The Monaco resurgence in Ligue 1

Rewind to mid October and Monaco were in all worlds of trouble. Sitting 10th in Ligue 1, a year after their second place finish, was quite the fall from grace considering the amount of talent still with the club after the departures of James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao and Emmanuel Riviere.

Leonardo Jardim replaced Claudio Ranieri for this season, taking over from a man who helped guide Monaco from the doldrums of Ligue 2 football all the way to a second place finish and qualification for the Champions League this season (it also helped that Monaco spent infinity dollars during Ranieri’s time in player transfers).

It wasn’t even that Monaco were playing horrifically bad for the first ten weeks but there was sort of a lifeless play in watching them struggle to muster up attack in their 4-3-3 formation. We were mocking at how a team could realistically try and contend for a Champions League spot while deploying a centre back partnership of Ricardo Carvalho and Andrea Raggi.

 

Their strike force of Dimitar Berbatov and Anthony Martial was not one where fear is felt from teams of the opposition. This is a club that was second in goals scored and third in goals allowed last season and during the first ten week they were eighth and tenth respectively.

Fast forward to today and Monaco are tied with Saint Etienne for fourth in Ligue 1, which means automatic qualification to the Europa League (which is a competition that French teams need to better soon before they start losing more automatic spots into Europe). The style of play in comparison to other teams like Olympique Marseille and Olympique Lyonnais who had sharp upticks in results has been the complete antithesis.

The pizzazz of Lyon and Marseille have been the identities of the two French giants’ resurgence to the top of the standings while Monaco has done it through defense. Only Saint Etienne have conceded less goals from week 11-23 than Monaco and Raggi/Carvalho have been instrumental parts in that.

That’s also translated into their Champions League matchups. It was quite dire to watch Monaco set up shop and play for 1-0 or 0-0 results. It was taking Jose Mourinho’s pragmatism and ratcheting it up 4 to 5 levels to near doldrums level of viewing, but they got the job done and will give Arsenal major headaches.

However it hasn’t been as nearly an eyesore to watch domestically as it’s been in the Champions League and Monaco to some extent have been a victim of bad luck. Monaco have only scored 20 non penalty goals this season and my pseudo ExPG data has them pegged at 29.5. That ranks fourth in Ligue behind PSG, Lyon and Marseille and it’s the third biggest gap of non penalty goals to ExPG data behind Nantes and Lorient.

If Monaco had say scored 26-27 goals instead of 20, they probably wouldn’t be looked at as this club where attack minded football immediately goes to die (though their Champions League matches have been justifiably bad to watch aesthetic wise). Colin Trainor said something similar analysing Liverpool’s lost season last year:

To coin a phrase use regularly used by Simon Gleave, this may be a case of Scoreboard Journalism. We (be that football fans or members of the media) tend to evaluate events by reference to the once off outcome rather than evaluating the process or by adequate reference to what “should have happened”.

 

The difficulty with deciding what “should have happened” is that there is no one agreed uniform metric for how to measure this, but all I can say on this is that our ExpG measure is an objective measure that has used the same calculation method over the two seasons in question.

So yes Monaco have been unlucky, and they grade out to an above average attacking team when taking into account the quality of chances they’ve been creating and their talent attacking wise, but their defense is what this current iteration of Monaco will truly hang its hat on to guide them into European football next season if the goals don’t regress back to some sort of normalcy.

Bernado Silva and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco are perfect attacking midfielders in Jardim’s system since they both track back and help form that defensive wall for Monaco. Jeremy Toulalan is ideal as a deep lying playmaker who can ping passes and sit back whenever Moutinho joins the attack, and Layvin Kurzawa/Fabinho also help defensively so the centre backs don’t get stretched out.

If you need any more evidence on how good Monaco are defensively, they held Lyon to only six shots on the day and gave up a ExPG goal tally of 0.58, stifling numbers against a Lyon team that was still very formidable sans Alexandre Lacazette.

In the last few days I’ve been working on the defensive side of pseudo expected goal data and trying to figure out the same type of shot location data for defense in Ligue 1 to get a ratio for both offense and defence.

I’ve sadly not had nearly enough time to give you data over previous seasons to see how repeatable it is but I will say that this season the R2 between my pseudo expected goal ratios and points stands at 0.6085, which leads to a 78/22 relationship between skill and luck. Total shot ratio (shots for/shots for + shots against) gave me a 70/30 relationship.

Hopefully when I have an ample amount of time I’ll be able to look into this and write about my findings.

In the meantime Monaco have been doing quite well according to my data. In fact their pseudo expected goal ratio ranks third in Ligue 1 behind only PSG and Marseille and ahead of league leaders Lyon. Their expected goals against data ranks third behind Saint Etienne and PSG.

Again the data is very much in the preliminary stage but it also comes to the conclusion that Monaco are a good to very good domestic side.

It’s been quite the turnaround for Leonardo Jardim and his side. What once looked like a lost season for Monaco is now turning into another successful one considering the transfer dealings last summer.

The permanent move of Bernardo Silva for €15.75 million could be a signal of intent that though the days of luscious spending are probably over, the club will look to spend on youngsters with potential and hope to sell them off in a few years time for profit.

In the middle of October the club was looking at a disappointing mid table finish, now the real possibility of European football being played next season is very much the target for AS Monaco.

Author Details

Mohamed

Ligue 1 analyst/writer for Back Page Football. Data is often incorporated. Ligue 1 is really fun, just give it a chance!

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