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Monaco's Frankenstein Turn

By Mohamed Mohamed | October 12, 2015 | Analytics


For a good portion of last season, Monaco weren't fun to watch. It was a weird team that had loaned out a broken down striker to Manchester United, and sold its best player in James Rodriguez to Real Madrid. People talked about the slow start from Lyon but Monaco were probably worse than they were during the first two to three months. Their Champions League performances were even more grim; dour 1-0 or 0-0 scorelines in which shot generation was suffocated at levels that even Louis Van Gaal would be impressed at.

This slowly started to turn and by the beginning of February, we started to see Monaco 2.0: a really stout defensive side that would sit relatively back and could counter attack with high efficiency. In many ways, they were what Caen are so far this season (which is a sentence I thought I would never say but here we are). Some would say a key moment came against Arsenal in the CL, which is kind of true. I'd argue moreso that their first leg performance versus Juventus was a better showing of how far they had come.

What happened last season makes what's going on so far this season that bit more interesting. Monaco have become both a better attacking team and a much worse defensive side. I'm quite surprised as to just how good Monaco have been in attack. Monaco's shot data is pretty much the same as it was last year. Shots per game has a 0.2 difference, shots on target is also around the same. But go further and deeper and you'll see the big difference. Monaco rank 2nd in expected goals for, 1st in big chances for and are in the top 3-4 in shots in the danger zone. These are elite numbers and again, this is quite surprising.

I'm very high on Anthony Martial both as a talent and what he produced when he did get to play last season. Before the mega transfer, I thought he would continue his progress from the second half of last season and have a nice second season playing around 2500-3000 league minutes. Without him, the striker position has basically been Guido Carrillo and rotating attacking midfielder X. Selling Layvin Kurzawa as well didn't help things as he's probably the best attacking left back in Ligue 1. There is genuine talent in the roles behind the striker: Bernado Silva is super clever, Thomas Lemar is looking more and more like a dynamite prospect, hell even Nabil Dirar has been solid this season. But if you told me Monaco would be this good in attack without their once future ST and LB, I would've probably snickered and walked away.

Perhaps the best representation of how well oiled Monaco's attack has become was their first goal versus Guingamp two weeks ago. It ticked off a lot of things that you would want from your attack.

  • Quick transition from defense to the midfield? Check
  • Quick transition from midfield to attacking third? Check
  • Throughball creating a big chance? Check

At this time last season, it wasn't fun to watch Monaco in attack. It was basically a practice in masochism. It's different this time around. Monaco are fun and they have mitigated their carousel at striker with a surplus in creative midfielders.

When Monaco lost Aymen Abdennour, Geoffrey Kondogbia and later on Kurzawa, it was fair to think that they would be a little worse off defensively. This was before the sales of Abdennour and Kurzawa, but in my Ligue 1 season preview I figured they would be about as good. My theory was this: Kondogbia is an all around better player than Tiemoue Bakayoko and probably by a good margin, but Bakayoko could do the destroying parts of Kondogbia's game at a similar level and the likes of Jeremy Toulalan and Joao Moutinho would allow Monaco to still have enough juice to pick out passes.

It hasn't worked. Monaco have been one of the worst defensive teams in Ligue 1 this season. Whether it be expected goals, big chances conceded or shots coming from the danger zone. It's almost as if the growth of their attacking play has had an inverse effect on their defensive play. Of course this isn't entirely true, because correlation doesn't quite equal causation, but the steep decline in Monaco's defense is notable.

We can try and pick out some of the reasons why. First off being the departure of Aymen Abdennour. I can't tell you analytically how good Aymen Abdennour is, because I basically know jack about how to truly quantify CB play (I once thought Dejan Lovren was good, in case you wanted to know failed CB thoughts from yours' truly). Analytics has come a long way in football but CB play arguably is even more of a dark cloud than goalkeeping (at least publicly, because who knows what goes on in clubs). It's still such a subjective eye test with how little reliable and interpretable data we have, because interceptions and tackles pretty much equate to fart noises.

That being said, I think the fact that he's not there anymore has probably had a sizeable effect on their defense. Particularly considering that Monaco have become more of a pressing team this season. Again, causation doesn't 100% equal correlation, but we are staring to see how as Monaco have become a team that's looking for quicker attacks, they're pushing their CBs higher up the pitch instead of sitting back.

This wouldn't be such a problem if Monaco's CBs weren't as uninspiring as they are currently. Wallace is 20 years old and learning on the job, Andrea Raggi is a body but I have no idea if he's worth a damn, and Ricardo Carvalho is old enough to have remembered the Cold War. In the tiers of slowness, there's "slow" and then there's "Ricardo Carvalho slow". I keep coming back to Monaco's game with PSG and just how easy PSG picked them apart. Granted, PSG are so much better than anyone else in France but they just exposed the offside trap Monaco were trying to play against them. Numerous times PSG were looking for home run long balls over the defense or throughballs that split open Monaco and two of the three goals they scored fit one of those two things.

How could Monaco fix this? Well, that's for much smarter people to decide. It's a difficult balancing act because Monaco are very good going forward and their attacking qualities are stuff you want to harness. Monaco have been playing either a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 between Ligue 1 and Europe. Two striker systems are probably out of the question unless you play a 4-4-2 diamond and someone like Stephen El Shaarawy plays as the left sided forward, which I guess is possible considering the one season El Shaarawy was healthy in Milan, he had a pretty healthy shot and goal scoring profile.

More than likely the rebound defensively will just have to come with finding the right mixture of guys in the midfield. It hasn't helped that Bakayoko has only played 180 minutes this season. A 4-3-3 with a midfield of Silva/Bakayoko/Toulalan or Silva/Bakayoko/Moutinho is interesting. Silva tracks back quite high for a attacking midfielder, Bakayoko would provide the protection and either Moutinho or Toulalan would spray passes around. If that doesn't work, maybe going to such extremes as playing Bakayoko at CB would be a thing to consider (but that's more so a "in case of emergency, break glass" type of thing).

It's going to be interesting to see how Monaco look the rest of the season, because Champions League qualification is a must for them and preferably in the two automatic spots. There's no way on god's green earth they'll catch PSG but that second spot is wide open. Their attack is CL level quality but their defense has been more pub league. It's quite the Frankenstein turn and I can't wait to see how it unfolds.

Article by Mohamed Mohamed