Monaco is everyone's favorite team this season. At eye level, they are very entertaining, scoring about 2.78 goals/game, just right behind Barcelona's 2.97 goals/game from the top five leagues (England, Germany, France, Italy and Spain) in Europe. On a tactical level, Monaco is unique, playing a brand of football that is very different from the rest of the European elites. Leonardo Jardim has designed some very innovative strategies to maximize the potential of the team.
Monaco almost exclusively plays a 4-4-2 formation both in the offensive and the defensive phase:
Monaco (4-4-2): Subasic // Mendy-Jemerson-Glik-Sidibe // Lemar-Bakayako-Fabinho-Bernardo Silva // Mbappe-Falcao
This lineup is possibly Monaco’s strongest lineup this season.
Danijel Subašić is the starting goalkeeper. In defense, Djibril Sidibé, Jemerson, Kamil Glik and Benjamin Mendy are all very physical defenders. Andrea Raggi has often played in the center back position. He has also played as a left back. Almamy Touré has started as the right back position. However, none of the substitutes can replace Mendy in the offensive phase, who is a potent threat for the opponents down the left flank.
In the midfield, the two wide midfielders — Thomas Lemar and, especially, Bernado Silva — are the most creative players in this team. Fabinho and Tiemoué Bakayoko are the "steel" and act as the physical and defensive anchor of the midfield. João Moutinho has often started in the central midfielder role in place of either Fabinho and Bakayoko. Moutinho possesses better techniques and passing ranges when compared to the latter two players, who are more physical and defensive.
In the attack, the “new Thierry Henry," teenage sensation Kylian Mbappé, and veteran finisher Radamel Falcao lead the line. Valère Germain is the first substitute for them.
Although Monaco is known for its great fire power in their attack, their defensive strategy is their unique and powerful weapon. A very high line characterizes the defensive phase of Monaco. They most often uses a 4-2-2-2 defensive shape. The shape can sometimes change to a more traditional 4-3-3, with Bernado Silva joining the strikers to form a three-man first line of defense. Lemar sometimes carries this duty, depending on the movement of the ball.
The grand scheme of Monaco's defense can be summarized as the following — eliminating the opponent's ball progression on the flanks and forcing the opponent to play the ball in the middle. They construct a very high-pressure environment by maintaining multiple physical players in the central area. All these factors facilitate ball retrieval and therefore, the defensive-to-offensive transition.
In Monaco's high 4-2-2-2 formation, the front six players make up three different lines. Bernado Silva and Lemar occupy the middle line and position wider than the other four players, making a hexagonal shape:
The hexagonal shape is critical for the function of Monaco's defense. The wider midfielders almost always mark the opponent's fullbacks. Therefore, when an opponent tries to enter the offensive phase through the build-up, the passing lanes to the fullbacks are often blocked or eliminated.
Moreover, when pressing the center backs, Monaco's players often run to the center backs with an angle that interfered the center back's passing lane to the full backs.
The goal of the hexagonal shape and the pressing angle is that by eliminating the passing lanes to the fullbacks, Monaco can direct and limit the opponent's ball movement to the central area. In theory, the advantages of this strategy are multi-fold:
- By eliminating the ball movements through the full-backs in the build-up, there is less instance that the opponent would be able to stretch open Monaco's defense. Moreover, Monaco's players will spend less energy devoted to running between the flanks during the defensive phase.
- When the ball's movement is limited in the center, Monaco can easily create a high-pressure environment, because the number of players per area close to the ball increases significantly. These tactics help to maximize the potential of Monaco players, who are extremely physical, robust and athletic. All of these factors facilitate more chances that Monaco's players would be able to attack and retrieve the ball and achieve the defensive-to-offensive transitions.
Monaco encouraged the opponents to pass or advance the ball through the middle. The two strikers often allow the center backs or the dropping midfielders to carry the ball past them. Once getting past the first line of the defense, the opponent can find themselves surrounded by Monaco's front four players.
Even if an opponent gets past Monaco's front four players, they will find themselves challenged by Monaco's two very physical and athletic central defensive midfielders in Bakayoko and Fabinho.
Moreover, Monaco's defenders often hold a very high line during their pressing to minimize the distance between them and the two central defensive midfielders. This arrangement makes it very hard for the opponents to break past multiple lines of physical defense.
Almost everything Monaco does in the defensive phases is dependent on each other and affects each other. For example, not only do their four defenders position themselves very high and close to the central defensive midfielders, but they also hold a very compact shape to increase the pressure on the ball in the middle.
The narrowness of the four defenders also highlights the importance of the pressing of the first line of the defense and the positions of the wide midfielders. Because the four defenders stay so close to each other, there is a lot of space on the flanks. Therefore, it is important for Monaco to limit the opponents from utilizing the flanks because they are very exposed in those areas. Moreover, if Monaco can direct the opponents to play through the center, they need to deploy a lot of players to challenge the ball. The compact and narrow shape is critical to maximizing their chances of the ball retrieval and the defensive-to-offensive phase transition. Every movement, shape, and tactic connects, multiplies, and depends on each other.
Monaco's tactic is most similar to Atletico Madrid. Both teams play a 4-4-2 formation and use the first line of defense to direct the opponent's ball movements into are they desire. Atleti likes to defend on the flanks while Monaco likes to defend in the middle. Both teams thrive on transitions. It is interesting to see that at the age of 4-3-3, two of the semi-finalist in the Champions League primarily play a 4-4-2 formation while Juventus plays 4-4-2 half of the time. The only team that plays a full-time 4-3-3 is Real Madrid. 4-4-2 may finally return.
Monaco thrives on the defensive-to-offensive transitions. They can generate various transition opportunities by the above mentioned defensive strategies. Most of their players are extremely physical and athletic and allow them to take full advantage of the transition opportunities:
Mbappe, Lemar, Mendy and Bernado Silva are all very fast and skillful. They thrive in the open space. With Falcao finally playing at a high level, every transition becomes very dangerous for the opponent. It is a nightmare to play against them because they can also generate transitions through counter-pressing or even a simple throw-in:
The offensive phase is Monaco's weakest link. Most of their players, except Bernado Silva and Moutinho, lack passing ranges. They thrive on transitions, but they lack ideas when they need to build up from the back. Most of the time, their defenders mainly play long ball to bypass the midfield to target the strikers directly. But the lack of accuracy of these passes means that they are more likely to create counter-pressing opportunities rather than reaching the strikers directly.
Bernado Silva shoulders almost all of the creativity duty for Monaco. He has excellent techniques and is very creative. He must be marked carefully.
In the instances where Monaco needs to enter the offensive phase gradually, they often progress the ball on the left flanks. Mendy and Lemar most often combine with each other to advance the ball:
Monaco's offense can become very dangerous when Bernado Silva or Mbappe move to the left side to combine with Lemar and Mendy. However, this is almost the only way they can open up the opponent's defense through build-up.
How should Juventus approach this tie?
First of all, Juventus needs to find a way to handle Monaco's directed presses. As impressive as how Monaco uses these high presses to direct the opponent's ball movements, many ways can counter these tactics.
One way to counter Monaco's 4-2-2-2 press is to use a back three plus a midfield ball receiver in the build-up. The three players in the back will overload the two strikers. Coupled with a tactically talented midfield ball receiver, the back three can create an array of passing lanes between each other that neutralizes Monaco's first press:
The back three configurations can be a permanent one like Dortmund or one that uses a dropping midfielder in between the center backs, like Paris Saint-Germain:
In the cup game against Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain almost completely neutralized Monaco's high presses. The key is that PSG had two excellent passers in Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta. With one of them dropping back to form a back three with the two center backs, PSG often created overloads that counter Monaco's 4-2-2-2 presses. Once getting past the first line of Monaco's defense, Verratti or Motta could deliver the ball almost anywhere they want:
In the case when Monaco push Bernado Silva up to form a 4-3-3 press, Paris Saint-Germain also effectively countered by having the goalkeeper to contribute the ball movements, therefore overloading Monaco:
Juventus can do just like PSG did. Miralem Pjanic and Claudio Marchisio are just as impressive passers as Verratti and Motta. Leonardo Bonucci has the best passing range among the world’s center backs. The combinations of these three players can solve Monaco's defense like Paris Saint-Germain did.
The key for Juventus is to maintain the focus and eliminate the mistakes. Unlike the previous tie against Barcelona, it is more likely that Juventus will control a majority of the possession against Monaco. Any mistake that allows Monaco to generate the defensive-to-offensive transition is dangerous.
A problem for Juventus that arises once in a while is that when they play against a supposedly lesser team (such as recent games against Udinese and Atalanta), they will commit numerous uncharacteristic mistakes. They will place a lot of silly passes and commit a lot of unforced errors. A reason may be that Juventus does not have a very strict pre-configured way of tactics like Napoli, Monaco or Atletico Madrid. Players in these teams follow very strict instructions on what, where and when to perform a particular task during the different phases of the game. Under Maximiliano Allegri, Juventus rarely play like that way in the offensive phase. Especially this year, players have to decide on what to do in the game. There is almost no pre-configured way to attack the opponents, except maybe to try to find Paulo Dybala in the spaces between the lines.
Such way of playing relies on players to read and react, and it is easily affected if the team does not have the right focus. Their performance worsens when they lose the patience. This is probably one reason why Juventus performed uncharacteristically bad in a few instances when they played a lesser opponent. There are supporter and critic of this way of playing, and we have seen teams from the both sides become the champion. It is a matter of coaching philosophy and the potential of the players in the teams.
In this type of Champions League semifinal, there is no reason to believe that Juventus will underestimate the opponent or lose the focus. If they can play calmly and be patient, they should not run into too many problems. As impressive as Monaco's tactics are, they play with a lot of risks, and they run on a thin line between dominance and suffering. When a team plays with such high lines of defense but does not possess the skill level to control the possession, they cannot easily monitor the tempo. Playing without possession, like Monaco does, also means that they are often withstanding pressure. The 4-2-2-2 allows Monaco to dictate the opponent's ball movements, but it also exposes the two central midfielders at times when the teammates cannot maintain close distances between each other. Moreover, the extreme compactness of the team shape means that they are often exposed on the flanks.
Monaco is a dangerous opponent because they’re a team that takes a lot of risks. As long as Juventus is patient, calm, and careful so that they can dictate the tempo, they should be able to beat Monaco and advance to the final.