Match 4: Benfica
Leonardo Jardim made two changes. Lacina Traoré filled the 9 role, replacing Berbatov. In the second line, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco played as winger, which previously filled by Nabil Dirar.
Line up against Benfica (away): a flexible shape of 4-2-3-1/4-3-3/4-4-2 depending on the phase of play.
Jardim made no major tactical changes. Defensively, as usual, Monaco played with their middle block. They opted to allow the opposition central defender space (operating a false press), invited them to play wide, before raising the pressing intensity when the ball was moved into the wide area.
Monaco compact pressing shape in the early minutes of the match. Traoré dropped so deep because the ball carrier was Luisao, Benfica’s central defender. He pressed Luisao to the touchline and helped Monaco to build a compact pressing shape.
Despite showing promising signs in the opening minutes, Traoré’s presence became an issue for Monaco, especially in the first half. When isolated, it was vital he held onto possession and bring others into play, but he failed to do so. Whilst out of possession, his pressing positioning was poor and gave Benfica the chance to easily circulate the ball. Here is one such example:
15:41: Traoré failed to intercept Andreas Samaris pass to Luisao when he should be in range to intercept it. The following situations showed the pace with which Benfica built their attack after the missed interception.
As Traoré failed to intercept the pass, Luisao had a lot of space and time to push the ball forward to Eduardo Salvio (above left).
(above right) Salvio ran with the ball through the central area by taking on Jeremy Toulalan and Lucas Ocampos (1). It dragged Geoffrey Kondogbia out of his position to press and stop Salvio from going further forward. Kondogbia’s movement had opened the ‘6’ space and left Anderson Talisca un-marked (yellow area). Salvio made a one-two passing combination with Talisca (2) and (4), as he ran to the right half space of Monaco (3).
Space in front of the back line.
This situation ended with an over-powered shot from Nicolas Gaitan. He received a back heel from Salvio, who penetrated the right edge of Monaco’s penalty area.
Theoretically, the above problem might be potentially avoided had Joao Moutinho helped Toulalan by picking up Salvio and pressing him more intensely. In my opinion, Moutinho didn’t perform such action since he might not expect that Ocampos and, particularly, Toulalan could be beaten in this direct clash situation. If Moutinho dropped off slightly and pressed Salvio, Kondogbia could be staying to man mark Talisca; which meant he didn’t have to leave Talisca with such huge space to occupy. This alternative shape gave Monaco the better access to the ball so there would be three better (for Monaco) possibilities. Salvio passed the ball back to Luisao (no passing progression), Salvio passed it square to Maxi Pereira (no passing progression), or Salvio lost the ball as Moutinho and Toulalan pressed him intensely (the attack was stopped).
The alternative shape.
The other Monaco defensive issue in this match was the defensive involvement of their attacking players. In some occasions, Monaco’s wingers were too late to track back when they began the defensive transition. This gave Benfica too much time to exploit the space in front of the full backs. The situation at 16:27 illustrated this perfectly.
Carrasco and Ocampos stayed high up the pitch. The full-backs are left with huge vertical spaces to defend.
During attacking phases, Carrasco roamed far from his position to the left touchline. He passed the ball to Traoré. Two Benfica defenders reacted well, they pressed Traoré and managed to force him to concede possession. Benfica launched a quick counter attack, as shown on the above picture.
The absence of the advanced players forced Kondogbia and Toulalon to cover the space and allowed Talisca to again find his own space in central areas. Had Gaitan controlled the ball better, he would have escaped from Kondogbia’s press, and would have had two passing options. First, to Talisca in the central space, or secondly, to the open Salvio on the far right.
In this defensive transition situation, Kondogbia’s pressing of Gaitan managed to force the Benfica winger to pass the ball back.
Although Monaco players managed to stop this counter-attack, the potential for harm was clear, with vacant spaces in both wide and central areas. Modern football clearly requires the ability of covering the space, tightening the gaps, and narrowing the formation in order to build a compact shape. In the above picture and situation, Monaco were not as horizontally or vertically compact as they needed to be. The fact that their two 6s had to leave their post (despite ending the counter-attack) suggested a vulnerability in their defensive system.
Match 5: Leverkusen
The match against Leverkusen was the one where Monaco clearly needed to make more adjustments than in their previous three matches. They played against Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen, who played with a narrow style, looking to overload the area around the ball with four to six players. Monaco needed to make changes in order to deal with such intense play.
Against Leverkusen away.
Jardim made four personnel changes. Andre Raggi, who used to play as a central defender, was utilised as a right full back. Aymen Abdennour occupied one spot in the central area of the back line. Elderson Echiéjilé played as the left full back. Tiemoué Bakayoko replaced Kondogbia in central midfield.
Whatever the formation they play or whoever the players, Monaco are almost always a well-structured team.
Despite opting to play with a direct style, Leverkusen occasionally tried to play out of the back. In this phase of play, as usual, Monaco allowed some space for the ball-carrying central defender (CD), invited them to play square, and pressed them when the ball was circulated into the wide area. Rene Maric (RM) defines this as a ‘false (or resting) press’.
Resting press diagram from RM’s piece at Spielverlagerung
The initial shape of the resting press, which invited Leverkusen to play wide.
Monaco defensive shape (03:25). The following situation occured after the resting press. Monaco vertical compactness can be measured by the distance between the deepest and frontest layer of their shape, no more than 25 meters away.
As Berbatov dropped off to man mark Gonzalo Castro, Moutinho moved slightly wide, and pressed Omer Toprak, also putting Leverkusen’s 6, Lars Bender, behind his ‘cover shadow’.
Moutinho’s movement was obviously intended to push Toprak to play the ball wide (or back to their own half). Lars Bender off the ball movement, however, created a passing option for Toprak. The ball was passed to Bender, who played it wide to Giulio Donati, the Leverkusen right back. Donati passed the ball to Karim Bellarabi who occupied the half space but, Monaco’s intense pressing in the following 4v3 situation stopped Bellarabi from playing the ball.
Monaco raised their pressing intensity in this 4v3 situation, and tried to regain possession as quickly as possible.
In their defensive transition, as I have discussed before, Monaco were not applying counter-pressing to regain possession as soon as they lost the ball. They opted to half-press to create enough time for reshaping and for the opposition to make a mistake. When the ball was lost, Monaco automatically switched to defensive transition. They defended with a man-oriented zonal marking system.
Monaco zonal marking shape.
1: Monaco defended in a man-oriented high block, as they seemed to focus on the playing space and access distance. As you can see; Yanick Ferreira Carrasco, Moutinho, Toulalan, and Echiélijé man marked the opponent closest to them. Bakayoko played as the supporting role, the ‘spare-man’ for any of the four directions indicated by the red arrows. In such a tight situation, Toprak managed to find Son Heung Min in the central area. A pressing action from Moutinho forced Son to pass the ball wide, to Karim Bellarabi.
2: the situation after Bellarabi received the ball. As Monaco were still in high block mode, they left some space behind the full back; this is the natural consequence of playing high-block . It had given a good opportunity for Hakan Calhanoglu to move wide and receive Bellarabi’s pass.
3: Monaco’s touchline pressing. A very compact defensive shape in a 6v4 pressing situation. Stefan Kiessling was occupied by three Monaco players. Lars Bender and Bellarabi were behind the cover shadow of Carrasco and Bakayoko. Calhanoglu – the ball carrier – was pressed by Abdennour. Berbatov, Moutinho, and Dirar were all in Monaco’s defensive area and positioned properly to block all the passing lanes to the middle third.
4: Leverkusen made a few good off the ball movements and created more passing lanes, so Calhanoglu was able to find the way through and escape from the compact pressing. He passed the ball to Donati. The arc arrow on Bender is the indication of his off the ball movement. Abdennour responded to it well by moving slightly wide and putting Bender behind his cover shadow. Monaco didn’t regain possession, but they forced Leverkusen to play backwards (no positive ball progression from Leverkusen).
Leverkusen knew that to break through the centre of Monaco’s defensive system would cost a lot of energy and effort.
A sexy 4-1-4-1-0.
From the first second after Monaco lost the ball, they attempted to form a structured shape and to nullify Leverkusen’s options. Dirar and Berbatov interchanging in the final third and Abdennour and Echiélijé interchanging in Monaco’s defensive third were the good examples of how they swapped for each other.
As I have discussed in the 1st part, Monaco used their two wide advanced players to cover the half-space and central area. The benefit of using the wide man to cover more centrally is, one of Monaco’s 6 would be able to stay in pocket area (if needed) and the other one could focus on their duty around the 8. The use of wide men was deliberately utilised to keep the defensive shape compact.
5v6 overloading. Hakan Calhanoglu moved from the Monaco’s right to the half space, and was tracked by Dirar (right winger). Moutinho and Toulalan could focus on defending the center.
Moutinho was a 10 who dropped deep and occupied the 8 area. This also helped Monaco to defend the defensive pocket better, as Toulalan filled that space and man marked Gonzalo Castro. Such positioning of the right winger (Dirar) and the 10 (Moutinho) were proven to be the ideal action if a team want to remain compact defensively, as they enable the team to cover the middle line and the defensive pocket at once. The 4-5-1 in defensive phases gave Monaco excellent defensive coverage.
Here is another example of how the 4-5-1 was beneficial defensively:
This is my favourite defensive shape. A lot of benefits can be gained with this 4-5-1.
The right midfielder (Dirar) dropped deep, allowing him to provide support on the flank, with Raggi pushing into a narrow position and keeping the back four horizontally compact. Dirar positioning also put him in the right position to pick up two Leverkusen’s players.
The ball-side 6 (Toulalan) could come close and he supported the press – along with Moutinho – to the ball carrier in the half space. Moutinho’s positioning had put Bender in his cover shadow. It also enabled Bakayoko, the ‘spare man’, to focus on defending the defensive pocket area and the channel near to him.
Calhanoglu passed the ball to Bellarabi. But the proper shape of Monaco defence had allowed Dirar and Bakayoko to press Bellarabi along with three Monaco’s defenders, which finally managed to stop the attack.
Match 6: Zenit St. Petersburg
Leonardo Jardim made no major tactical changes or adjustments for this match. Monaco defended as what they had become well-known for:
– A compact defensive shape in 4-4-2/4-5-1 basic shape.
– Resting press and middle block as the initial defensive shape. Moutinho, the number 10, often acted as the second striker. Situationally, he generated the 4-4-2 pressing shape.
– Both wingers took a more central position and tracked back to help the full backs to defend the wide area. They stayed close to the pressing area and, in some specific situations, even acted as the main presser. When the team settled the defensive shape in deep block mode, they stayed deep and blocked the space around.
– The formation should be shifting soft and quickly in response to the opponents’ ball circulation from one flank to the other. In some specific situation, the ball-side central midfielder would defend in triangulation to the full back and the advanced winger. Since this was not a fixed shape, the overloading could be adjusted depending on how many opposition players tried to overload that area. The fundamental principle has always been ‘numerical superiority’.
– The purpose of the formation was clearly to push the opponents as far as possible from the central area, especially zones 5 and 2. Monaco would be very happy to force Zenit players to play the ball backwards or laterally, which meant a lack of attacking progression.
The major difference was the presence of Andrea Raggi on the left side of the back line. Compared to the opposite flank, Raggi was rarely able to get further forward to stretch Zenit’s defence. Consequently, the one to support Carrasco was Joao Moutinho or, occasionally, Tiemoué Bakayoko, the 6. This had advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage was that Monaco always had three or four defenders at the back, which meant they were more stable in defensive transitions. The (potential) disadvantage was as Moutinho (or Bakayoko) moved wide to support the left wing, it reduced their presence in central midfield.
Monaco left side attack vs. Zenit lack of compactness.
Whether Moutinho or Bakayoko moved wide, the result was the same: it reduced Monaco’s presence in the 6 and 8 areas. Zenit were not able to take advantage of this weakness in transition.
They tried to overload that area but, Moutinho and Carrasco were too good to stop because of their excellent individual skill. But wait, is that 100% right? Was it all about individual presence? To some extent, yes. But, if you again observe the picture above, you’ll see that Zenit were not compact enough on overloading as they missed some key positions to fill.
The positioning of Axel Witsel and Danny were both poor; both should have moved into more central areas. Danny to overload around the right side and Witsel to fill the Danny position or 2-3 meters diagonally-deeper to the right. With this adjustment, Zenit had the better chance of ball access and reduced the threat of the individual excellence of Monaco’s players in 1v1 situations.
Zenit alternative shape for a better compactness.
In attack, Zenit were using Axel Witsel, Danny, and Hulk – three attacking midfielders behind Rondón – as the roaming players. They were occupying the wide area and half space, and tried to play from flank to flank. Occasionally, two of them would swap positions. But Monaco’s defensive players were compact and focused enough in their respective areas, to successfully nullify Andres Villas-Boas’ attacking plan.
In this match, Monaco’s attacking shape even reflected their defensive plan. When they attacked, Monaco would move a maximum of five players forwards. Occasionally, they even only let three players fight against six to seven Zenit’s defending players. The rest was staying deeper in the middle third, getting ready for a Zenit counter-attack. Defensively, this was an ideal plan. For me, this seemed to be the result of Leonardo Jardim realising that a draw was enough to secure a place in the knockout rounds.
Luis Enrique’s Barcelona also took the identical way of defending against Atletico Madrid, as pointed out by my Indonesian friend @NovalAziz in his Barcelona piece.
Courtesy of Football Fandom Indonesia, from the article written by @NovalAziz
Barcelona plotted five or six players in the middle third, to allow ball circulation to remain fluid, as well as adding stability against counter-attacks. Such a shape guarantees a quick and structured defensive transition.