Salisu to Ligue 1 & Monaco is no downgrade, but he deserves better

We always knew Mohammed Salisu was going to leave Southampton following the Hampshire club’s relegation from the Premier League last season — or, at the very least, we were confident that he would.

The only surprise was that it took so long, with credible reports about a potential move for Salisu not appearing on the rumour mill until the second full month of the window was almost over.

Even then, he was only mentioned as an alternative Fulham were considering in their pursuit of Ajax Amsterdam’s Calvin Bassey; by the end of July, a £19.3 million package for the latter — handing the selling club a tidy profit on the fee paid Rangers of Scotland for the Nigerian’s services a summer earlier — had been secured, forcing Salisu to look elsewhere for his move.

He didn’t have to look too long — only a bit too far.

Less than a week later, it was confirmed that Salisu had sealed his own transfer to French club AS Monaco. As relieving and exciting as the announcement of the deal was, it was a bit of a brow-raiser.

There weren’t many standout players for Southampton last season, and Salisu was definitely one of them. Along with the likes of Romeo Lavia, the Ghanaian proved a rare spot of colour even as thick gloom enveloped the Saints and ultimately extinguished their survival hopes, often playing as though immune to the contagion of mediocrity around him.

Obviously too good for second-tier football, Salisu was certain to be one of the prized assets Southampton wouldn’t be able to hold on to, and the expectation was that he’d attract Premier League interest.

And even though Fulham landed their main target, it still felt reasonable to believe that another club or two from the Premier League would eventually knock on the door and prise the 24-year-old away.

Salisu’s move, instead, has taken him away from the English top-flight, across the Channel, all the way to the French Riviera. Monaco, true, are a club with a bigger profile than Fulham and most other Premier League sides outside the so-called ‘Big Six’.

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The Monegasque outfit is among the more successful in France, a member of the small bracket of elites that trail the perennial Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) procession. Along with Les Parisiens, Monaco are one of only two French clubs to have played in a Uefa Champions League final since Olympique Marseille won the competition three decades ago.

Monaco, in fact, were prominent in Europe’s premier club competition only as recently as 2017, when they overcame more illustrious opponents, including Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, to almost reach another final. That squad — which also won the Ligue 1 title that season, by the way, nearly pulling off a domestic Double — featured the now-familiar faces of Bernardo Silva, Fabinho, and a young Kylian Mbappe.

Few expected Monaco to settle at that level, though, with Europe’s biggest clubs circling and ready to pluck the brightest stars of that campaign even before the season was over. Monaco largely managed to maintain those standards in the ensuing season, despite the losses, finishing runners-up to PSG in both Ligue 1 and the Coupe de la Ligue — but then came the inevitable hangover.

They ended 2018/19 at the other extreme of the league table, escaping relegation by just two points. Monaco recovered and rose to mid-table by the conclusion of the next term, going on to consecutive third-place finishes in the couple of seasons that followed. Last season, though, saw them slide slightly downwards to sixth, locked out of continental football for 2023/24.

Not that Europe would miss Monaco, however, six years removed from that remarkable run during which they were everyone’s favourite second team.

While they’ve regained some stability at home, it is in European action that Monaco’s drop-off has been most pronounced. They’ve only made it as far as the Champions League’s group stage twice, most recently in 2018/19, missing out completely on Europe for two straight seasons. The farthest they’ve since advanced is the Round of 16 of the Uefa Europa League.

That’s the version of Monaco Salisu now joins, the club’s second signing since the appointment of Austrian Adi Hutter as manager in July. It’s certainly a huge step-up from what Southampton now are, but Monaco don’t exactly offer the next-level prospects the former Valladolid man needs at this point in his trajectory.

It isn’t just Monaco that feels second-rate, though; the league they play in, too, is just as underwhelming, if not more so. Ligue 1 is widely regarded as breeding grounds for the talent that feeds Europe’s more eye-catching championships, occasionally a place where players go to revive — and, in some cases, wind down — careers.

France currently ranks sixth per the Uefa Country Coefficients, and hasn’t risen beyond fifth for a while. Having been won by just three teams (seven times by just one of those, PSG) in that period, Ligue 1’s status as the most one-sided elite division in Europe is rivalled and surpassed only by Bayern Munich-owned Bundesliga.

Especially considering where some of his fellow Southampton gems are headed — Tino Livramento just signed for Champions League-bound Newcastle United, while Liverpool desire to plug Lavia into that gaping hole Fabinho’s unplanned exit has left in their midfield — it’s hard to argue Salisu doesn’t deserve better.

Even the direction in which a couple of Salisu’s international teammates have taken their careers this summer suggests Salisu should have picked a prime destination.

Twenty-eight-year-olds Alexander Djiku and Daniel Amartey have exported their talents to Turkish giants Fenerbahce and Besiktas, from Strasbourg (France) and Leicester City (England), respectively. Surely, Ghana trainer Chris Hughton would have wished the least dispensable of his three centre-back options (Djiku and Amartey being the others) found himself in a more competitive environment — like the Premier League, for instance, regarded by most connoisseurs and fans alike as the place to be.

It is, of course, not entirely unthinkable that Salisu works his way back to someplace — no disrespect to either Monaco or Ligue 1 — he’d have loftier targets to reach for. He’s still quite well-placed on the age spectrum, after all, and Salisu’s latest home may well provide a helpful learning curve for a player who, clearly, is made for more.


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