In this series, we take a look at some of the most interesting matches in football, providing you with an in-depth tactical analysis powered by Wyscout tools and stats. This time, we analysed a game from Serie A’s 31st gameday, AC Milan v Juventus.

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AC Milan and Juventus headed into their captivating clash as two of the in-form sides in Serie A, with the Rossoneri having recently beaten the two Roman giants and Juventus on a four-game winning streak to cement their place atop the standings.

Looking excellent since the restart, Milan named a strong starting lineup that saw Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal and a back four of Andrea Conti, Simon Kjaer, Alessio Romagnoli and Theo Hernandez. Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer were the central midfielders, with striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic supported by the offensive trio of Alexis Saelemaekers, Lucas Paqueta and Ante Rebic.

Missing two key men in Paulo Dybala and Matthijs De Ligt, Maurizio Sarri went with Wojciech Szczesny in goal, then Juan Cuadrado, Daniele Rugani, Leonardo Bonucci and Danilo ahead of him. A midfield three of Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic and Adrien Rabiot looked to give Juventus a decent balance in the middle. Up front, Gonzalo Higuain was the centre forward, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Federico Bernardeschi flanked him.

An intriguing tactical battle ensued between the two, with this game offering up many key talking points. With Stefano Pioli going for his 4-2-3-1 and Sarri a 4-3-3, these setups interacted to make for pulsating viewing.

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Formations of the two teams.

In a match where AC Milan surprisingly were just about level with Juventus in the possession stats, their offensive mechanics allowed them to get at the Bianconeri. To start with, the way they used the overload to isolate principle was key. By strategically directing their moves down one side, which consequently drew Juve’s block over, Milan would then quickly switch play to ensure Saelemaekers or Hernandez (on the right and left respectively) could be isolated against their direct opponent. Relishing such instances, where the above duo could enjoy time and space to use their dynamism and skill to outfox their man or enjoy plenty of time to pick a pass, it gave them a platform to shine.

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Hernandez adding width and depth and being isolated vs. his man.
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Saelemaekers receiving a switch to be 1v1.

With these two men providing width for switches, it was interesting how Milan would get many numbers in central areas so they could combine intricately in close quarters to break down Juve. On top of Rebic and Ibrahimovic being situated here, they were frequently joined by the ball far winger and an onrushing central midfielder. From these scenarios, they could engage in some slick interplay due to their close proximity to disorient Sarri’s backline.

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Milan’s strong central presence and attacking structure in the final third.

AC Milan’s leveller scored by Kessie was a fine example of the aforementioned tactics, as the catalyst for the move was a lovely switch to substitute Rafael Leao on the right.

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Switch prior to Milan’s second to set up Leao.

The Portuguese flyer then cut infield and found Hakan Calhanoglu, who’d indented from his left-wing post. The Turk then found Ibrahimovic who then deftly teed up Kessie, who glided by Bonucci before scoring. As seen in the image below, all four of Milan’s attackers, plus Kessie, are positioned tightly, with these causing dilemmas for Juve on who to mark, thus allowing Milan to unlock the Juve rearguard with some beautiful passing and movement.

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Central occupation of four attackers and Kessie before their second goal.

Another integral element towards Milan’s plans going forward came from how right back Conti would sit deeper while left-back Hernandez pushed high, with the Italian giving structural security and balance by forming a three-man backline to deal with Juventus’ dangerous transitions and Ronaldo in particular.

Although Pioli’s men’s somewhat fortunate penalty scored by Ibrahimovic allowed them to get back into the game, they deserved credit for taking advantage of the situation, piling on the pressure to score three of their four goals in five second-half minutes.

When it came to the Milanese outfit trying to stifle the Old Lady, they pressed in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape with Ibrahimovic marking one centre back and Rebic either tracking Pjanic or pressing the other central defender while aiming to block the pass lane to the Bosnian.

The near side winger would mark the fullback, and Juve’s central midfielders were monitored by a combination of Kessie, Bennacer and the ball far winger tucking into to help if Rebic pressed the centre backs so Juve couldn’t easily outnumber them 3v2 in midfield. The fullbacks and central defenders could then have a 4v3 overload vs Juve’s front three.

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Milan’s pressing shape with the ball far winger pushing in to mark Juve’s ball far central midfielder.

Despite their pressing play working reasonably, the away team still found some joy, with Pjanic often finding space when Rebic jumped out to press a central defender. Using this advantage in the first line, Juve could draw out a midfielder to press Pjanic, which created spaces for the likes of Ronaldo, Higuain and Bernardeschi to exploit between the lines.

How Rabiot rotated with Ronaldo and Bentancur did the same with Bernadeschi also gave Milan something to think about. By altering their markers’ reference points, they used the seconds of confusion to find space to receive.

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Smart rotation between Bernardeschi and Bentancur opens up some possibilities and space.

How the front three subtly rotated and mixed their time between dropping deep, hugging the touchline or edging into the half-spaces to generate room for the fullbacks to attack warranted mention too.

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Excellent space finding by Bernadeschi.

Without Dybala’s menacing presence, however, Sarri’s team found it difficult to cut open Milan frequently, instead of having to rely on Rabiot’s mesmerising goal, and a defensive mix up that enabled Ronaldo to slot home, to find the back of the net. Milan’s defensive organisation, especially in deeper areas, certainly merited praise, for it was crucial towards them blunting Juve and restricting them to just 12 shots (four less than their average).

Switching the focus to their efforts without the ball, and the Bianconeri were typically content to drop back and defend passively in their 4-4-2 shape, which saw Rabiot drop into left midfield and Ronaldo press alongside Higuain. Another key aspect of their pressing was how the ball near central midfielder would often harry the ball near fullback while hoping to keep their opposite number in their cover shadow.

Lacking intensity and aggression in their horizontal shifting, Milan built up pretty smoothly, with the width added by Saelemakers and Hernandez, Ibrahimovic or Rebic’s intelligent dropping movements and the central midfielders’ ability to pull their Juve counterparts out of shape compounding issues for the visitors.

In an attempt to add some dynamism, energy and running power, Sarri introduced Douglas Costa, Blaise Matuidi and Aaron Ramsey in the 68th minute. But it wasn’t to be for them, as Milan would add a fourth through Rebic after a shocking error to seal all three points.

Outperforming Juve in XG 2.21 to 1.46, outshooting the Turin giants 13 to 12 and winning 51.35% of their defensive duels compared to Juve’s 43.14%, there was no denying Milan on this remarkable night at the San Siro.

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Milan’s shot map.

In absolutely scintillating form and looking unstoppable in their quest to qualify for the Europa League, it’ll take a special effort to overcome Pioli’s organised, spirited and classy team at present.

Their performance against the soon to be crowned champions illustrated just how far they’ve come under Pioli and how the future appears very bright for the Rossoneri after years of underachieving.

 

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