In a world where everybody (quite rightly) has dubbed 2020 as the worst year on record, Monaco might disagree. After two years of poor results and chaotic management, the team from the Principality have been making much better strides over the last few months of the season and might find their way back to the upper echelons of the French Ligue 1 in 2021.
They have the best record in the French top-flight this calendar year so far (12 points and 14 goals in four games), consolidating their place in the top six with 39 points after 21 games. They’ve already amassed more points than the whole of their disastrous 2018-19 campaign where they fought bitterly to avoid relegation, ultimately finishing 17th. It’s almost as many points as they won in the truncated 2019-20 season, where they gained 40 points in 28 matches before the season was stopped with Monaco in ninth.
A Whole Team To Rebuild
Since the summer of 2018, the hierarchy at Monaco has changed continuously. Over that period of time they’ve had a new executive VP (Oleg Petrov), a new sporting director (Paul Mitchell) and four coaching changes (Leonardo Jardim to Thierry Henry, Henry back to Jardim, Jardim to Robert Moreno and Moreno to Niko Kovac). The latter, appointed by Mitchell, arrived in the middle of the pre-season after a mixed spell with Bayern where he was sacked after 16 months.
Monaco’s squad has also been in a state of flux in recent years. Last summer, more than 60 players were under contract at Monaco – most of whom subsequently left the club during that off-season (temporarily or permanently) to bring the squad number back down to 30 players. After using 42 different players in their disastrous Ligue 1 2018-19 campaign (the record in the top five European leagues that season), Monaco have opted for more stability in their squad, building their team around experienced Ligue 1 players and talented youngsters, rather than trying to land prestigious international names.
To demonstrate this point, Monaco’s most utilised players this season in terms of minutes played are Benoît Badiashile (19yo), Aurélien Tchouameni (20), Ruben Aguilar (27), Wissam Ben Yedder (30), Youssouf Fofana (22) and Sofiane Diop (20). All six are French and have played in Ligue 1 before. This is the new Monaco way.
In fact, there have been, on average, 7.4 local players in Monaco’s starting line-ups in 2020-21, more than any campaign in the last ten years.
Kovac in Search of Balance
This ambitious group of players have quickly adapted to Niko Kovac’s playing principles. One of these key principles is an intense and aggressive pressing style.
Since the beginning of this season, Monaco as a team have performed the most defensive actions (fouls, tackles, interceptions, challenges, and blocked passes) in the top five European leagues (694) and have the fourth-best tally of high turnovers (182) in that time. That figure for high turnovers ranks them second in Ligue 1 behind PSG.
That said, the Croatian manager has had to adapt his ways too. His traditional 4-3-3 formation, that he used heavily at Bayern, was not optimal for his Monaco side. While this shape offered his team a nice share of possession (61.6% on average), ASM often struggled to break down a well-organised defensive block and were susceptible to teams able to counter them quickly.
These facets were on large last October when Kovac and co. were defeated at Brest (0-1), neutralised at home against Montpellier (1-1) and outperformed at Lyon (1-4). During that month, Monaco averaged 72.6% possession and attempted 60 shots, but they only scored twice (both penalties). Meanwhile, they conceded 6 goals over the 25 shots they faced. With their high defensive line, Monaco were exposed.
After this frustrating run, Niko Kovac reverted to a 4-4-2 formation to restore some balance in his team. In this formation, favoured by Leonardo Jardim during Monaco’s amazing campaign in 2016-17, Kevin Volland has moved from the wing into more central areas, adding extra firepower to Monaco’s attacks. Comparing his first six games (up until Lyon) to the 13 games after, his shots per game has risen from 0.2 (0 goals) to 2.2 (10 goals).
The other benefit is in the midfield area where Aurélien Tchouameni and Youssouf Fofana are more efficient in defence when they work as a tandem instead of a trio. Since November, and Kovac’s switch to 4-4-2, both have made around three more recoveries per game than before and won more duels and tackles. They’ve been able to do this by playing deeper as a whole: their percentage of touches in the opposition third has fallen from around 25% to 15%, meaning they can focus more on the defensive side of their roles.
Threat From Set Pieces
Monaco have also improved a lot on set plays in 2020-21, scoring 19 goals from these situations in Ligue 1, at least five more than any other side. 10 of these goals have come following a corner, already equalling their best tally in a single season since Opta starting collecting this data in 2006-07 (also 10 in 2016-17). Under Niko Kovac, ASM really are a danger from corners, generating 69 attempts in total from them, at least nine more than any other team. One element that is helping them continually generate opportunities from corners is the variety of corner kick takers. Seven players have taken 10 or more corners for Monaco, meaning opponents are struggling to plan and anticipate the different delivery options available at Monaco’s disposal.
There is still room for improvement against the big sides in France though – Monaco have the worst record against teams currently occupying the other spots in the top five in Ligue 1 (Paris/Lyon/Lille/Rennes) with just three points out of a possible 12 so far. They also struggle slightly away from home, boasting the ninth-best away record this season.
With all that said, Monaco are still lurking for a European spot. Niko Kovac joined Monaco because the board guaranteed him time to rebuild the team. It looks like Kovac has the foundations in place to repay that faith earlier than many predicted.
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