Just two and a half years ago, Monaco were standing on the mountaintop of French football, having just won their first Ligue 1 title since the 1999-2000 season. The club was praised for reaching the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League, and a young teenage Parisian named Kylian Mbappé was hoisting an individual trophy of his own in the form of the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year award.
Fast forward to today, and the club is in a very different state. Mbappé, along with many of the other young talents that graced the Stade Louis II from that title-winning campaign, has moved on to a new club. The team is not competing in any European tournament this season after barely surviving the threat of relegation last spring, and the average age of the starting eleven, 26.1 years old, is far more level with the rest of the country.
However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t any signs of potential success this season. Despite currently sitting in 14th place on the league table, Monaco can claim to have, specifically as of late, one of the best attacks in France. Through an overabundance of player signings the last three years (the club bought eleven attacking players over the course of that span) there is now an overall sustainable attack that can lead this team throughout the season. This tactical analysis will cover the players, tactics, and movements of Monaco’s front line.
Wissam Ben Yedder
As stated, Monaco have one of the better attacking groups in the country. Leading this group this season is the 29-year-old striker Wissam Ben Yedder. The Frenchman began his career at the local club UJA Alfortville in the French fourth tier. He eventually signed with Toulouse, where he scored at least 14 league goals in four consecutive seasons before moving abroad to Sevilla for a €9 million fee. In Spain, Ben Yedder continued his steady rise and finally returned to his home country three seasons later, after Monaco activated his €40 million release clause. The striker has also scored two goals in eight matches for Les Bleus.
At Monaco, Ben Yedder has already established himself as a top name on the team sheet every weekend. He is a fast, well-rounded striker with fantastic ball control. His style of play is direct evidence of his youth football background – Ben Yedder played futsal throughout his childhood, including a short stint for the futsal French national team.
Monaco often utilises quick attacks from midfield, with this pass from attacking midfielder Aleksandr Golovin serving as a good example. Ben Yedder splits the centre-backs as the receiving end of the through ball.
As the two defenders make attempts to take the ball off the attacker, Ben Yedder shifts his body so as to always have it between the defender and the ball. Even when the defender moves around the back of him, Ben Yedder again protects the ball. The use of body positioning in relation to the state of the ball is just one of the multiple creative close-control tools Ben Yedder applies when on the ball.
The other primary skill Ben Yedder excels at is finishing. He has acute precision on goal and can shoot from nearly anywhere inside the box.
After holding off both defenders in the 1 v 2 from the previous image, Ben Yedder has the balance to stabilise himself off the run. He then hits an accurate strike near-post into the small accessible area of the net not covered by the keeper’s angled positioning. The diminutive attacker not only has the second-most goals in Ligue 1 with nine but also possesses a 36% goal conversion rate on his total shots – the best of any player in the league with more than 11 shots.
Manager Leonardo Jardim’s burst attacking system at Monaco also caters to Ben Yedder’s passing style. The striker commonly uses quick one-two passing combinations or long passes to cover space quickly.
In the illustration above, Ben Yedder drops deeper down the left half-space to receive the ball from the wide player on the counter-attack. He swiftly continues the speed of the attack with a through ball to Islam Slimani, the other primary striker in Monaco’s squad.
This map above displays the spots on the pitch where Ben Yedder received a pass in the match versus Brest. Notice how most are much deeper than a traditional striker. Thanks to Ben Yedder’s on-the-ball ability, he is able to create or even finish when beginning with the ball in these areas.
With these traits in Monaco’s quick attacking system, Ben Yedder has shown he can play in multiple areas in the attacking half.
In this heat map against Rennes, Ben Yedder’s movements and occupying of space can be seen in various areas, from the left-forward areas inside the opposing box to the deeper wide right areas. In these spaces, Ben Yedder connects on quick attacking runs from the ball-side winger or midfielder. These will be touched on later in this scout report’s analysis.
Slimani has been the other key cog in Monaco’s front line. The Algerian can boast a G+A of 13 – the best in Ligue 1- and has been no less vital to Monaco’s offensive productivity than his French counterpart. Slimani played the first five years of his professional career in Algeria, with four of those years spent at six-time Algerian Ligue 1 champions CR Belouizdad. He then had a very successful three-season spell in Portugal with Sporting CP, scoring 48 goals in 82 league matches and winning the Taça de Portugal in the 2014-15 season. After leaving the Portuguese capital, Slimani struggled to hold down a consistent starting spot at various clubs and joined the French outfit on loan after failing to impress at Premier League side Leicester City. However, the 31-year-old could be bought permanently by Monaco if his recent goalscoring exploits continue.
The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations winner is similarly well-balanced like his teammate. Not just a goalscoring target man despite his record of being second-best in the league’s xG of 6.69, Slimani is also an extremely intelligent and effective passer. He is able to connect in creative ways after bringing down long passes and holding up the ball in volatile areas.
In Monaco’s home match against Nice, Slimani brought down a long ball, with two defenders marking him in the opposing box. After holding them off and dribbling back to give himself space, Slimani is then able to hit an accurate pass centrally through defenders into the dangerous area at the end of Golovin’s run from midfield. This resulted in the match-winner.
Even without the speed typically required in a counter-attacking player, Slimani is able to contribute to the progression of the counter-attack using his hold-up play. Here, he pulls back on the ball in the wide area and completes a through ball across a tight space into the open area for the midfielder to continue the counter.
This passmap further proves Slimani’s accuracy on progressive passing. In this match, the striker completed five of six passes into the box, including one key pass.
Slimani is however first and foremost a striker, and his positioning in the box shows his experience. As a striker on a quick attacking side, the responsibilities can greatly hinder based on these movements.
In this example, Ben Yedder receives the ball in the wide right area from the half-space. Slimani, on the ball-far side, sees the defenders ball-watching and fades towards the far post to gain space. This results is an open shot on target.
At times taking Slimani’s place, Keita Baldé has also contributed positively to Monaco’s attack this season. Despite only starting two league matches, his dynamism has led Jardim to frequently use him as a substitute for either both striking positions or as an extra forward when down late in the game. Regardless, Ben Yedder and Slimani continue to hold down their starting spots in the eleven primarily due to their instinctive connections with the players around them.
Connecting in the final third
Similar to the successful Bundesliga partnership of Timo Werner and Yussuf Poulsen, Ben Yedder and Slimani connect in a well-known style of play. The taller, more physical of the two, Slimani, controls long passes in Monaco’s fast attacks and combines the final link using his smart passing. However, Monaco’s offensive production this season doesn’t only flow through the two strikers. With talents such as Golovin, Martins, and Cesc Fábregas in the surrounding positions, attacks often involve a third player.
In this sequence, we see an attacking midfielder on the ball in the left half-space. With the opposition playing a high line despite Monaco’s possession in their half, the midfielder lofts a pass over the back line. Both Slimani and Ben Yedder pass this line, and the former controls the aerial pass and lays the ball off to the latter.
Ben Yedder is then able to use his control on the ball to move past three defenders and scored a chipped goal.
In addition to the midfield, the wingers in Jardim’s commonly used 3-4-1-2 formation also aid these two in the final third.
The sequence above is an excellent example of Slimani’s and Ben Yedder’s movements working in relation to each other. Under pressure, Martins lofts a desperation ball towards the centre of the box. Slimani jumps, making himself the target of the pass and drawing the centre-backs to himself. Ben Yedder makes a run around the group of three, and darts towards the six-yard box. Slimani wins the header and heads the ball down into the space vacated by the right centre-back – right into the path of Ben Yedder’s run. Ben Yedder then completes the play with an easy finish 1 v 1 with the keeper.
Another noticeable trait from the frame above is Slimani’s leaping ability. Slimani is currently tied with Nantes striker Kalifa Coulibaly in headed shots on target with 11. Considering Slimani is 6’2” and Coulibaly is 6’6”, this not only proves Slimani can jump well above many centre-backs, but also could be accredited to his positioning and/or the crossing accuracy of his teammates.
Additionally, these two forwards can use their variability of skills to create opportunities for their teammates as well.
Here, Martins again possesses the ball under pressure. Seeing this, Ben Yedder drops into the midfield to drag out the left centre-back and to provide a passing outlet. He combines on a give-and-go passing combination, returning the ball to the winger out of pressure and into the opened up progressive space. Martins then can connect with Slimani on a 2 v 1 inside the box.
In this example, Slimani brings down a long ball in the attacking half. Ben Yedder shifts wide, once again pulling a defender with him, this time into the wide right space. Ben Yedder receives a pass from Slimani and immediately completes a second diagonal pass back inside onto the run of Martins, who was occupying the right half-space.
While the tactics and visual cues are impressive alone, there are plenty of basic and advanced statistics to back up the effectiveness and value of this attack.
Monaco have scored the third-most goals in Ligue 1 (21) this season, behind only league-leaders Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyon. Not surprisingly, the striking partnership of Ben Yedder and Slimani is the most prolific in the league this season, assisting each other on four goals. Slimani sits second in the league on season xG+A, with a score of 9.44, behind only Ángel Di María. He sits in that same spot on the xG list with 6.69, behind only Lille’s Victor Osimhen, yet ahead of Ben Yedder’s xG of 5.65. This makes Ben Yedder’s nine actual goals even more incredible: his accuracy can lead to the prediction that this is simply the fault of his deadly precision than an eventual regression to the mean.
There is arguably no better statistical way to sum up the creative and advantageous relationship between these two attackers than with the following numbers. Slimani has better accuracy on his smart passes than anyone else in Ligue 1 with 56.67% (he and Ben Yedder each have 30 of these passes, the second-most in the entire league). The 31-year-old also has completed the fourth-most key passes per 90 minutes, with 1.21, only behind Kylian Mbappé, Ángel Di María, and Mathieu Dossevi. These passes are most often connected to Ben Yedder who, using his ball control, easily holds the league-wide lead for the best shooting accuracy this season(66.67% of his shots are on target) by six percentage points.
The idea that Monaco would be able to retain the youthful exuberance reminiscent of that 2016-17 season was always highly unlikely. Many of those players were highly sought after, and a number of them have already given their new clubs a return on investment from their high transfer fees with successful production. That said, the two new attackers adorning Monaco’s signature red and white kit are providing far more than a respite from the team’s recent troubles. While neither of these attackers are getting any younger, they both have the complementary skill sets to not only continue their efficiency, but to do so with flair.
Even with Jardim’s future at Monaco once again being questioned, the quick combination attacks led by Wissam Ben Yedder and Islam Slimani that have been commonplace at Monaco this season have returned a renewed sense of success and hope for the club this Ligue 1 campaign.
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