. But although he cannot disguise his passion for English football, he says he is entirely committed to the task at hand for now.

“I have to say, I love the Premier League, I do,” he says. “But I’m enjoying the challenges that working abroad have given me and I love that. I would never say never [about returning to England], but I have a large project here on my hands and I want to try to do the best job I can.”

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