After replacing Gennaro Gattuso with Marco Giampaolo, Milan started their new season away to last season’s 12th place finishers, Udinese. Unfortunately, none of Milan’s summer signings were yet deemed suitable for a starting birth in this game and the side labored to a 1-0 loss against the forsaken child of the Pozzo family project.
Not only was the result disappointing, but Milan failed to produce a single effort on target from their total of 14 shots. Whilst also allowing Udinese 17 shots on their own goal, it was clear that Milan’s performance in this game was extremely below par and this piece will investigate what was the cause of this dour showing.
This tactical analysis will provide a detailed overview and analysis of the tactics used by the opposing managers and ultimately explain how Milan lumbered through this discouraging opening display of their 2019/20 Serie A season.
Giampaoli lined his Milan side up in a 4-3-1-2 formation, lacking any of his new signings and featuring ex-Liverpool and Roma wide man, Fabio Borini, as the right central midfielder. Breakout star of last season, Kryzsztof Piatek, led the line alongside Samu Castillejo supported by Suso in a front three whose movement would be vital to breaking down the strict 5-3-2 shape of the home side.
In this rigid system, there was no room in the starting lineup for the young attacking talents of Rodrigo De Paul or Antonin Barak, who instead had to accept a starting role from the bench. Likewise, Milan’s new incomers also had to wait for their full debuts as Ismail Bennacer and Rafael Leao too started the Serie A season on the bench.
In traditional implementations of this narrow diamond formation that Milan were using, it is usually the responsibility of the fullbacks to provide the width in this system. That wasn’t the case for Giampaoli’s Milan however, which was unusual considering the attacking talent of the likes of Ricardo Rodriguez at left-back. Instead, this became the task for the wider central midfielders (Borini and Paqueta) to stretch the Udinese shape and open up space down the middle.
This naturally would leave space in the centre for the likes of Piatek and Castillejo to drop into or Rodriguez and Calabria to advance forward and occupy except for the fact that none of this happened. Milan’s fullbacks remained anchored to their respective centreback partners and rarely ventured forward into the vacated space, effectively playing no part in the side’s offence. Likewise, it seemed that Piatek’s and Castillejo’s roles were to occupy the Udinese centre-backs, always threatening to play off the last shoulder of their defenders yet hardly dropping off into the vacated space to help circulate the ball.
The middle of the park instead was seemingly abandoned to allow the likes of Suso and Calhanoglu to roam freely yet their fun was quickly spoiled by the strict marshalling of the Udinese midfield three.
Using the fullbacks in this way made them practically redundant in the possession and only served to limit the number of bodies Milan could use to disrupt and attack the Udinese defence.
The delegation of roles also appeared inappropriate as Borini and Paqueta were never truly committed to their wider roles in possession. This was because they seemed to be entirely aware of the facts that Suso and Calhanoglu would need closer support in the centre of the pitch as well as the fact that upon losing the ball, they’d have to quickly close the gaps in the centre of the pitch so as to avoid being carved open on the counter-attack.
This again only added to prevent the away side from being able to open up the opposition’s defence to create quality shots on goal. Milan’s attackers always seemed to be taking their shots under pressure or facing a wall of defenders between them and the goal.
Milan as impotent in defence as they are in attack
Not only did this serve to prevent Milan from creating consistent and threatening overloads in the centre of the pitch, thus stifling their possession but it also led to an inability to counter-press the ball upon a transition, allowing Udinese easier access down the pitch upon a turnover.
A problem with the narrow diamond formation also concerns who are responsible for defending against the opposition fullbacks. In Milan’s case, this seemed somewhat unclear to the players on the pitch as the wider central midfielders and fullbacks were often hesitant to press the wide man and this led to instances like the example below.
With Suso not being used to drop into the midfield three to create a defensive four, Milan’s midfield shape was easily and often stretched, opening up gaps for Udinese to exploit. This didn’t help Milan to ever gain a foothold in the game as their offence was often stifled and their defence struggled to regain the ball in areas further away from their own goal, especially thanks to Kevin Lasagna’s direct movements.
Milan’s lacklustre gameplan was reflected in the goal they conceded due to the result of some less than impressive set-piece defending.
It’s always a bugbear of mine to see a selection of smaller players zonally positioned at the near post when defending corners. This is because this is an easy weak spot for opposition set-piece takers to target and if these players are unable to defend and clear the first ball coming in, it opens up all sorts of potentially dangerous scenarios to play out behind them in the centre of the penalty area.
It’s also strange to see that Giampaoli placed so many of his defenders in this area, with three defending the near post and Rodriguez positioned on the edge of the six-yard area in line with the near post. This is because only one can ultimately clear the ball and so they’re effectively blocking each other here and it also removes the number of bodies protecting the goal in the centre where Kessie clearly needs help as he backs off of Becao who makes the run on him in order to score the solitary goal of the game.
A disappointing start for this tumultuous Milan side who will surely be looking to implement some stability after years of disappointment and ahead of the demolition of the historic San Siro. Giampaoli has already demonstrated his bravery as the coach of this team, deploying his side in an unorthodox manner however he will urgently need to improve upon the gameplan for his side as his tactics in this game rendered his side rather toothless. This uninspired display will do little to appease the ultras; however, Giampaoli can be reassured by the number of newcomers yet to settle in and by the fact that he will be allowed to juggle the firepower of Piatek, Leao and Andre Silva throughout the season.
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