Monaco’s most important tactical feature throughout their Champions League campaign was their defence. From six matches, they topped their group by scoring (only) four goals; but conceded only a single goal, from Benfica’s Anderson Talisca. In the last 16 – against Arsenal – Monaco won 3-1 at the Emirates before going through 3-3 on aggregate. Their journey was finally stopped by the Old Lady of Juventus in the quarter finals, as Arturo Vidal managed the only goal. In this article, we will look into some of the key aspects of Leonardo Jardim’s system, particularly the defensive play.
Match 1: Leverkusen at home
Monaco lined up with 4-2-3-1 shape. Dimitar Berbatov played as the lone striker, supported by Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Lucas Ocampos on both flanks, with Joao Moutinho as the 8, 10, and 9 hybrid. Geoffrey Kondogbia and Jeremy Toulalan played as the central midfielder (CM) pair in front of the back line. Layvin Kurzawa, the 22 year old, was trusted by Jardim to be playing on the left side facing Karim Bellarabi, probably Leverkusen’s most threatening player.
Against Leverkusen at home
Although lining up with 4-2-3-1 on paper, defensively Monaco often made a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 and 4-5-1. In attack, they transformed into 4-3-3. In their initial defensive shape, Moutinho pushed up alongside Berbatov as first layer pressers on the central defenders (CDs). Both wingers sat narrower and started from the half space; from here they were able to mark the Leverkusen full-backs or if needed provide cover or overloading support to the double pivot in midfield.
The image below shows Leverkusen’ deep development and Leonardo Jardim’s team’s defensive shape as they seemed to be defending in a zonal marking man-oriented system.
Pressing shape (54:43). Moutinho was the player to press the ball carrier CD and set the tempo of the pressing. In this pressing phase 1, Berbatov kept his distance to the other CD. His pressing was triggered by the situation between Moutinho, as the main presser, and his CD. The phase 2 of this pressing was created by one of Lucas Ocampos or Carrasco who pressed the full back or provided the support needed by the twin no. 6. In this phase of pressing shape, Monaco tried to maintain a vertical distance of around 25 meters.
In the first phase of pressing, Monaco didn’t press with high intensity, they preferred to control the central space. They then waited for Leverkusen to make a mistake, or forced them to play long or square. Spielverlagerung name this a ‘resting’ or ‘false’ press.
In this situation, Emir Spahic – the ball carrying CD – passed the ball back to Bernd Leno, the GK. Leno made a long pass to the left side and found Sebastian Boenisch. As Carrasco’s pressing positioning wasn’t properly maintained, it gave Boenisch huge space to pick up the ball. He then made a through pass to Hakan Calhanoglu, who was later stopped by Toulalan and Andrea Raggi.
Defensive organisation (45:10: second half). 10 seconds into the second half. Kondogbia and Toulalan held their positions in 6. Gonzalo Castro dropped off, and was being pressed by Berbatov who drooped to the 10 area to nullify Castro working space. A good positioning of Fabinho – as he kept 7 meters away behind Son – enabling him to attack Son from the ‘blind area’.
Depending on the flank Leverkusen attacked, the Monaco wingers would position themselves in triangulation to the CD and the ball-side 6. In this phase, these three tried to create a compact defensive overload to nullify any Leverkusen attack; particularly in deep, wide areas.
Defending in triangulation.
This triangulation was clearly not a fixed shape. It might have been adjusted depending on how many Leverkusen players try to overload the wide area or Monaco’s defence. More opposition players meant more Monaco players for overloading. The principle was simple, Monaco would have tried to overload for being numerically superiority.
The 6s and the wingers defended the central and half space alternately, as they could be swapping position properly. Between the 6s they were forming a staggering central midfielder pair. In more occasions, Toulalan seemed to be deeper than Kondogbia. But, that was not a fixed rule. The staggering central midfield was a swinging shape. When Leverkusen tried to get into the final third through the wing, the ball-side 6 – whoever it was – would come close and form an overloading formation along with winger, full back, and Joao Moutinho. The wrong-side 6, would take a more central position, both as the cover for the nearest channel (between the full back and the central defender) or stay in front of the two central defender.
Defensive wise, the positioning of these two 6s had an advantage on defending against the half space attack. One would build the pressing formation around the ball playing area and the other one would cover in front of the back line, to make it more difficult for diagonal balls from the half space into the center of Monaco’s defence.
The number 6s’ staggered midfield defensive play.
In general, Kondogbia and Toulalon were tasked with making sure that Leverkusen’s deep players couldn’t make direct passes – to the advanced players – to bypass the early phase of Monaco’s press and potentially exploit the high pressing position of Moutinho or Berbatov. But, practically, this wasn’t always implemented properly. Kondogbia, as occasionaly Toulalon, appeared to be overly aggressive in terms of chasing the ball. This exposed some spaces in the central area of midfield and also created a lot of good chances for Leverkusen to cause havoc.
On other occasions, the aggressiveness of Monaco’s defenders – particularly the full backs – also allowed Leverkusen to find space in Monaco’s defense.
Leverkusen counter-attack (12:50). Lucas Ocampos lost the ball, as he was slide tackled by Sebastian Boenisch. In this unexpected situation, Lavin Kurzawa and Jeremy Toulalan were taking their positions too high than they were supposed to be.
This poor positioning left huge spaces in front of the central defenders and on the left half space of Monaco’s (below left).
Monaco have a lack of compactness in defensive transition. They failed to maintain the vertical compactness which exposed their back line.
This happened on more than four occasions. Some of them even created very good scoring chances for Leverkusen. A moment from minute 34:57 plus another two big chances in last three minutes of the first half were clearly good examples. Fortunately for Monaco, Leverkusen failed to convert any of those chances.
The 12:50 and 34:57 were the situations when Monaco on their defensive transition. The 14:17 (above right diagram) was the situation of Leverkusen throw in, on the right side of Monaco’s touchline. Hakan Calhanoglu dropped off from the penalty box and dragged Raggi out of his position. After that, Calhanoglu smartly and quickly took one step back occupied the vertical space (grey eclipsed area). A short pass from Lars Bender to Stefan Kiessling created perfect triangle combination between them and Calhanoglu, which finally lead to a shot on goal by Calhanoglu. He picked up Kiessling’s pass and made a run through the right side of Monaco’s six yard area.
In the early minutes of the second half, Monaco didn’t seem to change their way of attacking. But, Jardim seemed to make a small adjustment to the deepest 6, especially for attacking phases. The 6 seemed to be more cautious as he closed his gap and the defenders, not as aggressive as he did in the first half. The way Monaco defended in attacking phases, gradually changed as Monaco took the lead with Moutinho’s goal. They gradually reduced the presence of their players in attack and put more players behind the ball to be more stable in dealing with potential Leverkusen counter attacks.
Monaco’s defensive shape in possession was created by putting three or four players in the deepest layer of the formation. These players were tasked almost solely with nullifying the threat of Leverkusen counter attacks.
After the lead and as the game approached the final minutes, Monaco put even more players behind the ball and let only three or four players free of defensive duties in attack. It was a natural approach by the leading team, let alone a defensive-minded one such as Jardim’s Monaco.
Leverkusen have special attacking positioning for these situations, with three or four players on the opposition back-line in order to split the concentration. Monaco reacted to this by forming the staggered defensive midfielder pair shape – one of the 6s dropped slightly deeper than the other in order to create numerical superiority.
Defending against goal kick. Kiessling occupied the central position and seemed to be the main target of the kick. Bellarabi and Son Heung Min filled the channel of each sides. Calhanoglu was acting as the fourth man/”spare man”. In responce to this situation, one of Toulalan and Kondogbia – the 6s – had to be ready to help the four defenders for aerial duels. One of them would drop slightly deeper if Calhanoglu moved further forward. This movement of the 6s was intended to keep the defensive shape compact, as they were able to create a 5v4 situation.
Monaco won this match by a single goal from Joao Moutinho. But the result didn’t tell the whole story, as Leverkusen wasted many big chance in the first half. Monaco’s vertical compactness was the main issue. Leverkusen players managed to exploit it – especially in the first half – but failed to convert these chances.
Match 2: Zenit St. Petersburg
Line up vs Zenit, away
Similarly to the match against Leverkusen, Monaco didn’t start their press from the opponent’s defensive third. They opted to play in medium block and started to press with low intensity from the middle third – resting/false press – and raised the pressure when the opponent were forced wide or approached their defensive third. Here is a simple diagram of Monaco pressing intensity area (thanks to Tom Payne’s Juventus defensive organization video that gave me the idea to create the below diagram).
Pressing areas in basic 4-4-2 shape.
The number 1s are the areas of zone 5 and zone 2, where Monaco would try to stop the opponent from doing more harmful actions, Monaco will press the opponent intensely when they get into these areas.
The number 2s are the wide deep area where Monaco would apply high pressing play, but not as intense as the number 1’s. Depending on how many opponent on these areas, Monaco would try to overload and create numerical superiority.
The number 3s are the areas of lower pressing intensity. These areas the area of pressing when the pressing phase 1 managed to force the opponent wide. This phase of pressing is initiated when the first pressing wave forced the opponent wide. Joao Moutinho and the wingers usually press the opponent in these areas.
In number 4 areas, Monaco players kept their distance to the ball carrier. In this area, the pressing is intended to force the opponent wide or invite them to move forward. Monaco didn’t want to take the risk to press too intensely – in this area – as it potentially exposed the central area, particularly when the presser might be dragged away from his position.
Two banks of four. This situation is when Monaco settled their defensive shape: a horizontally and vertically compact shape. Moutinho started to drop off and help Monaco defend the wide area. The right winger and right back press Zenit’s wide man. The ball-side number 6 supports the winger and the wrong-side number 6 defended the central area – in front of the central defensive pair.
The two pictures below show the way Monaco tried to defend the wide area but Zenit managed to find a passing lane to the central area. This triggered Monaco’s defending players to raise their pressing intensity.
Defending the wide area. The way Monaco defended when the ball is in area 3 (see pressing intensity diagram). The presser (Carrasco) kept his distance to Danny, shadowed him, and tried to force the ball carrier to play the ball back or make a mistake.
Defending zone 5 (area 1 of pressing intensity area diagram). Danny managed to find the pass to zone 5, and so Monaco immediately raised their pressing intensity (Ocampos and Kurzawa).
Despite their willingness to remain compact by inviting the opponent to come out in middle and low block defensive style, it didn’t mean Monaco never pressed high up the pitch. Their pressing in the 23rd minute was the example, as they lost the ball on their attacking phase which forced them to form a high up counter-press.
Positioning of Berbatov and Moutinho forces Zenit to play the ball to the left.
The positive of Monaco’s high up pressing.
The situation of 23:05
The excellent positioning of Moutinho, Toulalan, and Kondogbia blocked any passes centrally. Nabil Dirar and Ocampos took wider positions and man marked Zenit’s wide men.
In this scene, there were actually two options for Zenit. The first one, Yuri Lodygin (the goalkeeper) moved wider to the left side and created a new passing lane to Ezequiel Garay – the one with the ball. The second option was playing a long ball forward to the attacking line. Once Garay received the ball, he was forced to do this.
Here was when the disadvantages of the high press were exposed. In this situation, with their 4v2 situation in Monaco’s back line, their defenders were supposed to win the duel easily. But they didn’t, Raggi was beaten to the ball and the second ball fell to Rondón. Fortunately, Zenit’s attack ended up wasting possession.
It was actually a good initial press and a good defensive shape (positive), the downside was when Raggi and the three Monaco’s defenders were beaten to the long ball (negative). This is less a tactical issue and more a personnel problem.
As aforementioned on the Leverkusen match, compactness was an issue in Monaco shape. Again in this match, the same issues arose on occasions, particularly when Kondogbia deviated from his position and left huge space as should the press be bypassed, the central area was immediately unstable.
Vertical compactness issue, Kondogbia out of position and exposed the 6 area.
Huge space for Hulk. The harm of Kondogbia’s movement was clearly shown in this picture. As he intensely pressed Hulk, Kondogbia left a huge space – in front of Rondón. The key was Anyukov. He was the transition player who created a triangle combination among these three. And, Kondogbia pressing movement had helped the Zenit’s three to generate it.
The red ellipsed area was the space Zenit potentially exploited if they occupied more players around. You can see the comparison below.
Again, another lack of spatial compactness. Three main issues here, (1) bad overloading on the wide left area, (2) no cover on the yellow area as Kondogbia moved wide to the left, (3) too much space between Moutinho and Carvalho.
Compared to the previous above picture, Zenit put one player on the yellow area as they needed to exploit it.
Another moment from 50:12 was when Zenit almost created a goal. They created a glorious chance for Rondón. This chance was triggered by another bad cover to the 6 area as Toulalan and Kondogbia were out of their positions.
50:12: a potentially dangerous situation. A lack cover to the 6, had given Rondón two passing options – Hulk and Shatov. He picked the Hulk option as he possibly didn’t realize that Shatov was in a better position. It might have been a better result, had he had the ball passed to Shatov.
Despite some weakness I have discussed, Monaco managed to nullify Zenit attack on many occasions, as their defensive transition were quicker than Zenit’s attack. Monaco also blocked the central area and forced Zenit to play from wide. Compared to the match day 1, against Leverkusen, one point Monaco gained from this match was fair enough.
Match 3: Benfica
Jardim made no changes for this game. He lined up with the same player & tactical composition: a hybrid of 4-2-3-1/4-4-2/4-3-3, with the same pattern of defence. Blocking the central area was again one of Monaco prime defensive tactic. The four wide men sat narrow, condensed centrally, pushed Benfica wide, and pressed on the touchline to force them losing possession or release an under-pressure cross.
Sit narrow and block the central area. The passing lanes to Rodrigo Lima and Anderson Talisca were simply blocked as Monaco’s four midfielders sit very narrow and horizontally compact. Fabinho and Kurzawa, the two full backs, also kept their horizontal distance to the nearest central defenders and also mark the Benfica advance wingers (Eduardo Salvio and Nicolás Gaitan).
This narrow shape had managed to force Benfica playing wide. In the situation above, André Almedia (the ball carrier) passed the ball to Gaitan as the space on there was larger.
Once Benfica were forced wide, Monaco raised their pressing intensity and overloaded the area of where the ball was played. Occasionally, Benfica were forced to play the ball back, as Monaco formed a very compact defensive shape and gave Benfica no chance for progression.
Monaco compact defence. A wide area pressing. Eliseu – the left back – received the ball. Monaco shifted quickly to the right. They overloaded the wide right area and limited all central access for Benfica. (1) Dirar positioning blocked two passing lanes – to Gaitan and Lima.- (2) Moutinho blocked the access to Enzo Pérez. (3) Toulalan blocked the pass to Talisca and man-marked Lima at once. With Ocampos, Kurzawa, Fabinho, and Anthony Martial well man marked their nearby opponents, Benfica (Eliseu) were forced to recycle possession to the central defender.
If Eliseu insisted to pass the ball to the left touchline – to Gaitan – this scenario may have occured:
Potential touchline pressing trap, if Eliseu passed the ball to the left side.
When Benfica managed to reach the deep wide area – usually in or near the final third – one of Monaco’s 6s (Kondogbia or Toulalan) would shift wide and defend in triangulation with the full back and winger.
Defending in triangulation, a 3v2 or 4v3 situation, depending on how you see it.
The difference between Toulalan and Kondogbia was their involvement in attacking phases. Kondogbia was (and will always be) the more adventurous. This automatically put Toulalan as the deepest midfielder. One of Toulalan’s duties, as the deepest midfielder, was to cover any open space in front of him. He also had to be ready for swapping position with the defenders, especially when any of Monaco defenders ventured forward and left their position.
Up front, Monaco had Moutinho and Berbatov. Moutinho was the hybrid of 8-10-9, and was slightly deeper than Berbatov. As the deeper one he was nearer to the second line. As Kondogbia is a natural box to box player and loves to get further forward, Moutinho was the player who often dropped off to cover Kondogbia movement, particularly in defensive transition.
The defence’s biggest problem in the 4-4-2 is the space around the 6 and the potential lack of connection between the midfield and back line in midfield areas. Monaco had several varied approaches to this issue.
One such variation was the use of inverted wingers. They played more centrally in attacking phases – in the 10 and 8 zones – in order to provide the support so any of the central midfielders (if necessary) were able to drop off and occupy the area between the midfield and defense.
In this phase, Dirar or Ocampos movement to the central area is not only for the purpose of fighting for the ball. It also had another positive chain reaction. When the opponent’s attack reached Monaco back line and they managed to regain possession, the wingers’ deep positioning also enabled them to provide better passing lanes. This allowed medium or short distance passes from the back line for attacking transitions.
Despite Monaco opting to defend in middle block, they occasionally needed to defend high up the pitch. This occurred particularly when they lost the ball in Benfica’s third. In this situation Monaco had two options. The first one was to play a half (fake) press which intended to break the opponent counter-attack, and allow the players to regain their defensive position. This fake press could be generated as the Monaco player closest to the opponent’s ball carrier put the pressure on him. Since it was a fake press, it was applied with low intensity, as the pressing itself was intended to stop the ball from moving further forward instead of robbing it quickly.
The second option was to counter-press Benfica, which meant they pressed intensely to regain possession quickly and hit Benfica on break. Joao Moutinho started the first phase of the pressing to the ball carrier. Monaco’s winger would then mark the opposition full-back, and Monaco’s full-back mark Benfica’s winger. These three players can be categorized as the main pressers. Toulalan and Kondogbia made sure that Monaco got enough support in the middle area, as they shortened the gap between them and the pressing area. This allowed them to give enough cover, in case any Benfica player managed to escape from the first pressing wave.
One fundamental principle of Monaco’s pressing was clear in many different variations: talways tried to create “one man spare” as they needed to be numerically superior. The first option (the half press) was their main option. The counter pressing option was generally played instinctively by Monaco’s players.
The issue of the 6 area – as shown in the Leverkusen and Zenit match – still occurred. But it was not as much a problem as previously. This problem not just triggered by the over-zealous pressing by any of the 6s alone. But, in some occasions – particularly in the earlier minutes of the Benfica match – it was also triggered by the un-connectivity pressing by the front line. It was Moutinho and Berbatov who didn’t put enough press to any of Benfica’s deep midfielders which let them bring the ball forward. This dragged Kondogbia out of his position to stop them. The negative impact was clear, it created more vulnerable spaces in the 6 area.