Eric Devin writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Coupe De La Ligue final that ended Monaco 1-4 PSG.
Saturday’s eagerly anticipated Coupe de la Ligue final, between AS Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain, played out as something of a damp squib. That it did so may have come as something of a surprise to casual observers of French football, and of Monaco in particular, but those familiar with Leonardo Jardim’s high-octane 4-4-2 will know full well the importance of Fabinho. In the five matches the Brazilian midfielder has missed this season, Monaco have won just twice, and his importance readily parallels that of Marco Verratti at Paris Saint-Germain, or Toni Kroos at Real Madrid, a midfielder whose work ethic and intensity allow his teammates just that bit more freedom to effect a match.
Fabinho’s replacement, Joao Moutinho, is certainly a capable player, experienced internationally and in the Champions’ League, but his usefulness for Monaco is more as a player who can keep possession rather than a disruptive presence, or a player whose endurance can provide cover for the fullbacks. That said, it was not only the Brazilian’s absence that made Monaco below par; there was a general lack of construction throughout the side. The team failed in their usual roles from top to bottom, with only perhaps Thomas Lemar being able to exit the match with any level of credit.
AS Monaco (4-4-2): Danijel Subasic; Djibril Sidibé (Almamy Touré 90′ + 3), Kamil Glik, Jemerson, Benjamin Mendy; Bernardo Silva, Joao Moutinho, Tiemoué Bakayoko, Thomas Lemar (Irvin Cardona 77′); Valere Germain (Nabil Dirar 62′), Kylian Mbappé
Paris Saint-Germain (4-4-3): Kevin Trapp; Serge Aurier, Thiago Silva, Presnel Kimpembe, Layvin Kurzawa; Marco Verratti (Blaise Matuidi 81′), Thiago Motta (Lucas Moura 86′), Adrien Rabiot; Angel Di Maria, Edinson Cavani, Julian Draxler (Javier Pastore 55′)
Much of Monaco’s effectiveness comes from their high press; while playing a 4-4-2 often creates a numerical disadvantage in midfield, the opportunity for quick or easy goals as a result of pressure often means that the positives in doing so far outweigh the negatives. Key to this pressing all season has been the work of Valere Germain and Kylian Mbappé. The pair haven’t often played together; Radamel Falcao has been preferred when fit, and Jardim also experimented with a 4-4-1-1 earlier in the season, with Bernardo Silva playing off Germain and Nabil Dirar playing wide on the right. As an aside, that formation probably would have paid more dividends on the evening, freeing Bernardo Silva from his defensive duties and also easing the pressure on the half-fit Sidibé, but I digress.
These two images show a typical level of pressure from Monaco; even though not two minutes have elapsed, pressure -which has a tendency to drop as matches progress- from the Monegasques is non-existent. Presnel Kimpembe has the ball at his feet, and, even as the centre back strides toward midfield no Monaco player has come to pressure him even though, given Thiago Silva’s passing abilities, the young Frenchman projects as arguably the weak link of the champions’ back line. Even if he were under pressure, though, Monaco have done little to cut off the angles of his passing lanes, illustrated by the white arrows. Adrien Rabiot is well-marshalled by Moutinho, but Thiago Motta, Verratti and Kurzawa all present as options for the young centre back. Paris Saint-Germain’s preferred approach, particularly when playing a 4-3-3 is to cycle the ball about in midfield, retaining possession, switching into a more attack-minded ethos either via the runs of Rabiot and Verratti or balls over the top. Thus, even at this early stage, Monaco have allowed PSG to play the match in a way that suits their style, a surprising harbinger of the way that proceedings unfolded.
The second image, then, confirms that, with Germain (no 18)’s position showing him taking up a position more akin to that of a central midfielder rather than a centre forward. This problem was further compounded with Kylian Mbappé (29) often not only dropping deep but also playing wide. The young striker was within reason in doing so, hoping to drag the slow-footed Thiago Silva out of position, and so too Germain, who was not necessarily being lazy but hoping to create less of a numerical disadvantage in midfield. With Edinson Cavani frequently dropping deep to pressure or the ball or execute a piece of hold-up play, Monaco were indeed often outnumbered in central areas, but with neither striker playing that role positionally, there was no outlet, excepting Mbappé’s pace for the midfield. Also, it should be noted how similar Mbappé’s position is to that of Lemar; with the winger inclined to cut inside, there was a lack of spacing on that flank, meaning that Monaco’s left side of attack was often as dulled as the right.
Dull, then would be the perfect adjective for the way Monaco’s right side of attack played. Djibril Sidibé had been a doubt before the match after coming off injured whilst on international duty, but managed to make the start, even though in Almamy Touré and Andrea Raggi, Jardim had capable deputies. The former Lille man was nowhere near his usual effervescent self, as this heat map clearly shows. Generally adept at driving forward with the ball at his feet, without the cover habitually provided by Fabinho, Sidibé was forced to stay deep, rarely even getting forward to provide width on the counter. Thus, Monaco’s attack was not only imbalanced, with Mendy and Lemar forced to do the bulk of the work, but Bernardo Silva’s effectiveness was also compromised.
Bernardo Silva is generally regarded as one of Ligue 1’s best players; indeed, he was the recent winner of a poll of his fellow top-flight players for the league’s best players. That said, much of his contribution goes unnoticed; for every sly pass or sublime finish, there is also an astute interception or a brilliant tackle. Some of this is down to Monaco’s system, which requires a certain amount of defensive responsibility on the part of the two wide players, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of Silva’s creative influence, but some of it is also down to his own work ethic. It’s a good thing to have a player of Silva’s obvious creative gifts be so responsible with his defensive duties, but not at the expense of his potential influence going forward.
The latter, unfortunately, was too often the case, as these two images show. In the first, we see a chart of Silva’s tackles. With Sidibé often losing possession cheaply, the little Portuguese was frequently forced to cover for the right back’s mistakes, dropping deep in possession in a way that limited his influence in attack. In the second, without the support of Sidibé, and Moutinho taking up a more advanced role, Silva has dropped deep not to make a tackle, but to pick up the ball. With no obvious outlet for a pass, he is forced to try to get up the pitch with the ball at his feet. On this occasion, he earned a free kick, but the image nevertheless demonstrates his unenviable situation.
Compare Monaco’s struggles, then, to the relative ease with which PSG operated. In the first image, the champions’ average player positions are shown, and two things stand out. The first is how far forward the fullbacks were able to position themselves; Kurzawa (20) and Aurier (19) are known for their attacking proclivities but with Mendy and Sidibé offering so little going forward, the pair were increasingly freed of their defensive responsibilites and able to provide width, allowing Draxler and Di Mariá to cut inside. The second image shows the German cutting inside, while Di Mariá prepares to make a run in behind Sidibé, taking advantage of the space created by that movement (white arrows).
More striking than the positions the two fullbacks take up, though, is Di Mariá’s role. The player position diagram shows him operating almost as a striker, in a central position as the furthest player forward. Much of this is due to Cavani often dropping deep into midfield, but laterally, Di Mariá also could be found in a range of positions, readily joining Rabiot in getting forward with the ball at his feet. Given the already elucidated issues the right side of Monaco’s defense was enduring, PSG’s rampant performance was only a logical progression, down not necessarily to their performance but to Monaco rarely troubling them.
To wit, then: Monaco’s lack of pressure from the front essentially afforded Paris Saint-Germain a shortened pitch. PSG took advantage of this, and the lack of attacking involvement by Djibril Sidibé to use Angel Di Mariá in essentially a free role. Much of Di Mariá’s effectiveness came as a result of his own skill, but equally a lack of defensive responsibility. Bernardo Silva gamely attempted to play deeper to deal with the Argentine, and Valere Germain adopted a similar ethic centrally, but this thus had the knock-on effect of leaving Monaco without a suitable outlet in attack.
Monaco’s attacking effectiveness was therefore limited, and even though Fabinho was a miss in central midfield, the team’s lack of early flexibility served to make them easy targets, even when there were suitable alternatives. This was not so much an issue with the formation but also how Jardim populated his starting eleven. Losing out on the chance at a first trophy in over a decade will be frustrating, but provides an opportunity for learning that is relatively low-stakes. A similar performance in the Champions’ League, or domestically as they chase the title could be more devastating, but Monaco will take this as a lesson learned, frustrated perhaps that PSG at less than their best had such an easy time of it but also ready to adapt should they face similar circumstances in the future.
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