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Artwork by @chapulana.

It was a promising Serie A fixture that started last Saturday evening at San Siro opposing AC Milan to Sassuolo. The locals have not been defeated in a home league match since the 22 December. Even better, they had three successive wins in their last three matches with their new Polish star being on fire and scoring four goals in his last three league games.

On the other hand, the visitors, known as one of the most exciting Italian teams in the last few years, had been in a quite difficult situation. Although being just seven points behind the first European place, De Zerbi’s team had only one win in their last nine league fixtures. They knew that the game at San Siro would not be an easy challenge.

Starting XI

Both teams chose a 4-3-3 structure at the beginning of the game. Gennaro Gattuso had aligned what we can call his best XI at the moment. The former World Cup champion had left Castellejo and Cutrone as jokers if things go wrong. De Zerbi had the same structure on paper. 

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An interesting offensive approach for Sassuolo in the first half 

As said in the title, the visitors had some interesting offensive moves during the first half. Once the first 10 minutes had passed, they nearly dominated their opponent for the rest of the first period. The general idea of De Zerbi was to populate the zone near the ball. The Italian manager wanted to guarantee a minimum of two or three pass options to the ball-holder.

To do so, strikers and midfielders were asked during the first steps of the build-up (when the ball was at 40 meters from the opponents’ net) to come out of position and support the ball-holders. This instruction permitted ball circulation circuits and served to create some numerical and positional superiority in different zones of the pitch.

In the picture below, the main area covered by Sassuolo’s attacking trio was the space between Milan’s two defensive lines. We have often seen Djuricic for example in this area of the field receiving the ball from teammates.

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The numerical and positional superiorities of the Neroverdi was observable in different zones and was based on one central idea. AC Milan were defending, at multiple times, with a three-man midfield line which leads to huge gaps. Sassuolo tried to use the fact that three players are not able to cover the whole pitch’s width. They had also tried to force Milan to have fewer players in the midfield to go into space.

The use of space left by their opponents’ second defensive line appeared often on the right flank of the field. This later was, by the way, Sassuolo’s dominant attacking side with 41% of the attacks starting from the right. Berardi, Sensi and Lirola created triangles to get one over the opponents:

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Or either to go to the back of the nearest opposition midfielder where there is an available space.

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There were also other interesting moves in the centre lane of the pitch. Sassuolo’s midfielders and strikers tried to move out Milan’s players to open pass lines or unmark partners.

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In all pictures above, there was either space found or created on Milan’s midfield.

Despite all these entertaining offensive moves, there was a significant problem in Sassuolo’s attacks. The visitors had only two big chances during the first half. One of them was down to individual brilliance from Jeremie Boga who hit the post. As strikers get back on the pitch to offer pass solutions, runs towards the goal and ball calls remained non-existent. Djuricic was not able to play one-touch passes and make fast runs. Berardi and Boga stuck often to the sideline and Sensi and Locatelli did not profit from in-depth ball calls. Apart from the two wingers, all Sassuolo’s offensive players had made only one shot on target.  

Sassuolo’s defensive structure

Here, Fransceso Maganelli played one of the tactically most interesting roles on the match. Sassuolo’s captain was charged to reduce spaces for Piatek and cover the Pole’s runs and moves. In the heatmap below, he occupied, among other zones, the central zone at the heart of the penalty box.

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Manganelli was playing between the two centre-backs during the defensive phase. Piatek was then stuck between three defenders and had not much freedom to move and ask for a pass. The 34-year-old captain, who had, by the way, a really good performance both offensively and defensively was also an essential part for the maintaining of his team’s compactness. This was a key issue for the visiting team. De Zerbi imposed a compact defensive structure for his players.

The most common situation was the team defending Milan’s attacks on the left side. Sassuolo players tried to move to the left to prevent the opponent from advancing through the side, they tried at the same time to occupy the half-space and it was either Gianmarco Ferrari or Magenlli who were there. All of three midfielders remained pretty close to each other and ready to intervene.

A balanced and pragmatic Milan Team

The Rossoneri were partially dominated but not as absent as we could imagine in this match. They had, for example, eight open-play shots compared to six ones for their opponents. (They had exactly four open-play shots in each half).

The first thing that we noticed during the early minutes of the game was the pressing imposed by the team to Sassuolo’s goalkeeper when he tried to start an attack. In the pictures below, Milan’s attackers tried to maintain the two centre-backs in their cover-shadows or at least to keep the passing lane from the goalkeeper to them risky and insecure. This obliged Andrea Consigli to play some uncertain long balls to his teammates. Though, even with a quite good success ratio for a goalkeeper in this area (50%), from such long-balls, conserving these balls was a real struggle for receivers.

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In terms of attacking movements, there is also something to say about what has the AC Milan did. Most of the locals’ attacks had come from the right side with an overall ratio of 41% of the attacks. This flank, along with the right half-space, was often occupied by four players: Suso, Calabria, Kessié and Bakayoko. They used some third-man combinations to fix defenders and empty a crowded area.

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A few changes after the red card

The 64th minute was crucial for the Neroverdi. The exclusion of their 32-year-old goalkeeper had a huge impact on the team’s spirit. Sassuolo were reduced to ten men and De Zerbi was prevented from making attacking changes. Manganelli’s exit a few minutes later gave much more freedom for Piatek. The Polish striker made two runs creating two goalscoring chances in the 15 minutes after Sassuolo’s number four’s exit.

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The visiting team switched to a 4-2-3 system after the red card. This implies that fewer midfield players were able to receive the ball from the centre-backs. Fewer opponent players means numerical superiority (three vs two in the midfield) for the hosts and a possibility of high and effective pressing. This is what Gennaro Gattuso’s team tried to do with Kessié being out of position and pressing Ferrari. 

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Conclusion

Overall, Sassuolo had a pretty convincing performance especially during the first hour of the match. They struggled to create chances but they could have found solutions. At the same time, AC Milan did not play a very intense game. They wanted to stop their opponents’ attacks with aggression and tried to take advantage of set-pieces from time to time. What I personally will note from this game is that both teams produced some interesting ball-circulation sequences and were pleasant to watch. Sassuolo still need improvements when it comes to movements in the final third, but a European qualification place is still possible, in my opinion.


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