Both teams neutralized each other in the first 45 minutes. Milan adjusted in the second half and broke the deadlock. When Eusebio Di Francesco introduced Edin Dzeko and switched to 4-2-4, Roma lost the balance and collapsed.
Roma (4-3-3) | Manager: Eusebio Di Francesco
1. Alisson / 25. Bruno Peres, 44. Kostas Manolas, 20. Federico Fazio, 11. Aleksandar Kolarov / 6.Kevin Strootman, 7. Lorenzo Pellegrini / 17. Cengiz Under, 4. Radja Nainggolan, 8. Diego Perotti / 14 ,Patrik Schick
Milan (4-3-3) | Manager: Gennaro Gattuso
99. Gianluigi Donnarumma / 2. Davide Calabria, 19. Leonardo Bonucci,13. Alessio Romagnoli, 68. Ricardo Rodriguez / 79. Franck Kessie, 21. Lucas Biglia, 5. Giacomo Bonaventura / 8. Suso, 63. Patrick Cutrone, 10. Hakan Calhanoglu
Gattuso’s conservative strategy
Gennaro Gattuso has fixed Milan’s defense problem. The players have been raving about the improvement. You could see it in this game. Earlier this season, Milan could not defend the midfield. Kessie and Bonaventura couldn’t synchronize with their teammates when they engaged the ball handlers. Gaps popped up, the opponent’s players flooded the center, and overwhelmed Biglia/Montolivo and the center backs (CBs). You expect this type of problems when you have six/seven new starters.
But Milan have fixed this problem. They shut the center against Roma. Other than several occasions when Milan pressed them, Gattuso contended to let Roma control the possession. They congested the center and waited for Roma to attack. Suso and Calhanoglu dropped to the midfield and formed a 5-man mid-block with Biglia covering. The defenders and the midfielders stayed close to each other to minimize the space between the lines.
Milan didn’t care about Strootman, Fazio or Manolas controlling the possession. They wanted to prevent Pellegrini and Nainggolan from having the ball in the space between the lines. Milan defended brilliantly. Biglia sat deeper than the others to provide the cover. Once they controlled the space, Kessie or Bonaventura joined Cutrone to pressure Roma’s CBs or Strootman and forced them to pass to the fullbacks (FBs). These horizontal passes killed Roma’s momentum. The space between the lines was open for a short time. When they couldn’t use it, their attack became stagnant.
Roma’s wingers often moved inside, so they seldom used an overload or a combination with the FBs to break Milan’s flank’s defense. Roma’s FBs could push deep into Milan’s half, but their crosses had no target. Roma couldn’t use Schick’s technique and skill because they couldn’t feed him the ball. If they had started Edin Dzeko, Roma would have been able to use long ball to bypass Milan’s midblock or send crosses to the box.
Di Francesco’s smart tactics
Milan’s offense has clicked in the last two months. Their weapon is the positional exchange between the FBs and the wingers. When Suso or Calhanoglu move inside or drop to the midfield, they drag the opponent’s FBs away and create space for Calabria or Rodriguez to move in and cross. Cutrone is lethal in the box (Yes he is the new Filippo Inzaghi), but the surging Bonaventura and Kessie are just as dangerous. Even if Suso or Calhanoglu can’t create the space for the FBs to move in, they can still stretch the opponent by sending cross-field pass using their favorite foot as they turn inside.
Di Francesco almost eliminated this threat. Roma held a high press in this game. They used three players to press Milan. They marked Bonucci, Romagnoli, and Biglia. Calabria and Rodriguez needed to stay behind to collect Donnaruma’s pass and were often unmarked:
Roma let them receive the ball in Milan’s half. They could control the ball first before Roma’s players closed them down. Di Francesco’s strategy is smart; normally Bonucci or Biglia will send the passes when Suso/Calhanoglu and Calabria/Rodriguez exchange positions. But when only the FBs had the ball in the initial build-up, they couldn’t carry out those positional exchanges, and Milan’s most lethal weapon was gone. This was an intelligent move by Di Francesco.
Breaking the deadlock
The first half was a balanced chess match. Neither team created any chance because of the opponent’s target approach. Di Francesco was satisfied with their performance, but Gattuso changed tactics. He thought Roma’s FBs had too much time and freedom with the ball like in the first 45 minutes. Milan’s mid-block shifted to the flank to pressure them in the second half.
Milan’s build-up could not move the ball up because of Roma’s targeted press. So they used long balls to bypass the mid-blocks. Roma pressed with a 4-2-3-1 and their midfield lacked cover. Suso and Calhanoglu targeted this space:
Bonucci’s long balls almost found his teammates on several occasions in the first half. But they were reactions of the match and not planned moves. The long balls in the second half weren’t accidental though. Almost every time Suso, Calhanoglu or Cutrone moved inside from the flank or drop from the first line to try to catch those passes.
Di Francesco said that his players had not reacted after going one goal down. But Roma did react; they forced many transitions in Milan’s half and a few chances after conceding the first goal. They hung on until Di Francesco introduced Dzeko and played a 4-4-2. Milan’s midfield completely out-ran Roma’s with a 3 vs 2 advantage. The tactical exchanges between Gattuso and Di Francesco were fantastic.
Milan is going into Milan Derby with a lot of confidence. Inter also plays with a 4-2-3-1 with a heavy reliance on short passes. Gattuso’s mid-block could work against Inter. They will be within four points to the fourth place if they beat Inter this Sunday. That Champions League qualification suddenly looks possible.
Roma is back to the drawing board. They might have spent too much energy in the mid-week Champions League game. But when Roma’s wingers cannot assess the space between the lines in the center, the offense stops working. Di Francesco thinks that playing more attacking midfielders (from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1) would help, but this game tells you that they need more switching passes between the flanks to stretch the opponent. They need more patience, not more players in the offensive phase.