Niko Kovac: “We have found the right balance”

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A frantic pace is being set. It’s only 48 hours since AS Monaco obtained their ninth victory in ten Ligue 1 matches in 2021 against Brest (2-0). That success the Rouge et Blancs‘ current unbeaten run to twelve. But there’s no time to breathe for the men of Niko Kovac, who are traveling to Strasbourg this Wednesday to face RCSA at the Stade de la Meinau (9 p.m.). Before this match, played as part of the 28th Matchday in Ligue 1, the Monegasque coach took stock of his side at a press conference.

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Hello Niko. You’ve just put together two clean sheets in a row. How do you explain this improvement?

It’s not easy to explain, but I think the players have understood that when you reduce individual errors, you can more easily go for clean sheets. I think that against Paris Saint-Germain and against Brest, we didn’t allow our opponents to get chances, there was very little danger from the opposition.. Axel played very well as a right-back in those two matches. It’s not just understanding the defensive task that matters, but also the role of the offensive players in our system.

Is this tactical system also safer for you?

I think the players have a better understanding of just what we expect of them and they are improving individually. The tactical setup also helps us in this way. They understand that if you close down the midfielder when the ball is lost, it is easier to defend properly. Today there are four players defending, so that doesn’t change much, but we have to create more understanding. Aurélien, Youssouf, Sofiane, all the young players understood what had to be done to improve their understanding of the tasks asked of them. At the moment the players are feeling good and I hope that will continue.

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The role of your two midfielders has changed slightly. Are they also the ones that give you a better balance?

I would say it’s a balance to be found. We build the game by having three at the back and when one of the two midfielders joins the attack, the other must stay to cover in case the ball is lost. I know they are young, that they can run a lot, that they have a lot of heart. But in this position on the pitch, you have to know how to keep a certain balance in the heart of the midfield. You also have to play with your head. It’s up to me to help them find that.

What can you tell us about the evolving role of Sofiane Diop ?

With the ball he’s more of a midfielder who plays in the heart of midfield, centrally. And without the ball I ask him to defend on the flank, to protect his wing. He has this ability to keep running, to make runs in behind the defense, to shoot. He has a very interesting profile.

How do you deal with having a very young starting XI and more experienced players on the bench?

The job of a coach is not easy. You have to choose eleven players to start when you have a lot of quality in your squad, even on the bench. We have 20 players who all deserve to play, so yes there is a balance to be found. At the moment, the substitutes are very impressive, they bring a lot to the table. And if the substitutes give 100% when they have the opportunity to play, that’s how we will keep a high level of performance. I see these players who are working hard in training and I try to give them the playing time they deserve. They must put the pressure on me so that the choices are difficult to make the following weekend.

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Do you have the kind of bench that puts the title in play?

This team has been learning since the start of the season. We have reached a great level. I’m very happy, but you know a season is very long and sometimes there are periods that are more difficult. It’s all about trying to challenge ourselves all the time. Winning titles is bound to be the goal, but I cannot aim for the second stage of my job without having completely reached the first. Right now I don’t want to talk about these things. It’s difficult because all the teams see us winning every weekend and want to beat us. It is up to us to maintain this high level of play.

According to you, are PSG still the favorites?

Yes of course. As I said at the start of the season, the best players are at Paris Saint-Germain, they have the best team in the league. They were finalists in the last Champions League. Does it take the pressure off us to say that? No I don’t think so, that’s just the reality.

Is it a personal point of satisfaction to see your players progress under your manager?

I am very happy because it is also our ambition to help develop the younger players. It takes time to work on things with players that are only 20 years old. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of explanation, video sessions, instruction. I often tell my players that if they want to go far, they have to go far in their daily work, and make sacrifices. It is very important to keep your feet on the ground, to work to continue to improve. I see they want to improve. Success is winning titles, but it’s also about developing young players. And it’s not just the young players, our mor experienced players also continue to improve. We are very happy with the work being done by the staff at the moment.

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Tell us about the new positions in which Axel and Ruben have been playing?

They did not start the season in these positions. As a coach you have ideas and your job is to try things out. Sometimes you have to know how to find the best position for a player for the needs of the team at a given time. Ruben is a great guy, a great player. He has the physical ability to play on the flank a little higher up the pitch. He can run for 90 minutes without getting tired. Axel also did a good job in a position that is not a natural fit.

There’s also Djibril who played eight games at a very high level recently — we have to raise the bar even further in training to push the players to keep learning. Regarding Axel, we saw his performance against Kylian Mbappé, one of the best players in the world, who is very strong technically, very hard to play against. When you have Axel in front of you, you fear him, he is physically very imposing. And when you have the ball, he knows what to do so I’m very happy with his play.

What is Aleksandr Golovin missing today to be a starter?

When we have all the green lights from the medical department, he will start. Golo ’can play in three positions — on both wings and also as a number ten that’s his favorite role. We are very happy with his impact on the team and what he brings to the side when he comes on.

Finally, what can you tell us about Zlatko Kranjcar, who unfortunately passed away on Monday?

I am very sad. He was my coach. It’s not easy because we both had succes together — he was a wonderful person. He gave me a lot of ideas, and he made me the captain of the Croatian national team. We are all sad to see him pass away.

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