The 2 teams that clashed in this particular round of 16 clash have had wildly contrasting seasons up until this point. While the home side have been disappointing, and recently sacked Allegri and replaced him with club legend Seedorf, Atleti have been on an upward curve ever since the excellent Simeone has control at the Calderon. The clash was always going to be interesting, as the great European team took on the greenhorn that is Atletico.
AC Milan: Abbiati; Di Sciglio; Rami; Bonera; Emanuelson; De Jong; Essien; Taarabt; Kaka; Poli; Balotelli.
Atletico Madrid: Courtois; Juanfran; Miranda; Godin; Insua; Turan; Gabi; M. Suarez; Koke; R. Garcia; D. Costa.
Atletico blocking the middle
Most experts of the modern game are dead against the 4-4-2, with the formation being regarded as archaic and outmoded. The primary reason it takes so much flak is that most believe the formation makes it very difficult to control the midfield, as 2 men in this area leave space behind, and in front of them. However, this season has seen the 4-4-2 return with a vengeance, with Atletico in particular gaining a lot of success by using it. The main reason for doing so has been their midfield, and how difficult the midfielders have made it for opposition to play through the middle. By packing the midfield, Simeone has created a situation where the opposition is forced wide, and this isn’t always a very profitable avenue of attack.
The blocking starts from right in front, where the 2 forwards begin aggressively closing down the opposition’s man on the ball every time an attempt is made to play the ball through the middle. They aren’t as aggressive when the ball is being played into wide areas. Behind them, the midfielders get really close and narrow, trying to close down any space that the opposition may have to play a through ball between the lines. This is another move that makes it difficult for the opposition players to go through the profitable middle, as attempts to play decisive passes are stifled consistently. It’s part of the reason Barcelona, who love to create a midfield overload and pass it through here, have struggled against the Rojiblancos, while Real, with their incredible wide players like Bale, Ronaldo and Jese, managed to score such a convincing win over them recently.
To stop the through balls that may come into central areas from the wing, the entire midfield shuffles across the pitch as the ball is shuttled from wing to wing. One way or the other, Atleti made it very hard for Milan to play through the middle. The Rossonieri only got 25% of their play through the middle of the pitch. It’s also why Atleti made most of their ball recoveries in the wide areas. The sheer numbers they place in the middle encourage teams to exploit the width, and since these areas see a lot of action, Atleti tend to win the ball here quite a bit.
Lots of cross field passes from Milan
Atletico are a side that make it very difficult to play the ball between their lines, and the space is in the wide areas. The Rojiblancos work hard to cut this off as well, especially as the opposition team gets closer to their goal, with aggression in closing the ball down increasing as the opposition got closer to the goal. To enable this sort of defensive work, the narrow Atletico midfield is constantly shuffling across the pitch to close down spaces between them. In order to find the space, Milan played a number of cross field balls. The long horizontal passes were played with the purpose of exploiting the space left behind on the opposite wing due to the midfield getting too close to one wing. Changing the point of attack in this way was crucial, as it enabled them get an advantage in the wide areas in terms of men (full back and attacking midfielder vs Atletico full back) and space (the Atletico wide midfielder who would be there is slightly more central). Indeed, most of Milan’s promising attacks came due to quick exchanges of passes down the wide areas (Kaka shot, Poli header).
As you can see from the graph above, Milan attempted a very large number of long passes, especially cross field. Most of these were played by De Jong and Essien, who went wide to pick up the ball and help the distribution. These passes were a key part of how they moved into the wide areas.
Another feature of Milan’s play that was used to help out with their quick passes in wide areas was Christian Poli. The youngster was started in an advanced midfield role, but was given the freedom to roam the pitch. Taarabt and Kaka were restricted to certain areas, but Poli was left free. This was because the overloads that needed to be created in wide areas depended on the quick entry of one player into these areas along with the ball.
Long balls towards Balotelli
Milan have some of their strongest players in the middle of the park, such as Kaka and Balotelli. Even Poli was playing quite close to the middle where Kaka was operating. Both these players were left quite close to the mercurial Italian striker Mario balotelli, and a lot of aerial balls were played towards Balotelli. This was done is order to bypass the crowded midfield that Atletico offered to all attempts at passing through the middle from Atletico.
Crosses into the box from Atletico
Simeone started with a large man- large man combination up front, and the obvious implication of this was that a number of aerial threats were going to be made. Atletico stayed true to this obvious strength, and played in all of 20 crosses. Even the goal that they scored came from a header after a corner. In fact we might have seen many more crosses come into the box from Atletico, but Insua was pinned back on the left side. That’s why a majority of the crosses came from Juanfran on the right hand side.
Where does this leave them?
A late goal from Diego Costa definitely gives Atletico a huge advantage going into the second leg of this tie, but it’s not time to count Milan out yet. The performance from the Rossonieri was energetic and dedicated, and another such performance with a bit of luck in Madrid could see them getting the result they need. Of course, they’ll have to work hard to repeat this level of performance, as Atletico are fantastic at the Calderon.
For more detailed Tactical Analysis on big games as this one, head this way.
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