How Monaco went top without Ranieri knowing his best XI

With leaders Monaco travelling to PSG this weekend, Michael Cox shows how coach Claudio Ranieri is still trying different combinations of the players at his disposal… 

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This weekend sees France’s new ‘big two’ clash for the first time, with Claudio Ranieri’s Monaco travelling north to take on Laurent Blanc’s PSG. Although the Parisian side are the defending champions, and will be favourites for Sunday’s contest at the Parc des Princes, it’s Monaco who have made the better start to 2013/14, with four wins and a draw so far.
Ranieri has benefited from several multimillion pound signings, of course, and despite the positive results, injury problems have prevented him from playing his ideal combinations across various parts of the pitch. 
At the back, Monaco have an all-new partnership between two experienced, Champions League-winning veteran centre-backs. Now 34, Eric Abidal joined from Barcelona and was made captain by Claudio Ranieri, and plays alongside 35-year-old Ricardo Carvalho. It has proved an effective combination so far – Abidal still has a decent turn of speed despite his age, and tends to sweep up behind Carvalho, who has been the more effective player in the air.

Arguably the star performer at the back, however, has been right-back Fabinho, on loan from Portuguese club Rio Ave following a spell with Real Madrid B last season. He’s tall, strong and perhaps more defensively responsible than the cliché about Brazilian full-backs would suggest, and has mixed strong tackling with sporadic forward runs, and a decent end product in the final third. One of the key battles on Sunday evening will be his clash with Ezequiel Lavezzi.

In the centre of midfield, Ranieri surely wants to play his three new recruits – Jeremy Toulalan playing a calm holding role, Geoffrey Kondogbia bringing tenacity and energy to shuttle forward from a deep position, and Joao Moutinho dictating play from the top of the triangle.

Fitness problems have hampered all three so far this season, however, which means Mounir Obbadi is the only ever-present in midfield. Still, the others have signed glimpses of their quality. Kondogbia’s sole appearance, against Lorient last weekend, demonstrated his stamina and his battling qualities.

While Moutinho is playing a slightly more advanced role than he’s accustomed to, he also drops deep and enables Monaco to dominate the centre of midfield. His set-piece delivery has also been useful -  in the narrow victory over Marseille, he created three chances from corners.

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been Ranieri’s apparent distrust of James Rodriguez. The Colombian attacking midfielder was expected to link up seamlessly with former Porto team-mates Moutinho and Falcao, but despite a decent debut in a central role away at Bordeaux on the opening day, he hasn’t started since. 

Ranieri has either favoured Moutinho in that central attacking midfield role, or played Falcao in conjunction with fellow striker Emmanuel Riviere, who hit a hat-trick in the 4-1 win over Montpellier – Monaco’s best performance of the season so far. He contributed little to build-up play, but was lethal in front of goal.

However, playing Riviere upfront compromises the role of Falcao. He’s surely the best pure No.9 in world football, but when used with Riveire he is forced to work the channels and drop deeper – against Montpellier he barely received the ball inside the box, and his only attempt at goal was from a penalty.

Rodriguez can’t get into the side on the wings, either, where Ranieri has favoured a combination of Lucas Ocampos and Yannick Carrasco. The former tends to shoot frequently, while Carrasco is more of a crosser.

In all, it feels like Ranieri is still a long way from fielding Monaco’s optimum starting XI. He’s yet to select Toulalan, Kondogbia and Moutinho together in midfield, hasn’t quite got Falcao firing in his favoured centre-forward position, and still has to find a place for Rodriguez. Only the goalkeeper and back four, none of whom have missed a single minute, seem a settled unit.

Still, that is a warning to the rest of Ligue 1 – Monaco are top of the league, and yet still aren’t firing on all cylinders. A win in Paris this weekend and Ranieri’s side might not be caught.