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Tactical Philosophy: Leonardo Jardim

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Mateus Carvalho has a look at Leonardo Jardim’s rise in recent seasons.


Leonardo Jardim has made a career out of exploring and enhancing the resources at a club in order to push it to greater goals and accomplishments. Never having played football professionally, the Portuguese, Venezuelan-born coach enters the managerial category of the ones who opted to learn the craft outside of the pitches, passionate about the game from a viewer’s and “academic” standpoint. Being only 22 years old, Jardim started to train modest youth sides of the Portuguese island of Madeira, alternating these roles with spells as assistant coach at the aforementioned clubs. As a 29-year old he got his first top coaching gig at Camacha, a third-tier portuguese side, and from there he climbed his way to the top, clinching successive promotions at Chaves and Beira-Mar (from the third to the second division and from the second to the first one, respectively).

The subsequent move to SC Braga, a club trying to meddle in the classical dispute with Portugal’s regular giants, marked a clear leap in Jardim’s accomplishments and definitely set the above mentioned trend of an involvement in projects that aimed to “do more with less”. At Braga he managed to end in third place in Liga Portuguesa and give a very eloquent display of Braga’s talents in the Europa League. In Olympiakos, his promosing debut at Champions League allied itself to the Greek title. Then came the move to Sporting CP, where he inherited a “broken” team (out of the European competitions after the worst domestic performance in the club’s history, a 7th place) with limited resources due to severe financial constraints and led them to a stellar 2nd place. This clear pattern achieved its peak with AS Monaco with the wonderful European and domestic run in the 2016-17 campaign.

Tactical Philosophy

Jardim has shown throughout his career to favour the 4-4-2 (displayed in its greatest version in AS Monaco). Although he has sometimes opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation – sporadically at Monaco and at SC Braga – it is an obvious that the depth and narrowness of the 4-4-2 formation seem to please the Portuguese manager.

It is important to point out that the two men of the central midfield rarely play parallel to each other, with mostly Fabinho (in a No.6-esque role) dropping deep alongside the centre-backs to start the build-up (in a line of three) and prompting the full-backs to advance (even if we consider Monaco’s line-up from a static perspective we can observe the more offensive position the full-backs occupy in Jardim’s system). The other midfielder (usually Joao Moutinho) will step more advanced grounds, being the true box-to-box midfielder. It is also worthy to observe that both forwards play different roles in Jardim’s philosophy – they both play near the opposing area or inside it but while one of them is more positional (for example Radamel Falcao, making movements without the ball), the other one is given a freer role that enables him to roam around the pitch and to arrive in the area mostly with the ball (Kylian Mbappé was the perfect player to fit in this paradigm).

This tactical formation allows Jardim to implement in his sides the idea of “total football”, a team which seeks to play the match for the match, trying to involve every player in the offensive manoeuvre without much dwelling, vertical in attack and rigorous in defence.

Offensive Approach – “Vertical in attack”

Jardim is most definitely a fan of offensive football and there is no better testament to that than the tactical philosophy he has tried to pass on to his players in every club he has coached, and the total of 159 goals (107 in Ligue 1) scored by AS Monaco in all competitions last season is a great example of that.

As mentioned above, the build-up is started with a line of three with both centre-backs and the defensive midfielder, while both full backs position themselves almost at the midfield line. This line of three has the support of the other central midfielder, who serves as the first link to the rest of the team. As for the wingers, they occupy more central roles, profiting from the empty half-spaces created when all these movements start to evolve. This positioning of the wingers incites the full-backs to explore the full depth of the lateral corridors and often leads to long balls designed to ignite such a process, which will help create overloads in the opposition’s defensive structure farther ahead.

As we can see here, one of the midfielders (in this case Moutinho) drops deep to help the build-up while the left-back Jorge (black circle) is fixed in a more advanced position (if we look to the other side of the pitch we will see Sidibé, the other full back in a similar position) and the left winger (Lemar) is in a more central position.

And then enters the key to dismantle opposite defences. Jardim puts an emphasis in diverse ball circulation, commanding his players in an initial phase to calmly exchange the ball from side to side in search of a breach in the opposition. This process develops with a constant increase of speed in the ball’s exchange starting to involve all players in it, leaving almost only the centre-backs and keeper to guard the defensive midfield. The quantity of players Jardim seeks to involve in the offensive process does the trick, destabilizing markings and opening space for his players to profit from. The perfect example of Jardim’s offensive manoeuvre can be observed in the video below (build-up stemming from the no.6 – Fabinho – offensive participation of the full-backs – Sidibé – movement to central grounds by the winger – Ghezzal, emphasis on ball circulation with speed increase).

Although it might appear Jardim’s football is very straightforward, allowing the ball to reach the opposition’s area in roughly four to five touches since it reaches the midfield, the Portuguese coach’s sides are also very strong in counter attacks (Jardim loves fast players and trains massively this kind of movements, mastering his teams in the art of catching the opposition unbalanced).

Jardim also prepares dead balls with incredible detail, mostly training corners and indirect free kicks. In this season, 10 of the 14 goals scored by Monaco (last count at the 6-1 victory against Marseille) came from this kind of play and players like Kamil Glik or Fabinho are an example of just how good they are trained by their manager (the Polish centre-back and the Brazilian defensive midfielder scored 8 and 12 goals respectively last season, almost every single goal stemming from dead balls).

Defensive Approach – “Rigorous in Defence”

Defensively, the 4-4-2 formation in dominating and offensive-oriented sides tends to create the risk of excessive exposure to long balls in the back line of the team. Jardim’s philosophy, although including pressure after losing the ball (as any good coach would command of his sides), opts to emphasize space occupation and man marking, and that is where the core of Jardim’s philosophy resides.

The centre-backs do not rest too advanced in the field, thus trying to prevent the opposition to explore the depth at the back and offering a cover to intruders profiting from the full-backs offensive positioning. Also, they are instructed by Jardim to perform anticipation moves as often as they can, thus enhancing ball recuperation ratios. This kind of tactical structuring demands a lot of stamina of the central midfielders and of the wingers which will need to be available to compensate their midfield partners and the full-backs whenever their space is compromised.

With the ball in his possession and just recovering it from a long pass aimed at the back of Monaco’s defensive line is Jemerson, one of Monaco’s centre-backs in line with his defence partner Kamil Glik. This image seeks to illustrate the conservative positioning of the centre-backs in Jardim’s system, compensating for the offensive orientation of the full-backs, here illustrated by Jorge in the red circle. The long ball in question was played into the back of Jorge. In the image, Monaco is already in the build-up phase, but, in the black circles, we can observe the two central midfielders recuperating from their defensive action, following the two opposition strikers who tried to exploit the defensive line’s back.

In addition, Jardim likes to develop a rigorous marking system, looking to annul every single offensive player of the opposition with a strong man-to-man marking system that tries to “close” the opposition’s attack in one sector of the pitch, where all spaces are occupied with Jardim’s players. This tends, in theory, to lead the game to a limited space fully occupied by his side, where the ball will be recuperated sooner or later.

Here we can observe the intense marking of the opposition’s players (in the black and red circles), which induced the Marseille man in the red circle to pass the ball to an area where his teammate – in the blue circle – has limited space to profit from, with four Monaco’s men surrounding him.

Three Career-Defining Games

  1. a) – 2012/2013, Champions League: Olympiakos 2-1 Arsenal – Although Jardim had already affirmed himself and his teams in high-demand matches, this one was definitely  a “game changer” in what concerns the Portuguese coach’s international career. Against a powerful side who had consistently achieved at least the last 16 in the compeition, the Greek champions did not shy away or play merely a defensive system, rather imposing themselves by Jardim’s classic style of tactical rigor and offensive orientation that would later make him known in the European football landscape. The decisive goal was scored by Kostas Mitroglou, a substitute which illustrated also Jardim’s capacity to alter the course of a match with smart substitutions.
  2. b) – 2016/2017, Ligue 1: Monaco 3-1 Paris SG – The stellar Monaco’s season of 2016/2017 started with a powerful show of strenght by Jardim’s side which would set a pattern for a spectacular domestic campaign, that ended with the Ligue 1 title. With goals from João Moutinho and Fabinho as well as an own goal from Aurier, Monaco not only asserted the title candidacy in great fashion, but only did that with a number of emerging players who would benefit from Jardim’s help throughout the season in order to become some of the most vibrant stars of European football (Jemerson, Mendy, Sidibé, Fabinho or Bernardo Silva, just to state a few).
  3. c) – 2016/2017, Champions League vs Manchester City, stage of 16 – The fire power and tactical cleverness of Jardim’s signature team were already talked about, but this knockout stage definitely brought the project led by the Portuguese coach to the spotlight. Against Pep Guardiola, Monaco started to delight football fans in the first leg even though they collected a loss (5-3) at the Etihad Stadium, for they managed to display a splendid level of football, scoring three away goals which made the difference after the 3-1 home victory that followed. This matchup against the English giants also marked the definite European rise of Kylian Mbappé, who evolved a great deal under the guidance of Leonardo Jardim.

Three Key Players Developed

William CarvalhoIf there is a player who can thank Jardim for his upbringing, that player must most definitely be William Carvalho. After he graduated Sporting CP’s academy, Carvalho amounted a number of loans to lesser known sides, such as Fátima or Cercle Brugge. And that tendency was bound to repeat itself in the 2013/2014 season, as William returned to Portugal destined to Sporting’s secondary side. Very limited in the squad-building process by severe financial restrictions, Jardim called Carvalho to the senior team;s pre-season and offered him regular opportunities, teaching him the craft of the No.6 position in a dominant team such as Sporting CP. William’s response was truly bright and he was one of the most important players in the team (33 matches and 4 goals), reaching Portugal’s national team, with which he would recently win the European Championship. He has been one of the untouchables of Sporting’s line-up ever since and is constantly being associated with the biggest European clubs.

Fabinho – There are a number of players who have had in Jardim a key mentor in becoming the class players they are today, but one has to highlight Fabinho, for he faithfully represents the tactical insight the young manager has to offer to his pupils. Having played all of his career as a right-back (at Fluminense and Castilla), it was for that very role that the Brazilian was brought to Monaco. And, even though he started to play in that position in France, Jardim decided to use Fabinho’s technical skills (mainly in terms of passing), working capacity and bright game perception to transform him into a world-class defensive midfielder (or even a No.8). The contribution he already offered to the team, augmented exponentially since he assumed the No.6 role at Monaco. Fabinho made 156 appearances in three seasons, also being called-up to Brazil’s national team. Jardim also developed in Fabinho his finishing capacity, making him a true dead ball expert (scoring 20 goals in the last two seasons, mainly from the penalty spot).

Kylian MbappéThe youngster has come a long way in an extremely short time-frame, from a Monaco’s and France’s most promising youngsters to a world renowned player and one of the most desired as well. His 26 goals in the previous season were the proof of Leonardo Jardim’s vision in betting on an 18-year old to play alongside Radamel Falcao in Monaco’s attack. His professional debut, being only 17 years old (2015/2016) left Monaco’s fans hopeful that a new star was in the making, but no one could expect the level Mbappé achieved in so little time. No one but Leonardo Jardim.

Mateus Carvalho

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