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AS Monaco have been one of the most interesting stories of the 2016-2017 football season. Averaging just under a whopping three goals per game, they edge out Barcelona and the formidable MSN trio1 for the most (per game) amongst Europe’s top five leagues. After receiving an influx of cash with the arrival of current owner, Russian businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev, the squad underperformed immensely, selling any player that seemed destined to lead them to success.2 But after showing signs of promise last season, the European microstate’s only major club team have put everything together so far this season. With the young talent flourishing and an important core of veterans providing the experience, they are perched atop the French Ligue 1 table. Monaco produce an exciting brand of football from top to bottom, but as they are the top scoring team (by a fairly large margin) in Europe’s five major leagues, it makes sense to start the analysis with their chief goalscorer, Radamel Falcao, in mind.
Once upon a time, seeing the name Radamel Falcao atop a teamsheet would have instantly caused a pit in the stomach of any opposing coach. He was universally considered a top-three striker in the world during his time with FC Porto and Atlético Madrid,3 scoring an unreal 142 goals over four full seasons4 between the two clubs. But as is the case with many athletes, the injury bug struck at the worst possible time. After signing with a newly promoted – and deep-pocketed – Monaco side for a record €60 million in 2013, Falcao tore the ACL in his left knee in early-2014 after a poorly-timed tackle in the box. While trying to avoid and recover from injuries are a part of any athlete’s career, an ACL injury is an entirely different breed – athletes rarely, if ever, return to their former glory after suffering the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament tear.
Until the 2016-2017 season, Falcao was no different. After “recovering” from the knee injury, El Tigre spent the next two seasons on loan in the Premier League – first with Manchester United and then Chelsea. However, he failed to make a significant impact for either club, scoring a combined five goals over 41 appearances during his two seasons in England. He left the Premier League deemed a failure and a flop, so much so that The Sun’s Premier League flop of the season winner was given the “Radamel Falcao Award”.
However, upon returning to Monaco for the 2016-2017 season, the tides turned and the floodgates burst wide open. His goal-to-game ratio this season is firmly among the world’s best, tallying 24 goals in 30 all-competition appearances. But despite this renewed penchant for slotting past the keeper, Falcao’s overall approach to the game has undergone a significant departure from that of his pre-knee injury dominance. Once boasting one of the most intimidating combinations of explosiveness and strength in soccer, more than capable of tearing through a defense all on his own, El Tigre has been forced to further develop his already-vast understanding of movement and positioning in the penalty box in order to continue his career-long scoring pace. It would be unfair to claim that he is neither strong nor quick even at the tender age of 31, but he can no longer chase through balls in behind a defensive line as he could during his early-to-mid twenties.
In response to the limitations posed by a surgically-reconstructed knee, Falcao has developed into a formidable poacher – commanding the penalty box as if each game were a simple training ground finishing exercise. He demonstrates a remarkable sense of positional and spacial awareness that allows him to repeatedly outfox opposing backlines. Part of the reason Falcao, and in turn Monaco’s attack, have been so successful is the frequency with which Monaco crosses the ball in the attacking third. Attempting the second-most crosses in Ligue 1 at 24 per game, whipping balls into the box comprises a significant portion of Monaco’s scoring effort – a strategy perfectly suited for an elite poacher. It is interesting to note, however, that despite their penchant for crossing the ball, Monaco play without a clear target man. Even though Falcao is a more-than-capable header of the ball despite his average stature, relying on Falcao and his similar-in-stature strike partner Valère Germain to outjump taller and stronger central defenders is not a feasible attacking strategy.
As you might expect from one of the game’s up-and-coming managers, Monaco skipper Leonardo Jardim has finely tuned his side’s attacking tendencies to better fit the strengths of his strikers.5 Pairing the second-most crosses in League 1 with the fifth-lowest number of aerial duels won clearly indicates Monaco’s preference to center the ball on or near the turf; a hypothesis easily supported by watching only a few minutes of any Monaco match. Monaco deploy a wide 4-4-2 formation with Falcao typically occupying the rightmost forward position. On either side behind him are two wide midfielders, who, along with the right and left fullbacks, are responsible for most of Monaco’s deliveries into the box.
AS Monaco offer one of the most free-flowing and direct attacks in the footballing world. There is zero wasted time whenever they win the ball, advancing up-field as quickly as possible and looking to find one of their talented strikers in the box. This type of scheme enables Falcao’s finest quality, his positioning and anticipation inside the penalty box, ascend to virtually unstoppable levels. Falcao resides further up the pitch and retreats back on defense less than a typical center forward, for which strike-partner Valère Germain and his elevated workrate on the defensive side of the ball warrants a significant amount of credit. When his teammates burst upfield, Falcao’s initial positioning allows him more immediate access to attacking avenues without being forced to expend much energy sprinting upfield.
By relying on a quick attack, Monaco is able to exploit the natural disorganization of a retreating opponent on their back foot – with a significant portion of this exploitation coming at the feet of their resident Colombian. Few strikers in the game are more adept at squeezing by a defender and arriving at just the right time to smash home a ball played into their path.
Notice the lack of time wasted once Monaco wins the ball. The quickness with which they advance forces the five Ajaccio men behind the ball to retreat in a disorganized fashion while the five Monaco attackers bear down on them like the Rohirrim army on the orcs at the Battle of the Pelennor fields. Falcao executes a phenomenal run, “non-threateningly” remaining behind his marker until the last second, where he finally steps in front to meet the ball and sends it crashing into the back of the net. By crossing the ball “first time,”6 Carrillo allows Falcao to run onto the ball in-stride and use momentum and intelligence to his advantage rather than being forced to drop back and outjump a defender in order to win the ball.
Though Falcao is adept at stepping in front of defenders in the box, his most exceptional skill is a remarkable craftiness in the penalty box. He is, by any account, a true fox in the box. The Colombian’s ability to bamboozle opposing defenders has been virtually unmatched so far this season, with his sharp movements at the exact right moments creating the space necessary to slot the ball into the back of the net.
Radamel may have lost a step or two compared to his younger self, but he is still more than capable of leaving a defense in utter shambles as Manchester City’s John Stones and Goalkeeper Willy Caballero found out the hard way.
He demonstrates his speed, strength, and dribbling abilities to leave Stones looking like a muppet before lifting an audacious chip past the helpless Manchester netminder. This effort is as close to a vintage Falcao goal as we are likely to see.
Radamel Falcao is truly a striker in-form this season. His attitude and on-field swagger resemble his years at FC Porto and Atlético Madrid, and his goalscoring tallies aren’t too far off, either. His second act has been an absolute joy to watch, with AS Monaco’s penchant for crossing the ball pairing perfectly with Falcao’s greatest strengths. It will be captivating to follow whether Falcao and Monaco can continue their historic Ligue 1 scoring pace and maintain their spot atop the Ligue 1 table while participating in three major competitions.7 But with exceptional positioning and finishes as classy as his taste in cars, it will be a tall task for any opposition side to keep the confident El Tigre off the scoresheet.