Cheuk Hei Ho writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Serie A match that ended Milan 1-0 Juventus.
Serie A leaders Juventus visited 2nd placed Milan in a packed San Siro Stadium in this early Saturday feature game. Milan beat Juventus by a single goal, closing Juventus’s lead to 2 points.
Vincenzo Montella’s side fielded a 4-3-3 formation. The only notable change is Manuel Locatelli started in place of injured captain Riccardo Montolivo. Massimiliano Allegri played the usual 3-5-2 formation. The only significant change is Mehdi Benatia replaced Giorgio Chiellini as the left center back.
Milan: 99. Donnarumma; 20. Abate, 29. 29. Paletta, 13. Romagnoli, 2. Sciglio; 33. Kucka, 73. Locatelli, 5. Bonaventura; 8. Suso, 70. Bacca, 11. Niang.
Juventus: 1. Buffon; 15. Barzagli, 19. Bonucci, 4. Benatia; 23. Alves, 6. Khedira, 11. Hernanes, 5. Pjanic, 12. Sandro; 21. Dybala, 9. Higuain.
Although Milan only plays the 4-3-3 formation in every game in the league, there are many variations during the build up in the offensive phase. In the first few games, Montella often instructed his players to position an ultra-attacking 2-3-5 formation during the build up, with the two full-backs joining the three strikers. Consider this structure in the game against Napoli:
However, this is a risky tactic and leaves the defenders quite exposed to the counter attack. Recently, Milan has settled into a more conservative 3-4-3 formation during build up.
For example, in this game, Milan quickly transitioned into a 3-4-3 set up during the initial offensive phase. Mattia De Sciglio would join Alessio Romagnoli and Gabriel Paletta to form a back three. Ignazio Abate would push forward and play on the right wing while Giacomo Bonaventura would take the left wing position in the midfield. The back three and Locatelli placed as rhomboid shape about each other to facilitate passing lanes and possession.
Defensively, Milan had used three main tactics. The first one is a high press to try to disrupt Juventus from building up through the three center backs. It was however, not so successful. Many teams tried to set up high presses on Juventus to prevent their initial build up, and Juventus seemed to get used to it.
When their presses failed, Milan quickly transitioned into a 4-5-1 formation. There are two essential elements in the midfield. First, the midfield was separated into two layers, with Suso, Bonaventura, and Niang forming a front layer and Locatelli and Kucka forming a deeper layer. The two layers are important because the front three layers player would often try to attack Juventus’s ball’s handlers and the deeper layers had to cover them.
Secondly, Bonaventura played a very important role in the first line of defense. He had two main responsibilities. First, he needed to deny passing lanes to Hernanes. Hernanes had excellent passing ranges. He is usually the first passing option for Juventus center backs. If he was left open with the ball, Juventus could penetrate Milan’s first line of defense easily through his passing to the wing backs or Paulo Dybala, Miralem Pjanic or Sami Khedira. In this game, Bonaventura almost always marked him.
Moreover, if Hernanes was in his cover shadow or when he was covered by other teammates, Bonaventura would try to press Juventus’s ball handlers while his teammates tried to intercept the ball.
Finally, if these tactics could not stop Juventus from advancing to their half, Milan would settle in a very deep and narrow defensive shape to prevent any penetrations that could reach Gonzalo Higuain.
Juventus played a very aggressive press on Milan in the first half. They often committed at least five players deep in Milan’s half to stop Milan from building up through the center backs.
Although being labeled by many media as a team who likes to play with the ball, the actual data does not support such claim. Milan average about 49.3% possession while they have slight over 80% pass success rate this season. Both numbers rank at about the middle in the league. They also average 24 lost possessions per game, a number that is the 8th highest in the league. These figures suggest that Milan is not particularly good at keeping possession and protecting the ball. In fact, in the first half of this game, Juventus had a lot of success when pressing high against Milan. For example, they had 12 interceptions in the first half, 8 of them were in the Milan’s half.
Interceptions by Juventus in the first half:
Offensively, as I mentioned earlier, Milan focused on limiting Hernanes from participating in the initial build up and defended in a compact and narrow shape. Juventus countered such defense in several ways. First, Juventus’s midfield players used a lot of lures and blindside movement to create passing lanes for themselves or their teammates.
Here when facing the deep defensive structure of Milan, Hernanes made a subtle but intelligent action to open a passing lane for Khedira. While Benatia was holding the ball, Hernanes made a sudden quick backward movement. He received a pass from Benatia and made a quick pass back. Kucka’s immediate reaction was to close down Hernanes. Therefore, he was lured out of his position by Hernanes; a passing lane was then open and allowed Benatia to pass to Khedira. When guarded by Bonaventura, Hernanes has tried to use these kinds of actions to open passing lanes for his other midfield fellows.
Here Abate marked Pjanic; Locatelli marked Dybala ; Kucka marked Alex Sandro. Dybala and Pjanic moved simultaneously but in opposite directions. In particular, Pjanic moved into Kucka’s zone in his blindside. The surging movement of Dybala towards Milan’s defense also confused Abate and Locatelli for a split second. A passing lane was, therefore, open for Alex Sandro towards Pjanic.
The most effective tactic Juventus displayed during their offensive phase was their uses of the two flanks. Both Alex Sandro and Dani Alves stayed very close to the sidelines during Juventus’s offensive phase.
They positioned very close to the sideline, allowing Juventus to use the maximal width to stretch Milan’s compact and narrow defense.
Passes received by Alex Sandro in the first half:
Passes received by Dani Alves in the first half:
Juventus controlled most of the match, and they played especially well in the first half. However, their intensity dropped significantly in the second half. For example, while Juventus had 8 interceptions in the Milan’s half in the first half, they only had 2 in the second half. It is consistent with the fact that they were not as efficient with their presses in the second half. Offensively, while Alex Sandro received the ball 5 times in the attacking third the first half, he only received the ball once in the attacking third in the second half. Without significant tactical changes from both teams, such a phenomenon suggests that the drop in Juventus’s intensity was due to fatigue, possibly due to their intense game against Lyon in the midweek.
Milan focused on defense and tried to hit Juventus with the counter attack. Their defense deserves a lot of credit. They were disciplined and physical, denying services to Higuain. They also made the most of Juventus’s only mistake and scored the winning goal. A significant victory for Milan.
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Cheuk Hei is a freelance football tactics writer focuses on Serie A. He is a lifelong Juventus supporter. He also writes for the Juventus fans blog of the SB Nation.
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