The Algerian striker has contributed to Monaco’s unlikely European charge, and his form has been worthy of the Red Devils’ reported interest
Islam Slimani probably didn’t imagine he’d play such an important part of AS Monaco’s renaissance after his loan move from Leicester City was confirmed in August 2019, owing to how he’d regressed since joining the Foxes in 2016.
The Algeria striker was something of an unwanted man after unsuccessful loan spells at Newcastle United in 2017-18 and Fenerbahce in 2018-19 followed what were 18 frustrating months with the Foxes from 2016.
Signed for a then-record fee of £28 million, Slimani joined from Sporting Lisbon after success for both Leicester and the Algerian in the preceding campaign – the East Midlands club had extraordinarily won the Premier League title.
The striker netted 27 league strikes in 33 appearances for the Portuguese giants who, with 86 points, broke their points total, but lost the title to Benfica who finished on 88 points.
The former Sporting striker remained Leicester’s record signing for three years before the Foxes twice broke their transfer record in one window with the purchases of Ayoze Perez and Youri Tielemans from Newcastle and Anderlecht respectively.
After Slimani’s largely underwhelming spells on loan, it was surprising to see then-Monaco boss Leonardo Jardim bring the Africa Cup of Nations winner to the Mediterranean Coast, but the African champion has silenced doubters with eight goals and seven assists in 14 appearances, 11 of which were starts.
His scoring rate of a goal every 125 minutes is bettered by Wissam Ben Yedder’s rate of a goal every 113 minutes, but the Algerian clocks 71 minutes per game, while his strike partner plays 82 minutes per game.
The Leicester loanee’s physical profile is unique too, making him a tantalising prospect.
He’s 188cm, reasonably quick, and is a lean figure. Players of his physical build are often labelled as target men, but Slimani’s game isn’t as one-dimensional as many may think, with the striker a blend of a poacher and playmaker, a nine-and-a-half, perhaps.
Based on his natural attributes and his form, both at Sporting and Monaco, it’s easy to see why Leicester plumped for his services, and why Manchester United were reportedly keen to recruit the hitman during the January transfer window.
Instead, despite an alleged approach for Salomon Rondon, they ultimately opted for Odion Ighalo, who cannot boast the recent form of Slimani, but does have a similar physical profile.
An instance of Slimani’s playmaking came in Monaco’s 3-1 win over Nice in August: after being played in by a typical Cesc Fabregas through ball over the top, the defender’s close marking meant the Algerian couldn’t have a clear run on goal.
However, what he did after was pretty interesting; rather than play a simple pass to Ben Yedder, the frontman half-turned, spotted Aleksandr Golovin’s darting run from deep into the space vacated by the two strikers, and played him through with a well-weighted ball.
The Russia international scored to send the hosts 2-1 up – that was Slimani’s first assist for the Red and Whites.
Against Stade Brestois, a game in which he also netted, Slimani gave three distinct assists: a headed flick-on for Ben Yedder and through balls for Gelson Martins and Keita Balde to finish in a 4-1 success.
What made the latter pair of assists so different, demonstrating Slimani’s versatility, was the fact that Martins was released from the half-way line – thus an easier pass to play – while the chipped through pass for Balde required a certain level of expertise to execute.
Furthermore, the Africa Cup of Nations winner demonstrated admirable spatial awareness in assisting Golovin for the Principality side’s 1-0 success over Dijon in November by dropping into the hole, meant to be occupied by the Russia international, before playing a one-time pass for the attacking midfielder who finished with aplomb.
What made that strike peculiar was how the Monaco front three befuddled Dijon’s backline with their movement: Ben Yedder was wide left when he passed to Slimani, who’d dropped into the number 10 position meant to be occupied by Golovin, before passing to the advanced-positioned playmaker to finish.
Since August, the 31-year-old has also scored some important goals for the Red and Whites, notably his brace in a 2-2 draw with Strasbourg in August, as well as the equalizer for 2-2 against Stade Rennais; a game Jardim’s side won 3-2.
However, the upshot of the Portuguese coach’s departure has been reduced minutes for the Algerian under Roberto Moreno.
After a 0-0 draw at Angers on December 14, Slimani didn’t feature for the side in the top flight for a month until Moreno introduced him after the hour against Paris Saint-Germain, and he repaid the Spaniard’s faith with an equalizer as it ended 3-3 at Parc des Princes.
The Algerian then missed the next four league games before returning against Amiens to help the side to back-to-back wins for the first time since December.
It was also the striker’s first appearance in the league since his late equalizer against PSG in mid-January and he made it count, albeit nearly 40 minutes after his introduction at the start of the second-half.
In the 85th minute, the on-loan forward prevented opposing centre-back Nicholas Opoku from heading away a long punt from Benjamin Lecomte which then fell to Ligue 1’s top scorer to finish superbly.
Slimani then put his neck muscles to good use by diverting a floated Fabregas corner away from Regis Gurtner for the visitors’ 93rd-minute winner.
Last week’s victory put the side from the Mediterranean Coast in a good position going into Friday’s clash with fifth-placed Montpellier, a team they trail by two points.
While Monaco wobbled a bit before 1-0 win over Angers at the start of February, they’ve picked up maximum points from three of their recent five games at Stade Louis II, and have even more reason to feel confident as their guests have accrued only eight points on their travels.
A win for Moreno’s side could see them end gameweek 25 as high as fifth, and with fourth-placed Lille (on 40 points) playing Olympique Marseille on Sunday, Slimani and co. could end the matchday closer to the top four.
The new boss may not fancy him, but if Slimani’s form in the first-half of the season is anything to go by, the Afcon winner has shown he can still valuable in the right circumstances. With performances like these, United’s reported interest wasn’t so far-fetched.
Monaco finished the season 17th last term, but the performances of their on-loan Algerian striker, arguably their second-best performer behind Ligue 1’s top shooter Ben Yedder, means the Monegasques could be transformed from also-rans to European returnees all in the space of 12 months.