Utit-Ofon Idara Ibangha takes a detailed look at AC Milan’s season so far under their new boss, Vincenzo Montella. This article is the second of a two part series.
A modern coach with fresh ideas on how the game should be played, Vincenzo Montella has earned a reputation as a good young coach in Italy. The former striker started out as a primavera coach at Roma and briefly handled the first team before departing for Fiorentina where he gained a reputation for playing open and attractive football and finding ways to adapt after big players were sold.
Like all modern coaches, Montella likes his team to build from the back and at Milan it has been no different. It is patient, purposeful and paying dividend. The centre backs begin the passing and can even go long to the flanks if needed as evidenced by Paltta’s long balls. The long balls are used to switch flanks and it is major aspect of Milan’s build up. The centre backs split and the defensive midfielder (deep lying playmaker) drops in between. This strategy has two advantages. On one hand there is an extra man to pass to and ball circulation at the back is made much easier. On the other hand, the extra man helps to bypass the initial press by the opposition and the ball can be moved into midfield more easily. Skipper Riccardo Montolivo, has so far operated in the regista role and his positioning in the first phase of play has been crucial to the team. The Italian international is not blessed with pace or strength but he more than makes up for it with intelligence and good technique. By dropping into the defensive line he evades pressure and allows the ball carrying centre back to move into midfield.; the move higher up to join the midfield line thus creating a situational 3-4-3 formation during the buildup. The central midfielders move in to the half space to collect passes and depending on where the ball is stay deeper. The ball-near central midfielder stays deeper to support ball circulation, acts as a route to the attack and contributes to the press if possession is lost in the first phase of play.
In midfield, the two 8’s try to carry the ball beyond the opposition midfield block. Giacomo Bonaventura dribbles with sheer skill and individual brilliance while Juraj Kucka is more about brute force and just battering his way to the box. Jose Sosa is also adept at dribbling and Andrea Poli is more of a workhorse. The wingers move inwards towards the half space, creating space for the full backs to run into. The forward movement of the 8’s and inside movement of the wingers overloads the middle allowing for quick exchanges to move the ball around the opposition but still create space for the full backs to exploit thus stretching the game. The central presence means passing triangles can be formed and the crisp one-touch passing football that sometimes ensues can be a real joy to watch. The front three are very fluid and interchange positions often to increase attacking dynamism and keep the defenders on their toes. There’s no shortage on the movement front meaning that the defending team have to deal with constant movement and brilliant changes of pace.
In the defensive phase, Milan’s problems have very much come to the fore. A lack of coordination and low quality at the back have done the team no good. The team presses from the front with the forwards, trying to force errors. This press is also replicated in other areas of the pitch once possession is lost, however if the first press is bypassed, the team retreats into a deep midfield block and a zonal marking system is employed. This is mainly to prevent balls being played behind the defence, thereby forcing the defence to run towards the goal facing it which could be a very difficult situation as evidenced by Romagnoli’s own goal against Napoli. Pressing traps have become a common feature so far with the team inclined to intentionally leaving gaps particularly out wide. Once the ball is played into the halfspace, players swarm over the opposition and try to win the ball back quickly so as to launch a counter attack. Counter attacks have been another well used tactic. With Niang and Suso adept at holding on to the ball and running at defenders it has been a very wise move. With plenty of brawn and brains in midfield, there is reduced defensive responsibility and the wingers can position themselves further up the pitch to receive balls on the break. Montella’s tactics at Milan have been more pragmatic than idealistic. With a result-first approach and a willingness to see out games as early as possible, it might be viewed as defensive but it has just shown another side to Montella, one that we never saw at Fiorentina or Sampdoria.
Milan’s campaign got off to a good start at home against Torino. Carlos Bacca netted a hat trick (his first for the Rossoneri) and even though 2 goals were conceded, Donnarumma pulled off an excellent save to stop Belotti’s penalty and deny the visitors a stoppage time equalizer, drawing a rueful smile from Sinisa Mihajlovic. Next was a trip to Naples to face Napoli. Milan looked decent for an hour, even coming from two goals down to equal the scores at 2-2 but then imploded. Kucka got sent off for kicking the ball away, an offence which warranted a second booking, then Niang in a moment of madness wrestled Reina to the ground while trying to prevent Napoli from starting a counter attack. Next, Romagnoli handled the ball, trying to prevent a goal but the ball was adjudged to have crossed the line so the goal stood and only a yellow card was awarded. In the end il diavolo lost 4-2. Udinese came to town for match day 3 and drab performance by Milan, riddled with errors, unmotivated attitudes and lackluster play meant that the away side departed with all three points having scored a late winner.
The pressure had already begun to mount and talk of another disappointing season was never far away, but what better way for Vincenzo Montella to restore hope to the Milan faithful than triumph over the team he coached last season. Interestingly, Sampdoria are now coached by Maurizio Sarri who was heavily linked with the Milan Job. Lapadula started ahead of Bacca in the only unforced change, causing further issues with the fans, but it worked just fine. The former Pescara man worked hard and tried to close down the opposition defenders but could not open his scoring account and his spirited efforts went unrewarded. Vincenzo Montella then brought on Bacca. The Colombian had cut an angry figure during his warm up and kept staring in his coach’s direction. Once on he displayed the kind of movement he has become renowned for and only the sharp reflexes of the Sampdoria keeper prevented him from scoring on his first attempt. He would finally have his moment after he finished a nice counter attacking move, receiving the ball from Suso, and calmly poked home to give Milan the lead. That much needed victory at the Stadio Luigi de Ferraris was followed by a morale boosting victory against Lazio. The Rossoneri had all the early possession but created little until the end of the first half when Kucka latched onto a loose ball and split the Lazio defence with a brilliant through ball for Bacca to run on to and finish in his typically clinical fashion. In the second half, M’baye Niang’s cross was blocked by Stefan Radu’s arm and the Frenchman duly dispatched the resultant penalty. Confidence was on the rise but fears from the past came back to haunt the team against Fiorentina.
The team looked scared and shaky and even when they finally mustered the courage to attack the opposition, they lacked the conviction to finish off chances- shades of last season were written all over the performance. On the bright side three clean sheets in a row was very encouraging, considering that Sassuolo – who have been Milan’s bane recently – were coming to town the following week. D-day arrived and Milan got off to a flyer. Bonaventura slipped past a number of midfielders and blasted home early on. Then that dark cloud began to gather over San Siro. Abate gave the ball away under pressure and Defrel happily slotted past Gigi, just the kind of happening the Rossoneri faithful have come to dread. The storm eventually broke out inside two second half minutes. Clumsy defending, poor communication and sheer panic combined ensured Sassuolo were 3-1 up with half an hour to play. Montella then took the bold decision of replacing skipper Montolivo with youngster Locatelli and though it looked like a move to just introduce fresh legs, he soon reaped the reward. But before that Niang, who replaced Luiz Adriano at half time, and had been a constant threat down the left with his pace, won a penalty. It did seem controversial but Carlos Bacca didn’t seem to mind, his brilliant finish from the spot providing a glimmer of hope and against hope, the Milan faithful – what is left of it – hoped. Bonaventura then had a free kick saved and the resultant corner was headed away, the ball bounced twice and one man, kid rather, reacted the fastest. Striking the ball with the top of his left foot, time stood still as the ball flew into the top left corner of the goal. The roar from the crowd was deafening and the celebration was more erratic than ecstatic. He was not even sure where to go. He just ran and ran and ran, waving his hand wildly. Manuel Locatelli had just scored his first goal for Milan and it had drawn the team level at 3-3. Gabriel Paletta grabbed the winner with a thumping header from a Niang cross and his aeroplane celebration was reminiscent of Montella himself.
Recent trips to the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi have been fruitless and largely frustrating with the last three all ending in drab goalless draws. A fortnight ago however, Juraj Kucka and M’baye Niang scored on either side of half-time, and even when Valter Birsa halved the deficit on 77 minutes it proved to be nothing and Carlos Bacca’s shot deflected off a defender to make it 3-1 late and secure a relatively easy victory. On Saturday night, Juventus were the latest guests to the San Siro and it proved to be an entertaining clash. The Bianconeri threatened early on while the Rossoneri struggled for much of the first half and the Old Lady eventually went in front courtesy of Miralem Pjanic’s free kick but the goal was wrongly ruled out with Leonardo Bonucci adjudged to have interfered with play. Replays showed it was a wrong call by the officials. Il Diavolo would take the lead on 65 minutes with teenager Manuel Locatelli scoring another delightful goal. Collecting a pass from Suso, he burst into the right-hand channel and arrowed a delightful shot towards the top corner. It struck the post and went in. From there on Milan defended well and Juventus resorted to hopeful shots from range, at full time the scoreboard read Milan 1-0 Juventus. A slightly unconvincing win saw the Rossoneri move to within 2 points of the league leaders.
A decent start and plenty to enjoy, but also plenty to learn and a lot of work to be done. There is a lot of confidence in the squad and a real togetherness about their play. Investment in youth continues to pay off and joint second is welcome news for all Milanisti. Montella’s man management has been absolutely spot-on. The squad is happy and everyone is content with their roles in the team but most importantly they are a united group.