Build-up structures and crucial full-back roles: Milan preseason possession analysis

By Nick Smoothy -

With AC Milan kicking off their 2023-24 Serie A campaign in a few days, it feels like the right time to pick out some some tactical observations from the highest profile preseason friendlies against Real Madrid, Juventus, Barcelona and Monza.

Across these games, there were a number of recurring tendencies of Milan’s approach in possession, specifically in their build-up play. @Tactics_Tweets picks through some of the things we saw during the aforementioned matches.

Player minutes

Before getting into the tactical detail, Figure 1 below showcases the number of minutes the Milan players played across these four fixtures and their most typical position.

Although, it is worth highlighting that Milan’s system adjusted in and out of possession.

Whilst pre-season can be about sharing minutes across the squad, it can also be an indicator as to which players may get game time when competitive action commences.

As the visual above demonstrates, the three players with the highest number of minutes across these friendlies were; 1) Ruben Loftus-Cheek (321), 2) Fikayo Tomori (315) and 3) Rade Krunić (301). The latter’s volume of minutes adds weight to Pioli’s desire to keep the Bosnian midfielder. 

Build-up play

A key aspect of Milan’s in possession approach across these games were their various structures in build-up i.e. when they had the ball in their own or middle third of the pitch. (For clarity, there will also be out of possession factors behind these structures too).

Two predominant recurrences were; 1) one or both of their full-backs inverting into central areas of the pitch, alongside the midfield pivot (most typically Krunić) and 2) the full-backs staying wide, with Tijjani Reijnders dropping lower to form a temporary double pivot alongside Krunić.

The general rationale behind both of these build-up structures is that, in possession, Milan can unsettle the opposition’s defensive structure by forcing them into decisions.

Then, in any moments of uncertainty or hesitancy, Milan can take advantage of opportunities which may subsequently present themselves to bypass the opposition first lines of defence and ultimately, progress the ball up the pitch.

The different opportunities that can (and did) arise for Milan from using these two specific build up structures are best described using the various examples below.

In the first example (see below), from the Real Madrid game, both Davide Calabria (right-back) and Alessandro Florenzi (left-back) have inverted alongside Krunić.

Also, note how this has 1) allowed their two central defenders to widen and 2) given their goalkeeper time on the ball to assess his passing options.

Real Madrid were using a 4-4-2 midfield diamond in this fixture, so, this double full-back inversion and central defenders widening gave the Madrid high block a decision to make. 

The two Madrid forwards, tasked with covering Jan-Carlo Simić and Tomori, were split wide. Therefore, to try and prevent Milan passing and progressing through the centre (into their inverted full-backs) the Madrid midfield diamond was forced to react.

Jude Bellingham’s role, as the tip of the diamond, was to cover Krunić, so his job was in-hand. However, the left and right side of the diamond, Eduardo Camavinga and Federico Valverde respectively, had to stick or twist. 

Camavinga decided to push further infield and higher up the pitch to cover Calabria, leaving space on the right flank. Whereas Valverde, visibly caught between two minds in the visual above, hesitates as he’s unsure whether to push up to Florenzi or stay with Tommaso Pobega behind.

In this sequence, as Milan are aware they have pulled a number of Madrid players up the pitch, Marco Sportiello opted to go long towards the free(ish) Pobega, as seen below. 

Whilst the midfielder lost the aerial duel against Éder Militão, who jumped out of the last line to compete, it provides an example of how Milan can use their inverted full-backs to bait the opposition high and then bypass opponents with aerial passes towards their forward line – who may be in one-on-one opportunities against disjointed defensive structures.

Here’s a similar situation from the Barcelona game. Florenzi’s inversion has triggered two Barcelona opponents to move towards him, subsequently creating space on the right wing for Loftus-Cheek to pull out into and receive a clipped pass from Mike Maignan, before carrying the ball forward.

Milan again used this tactic to bait the opposition higher and then bypass opponents with an aerial pass, but this time used the space in the wide channels to progress the ball upfield.

In the next example, from the Juventus game, Milan are facing a 5-3-2 defensive shape, seen below.

In this situation, Milan manufactured an opportunity to bypass the opposition’s first line of defence (two strikers) by using Reijnders dropping lower to form a temporary double pivot alongside Krunić and Theo Hernández (out of shot) pushing higher on the left wing.

Hernández’s advanced positioning helped a) vacate the left full-back slot and b) pin the Juventus right wing-back from jumping forward to press.

Then, from his initial lower double pivot position, Reijnders’ timed his movement away from the left full-back area too (thus dragging the nearby midfielder with him). This build-up sequence was also aided by the two central defenders splitting wider across the pitch.

This coordinated positioning and movements created space (yellow circle) for Mike Maignan to clip a pass to Tomori who had space ahead of him to first receive and then progress up the pitch into the middle third.

And whilst it did not have an impact on this passage of play, you can also see Florenzi beginning to invert in the visual above. The reasoning for this was that when possession reached the middle third of the pitch, Florenzi was already in position to provide Milan with an additional player in central areas to help with ball retention/further progression and – in the event of any turnovers occurring – be in a prime spot to counter-press.

In this next example, in the game against Barcelona, Florenzi has inverted alongside Krunić (see below). In this scenario, the tactic of inverting a full-back helped unsettle Barcelona’s 4-4-2 high block, as their forward and midfield lines are unsure as to whose responsibility it is to cover this additional player in central areas. 

As a result of this uncertainty and hesitation (plus, poor defensive decision making), seen below, you can see how this generated Milan a 4v3 central overload and created an opportunity to vertically progress possession, through the opposition’s defensive lines.

Also note Malick Thiaw, his wider positioning and movement to offer a pass out wide caused the Barcelona left-sided midfielder to separate from his central midfielder, helping create the passing lane into Loftus-Cheek.

In this final example, from the game against Monza, Milan have positioned their full-backs wider and Reijnders has dropped lower to form a temporary double pivot.

With Monza defending in a 5-2-1-2 shape, there was lots of space for Milan to progress possession in wide areas. And this, coupled with Reijnders’ lower initial positioning pinning the near-side opposition central midfielder, meant that Milan not only accessed the middle third of the pitch with relative ease, but once accessed, there was an opportunity to quickly enter the final third too. 

As shown in the next screenshot, you can see how Hernández was able to progress into the middle third uncontested and as a result, one of the back five is forced to jump out to engage.

Above, Milan executed a third man combination to get Hernández in behind, but as shown below – where this sequence concludes – you can see that the ball overruns to the Monza goalkeeper.

Ball carriers

Linked to their build-up play, another notable tendency of Milan in possession was ball carrying. This simply means Milan’s players ability to take the ball forward, often over distance and at speed e.g. a player carrying the ball from Milan’s own third into the final third.

With the profile of players recruited in the summer (Loftus-Cheek, Reijnders, Pulisic and Samuel Chukwueze), added to the profile of players already in their squad (Rafael Leão and Hernández), expect ball carrying to become a frequent tool – and potentially effective weapon – in Milan’s possession/attacking approach this forthcoming season. 

The reason ball carrying can compliment Milan’s build-up play is that, as highlighted earlier, if Milan are able to bait the opposition higher, and work possession to one of their many ball carrying players, then there will be more space to progress into and potentially exploit.

This can result in Milan getting up the pitch quicker, to execute either fast, direct attacks, or force the opposition to retreat, thus allowing Milan more time in settled possession in the middle or final third.


It is worth noting that across these four friendlies, Milan scored five goals and four of them came from set-pieces and the other was an individual moment of quality from Luka Romero.

Therefore, the possession aspects referenced in this article are more intended as clues as to Stefano Pioli’s potential plans for the new season, in general and against certain opposition, as opposed to current effectiveness. 

However, Milan’s various build-up structures did showcase multiple ways that the Rossoneri can bypass the opposition and progress possession, either centrally, in wide channels or directly via long passes. 

Whilst having multiple progression methods and build-up structures in their armoury has its rewards, there are risks attached.

By baiting the opposition and trying to build-up from their own third, in addition to inverting their full-backs and therefore exposing wide channels in transition, Milan can be vulnerable to conceding dangerous attacks. 

In these games, there were multiple moments where Milan’s build-up was susceptible to individual errors (Tomori most commonly guilty) or effective opposition defensive organisation, which led to conceding high quality chances and goals.

But pre-season is about preparation, and as Pioli said himself following the USA Tour: “…what I’ve seen is certainly positive. The new players are adapting well, then it’s clear that time is needed.”

On Monday evening, time will be up. Bologna will be the first test for this new look Milan, in what they hope will be a positive 2023/24 season.

Tags AC Milan


  1. Very comprehensive & accurate review.

    All I would add is that this is evidence of a very one dimensional recruiting process. Besides Sportiello it’s been solely box to box midfielders and wingers.

    Dribbling is great and all but football is more than that. Finishing, passing, tackling, tactical awareness, composure, and defending in transition are all equally as important.

    What good is completing a 1v2 dribble if you cant do cant do the rest with even some consistency?

    1. This is just the build up…the tight space 1-2 passing, and subsequent positioning and tackling to break up counter attacks come later…

  2. Good break down, it clearly shows that the preseason wasnt about the scorelines, but practising different sequences of play, different tactics, and i can appreciate that all the players did well, they are intelligent players, we could clearly see what they were trying to do and they have the characteristics to do it, definitely time is needed, personally i prefer trying a new tactical system than last season’s one which had become boring, the only problem is we need a CDM with a long range of passing, high work rate, who can resist high press, who is confident and comfortable on the ball, i envy napoli with lobotka, we also need high concentration at the back (tomori), those 2 problems might cost us big time the coming season, and also okafor might help to create more spaces not giroud

  3. If we plan to play an inverted fullback, Calabria will be more suited for that and Theo has to hassle everything on the left flank while Tomori covers him and Malick covers the other side and w e should be able to stretch defences from play switch this is were Reijnders and Adli become key to this pattern, and most importantly other players need to recover fast once possession is lost. Manchester City did this yesterday and it was a joy to watch even though Sevilla parked the bus.

    1. I disagree. Calabria does not have the speed to recover when being caught out of position, and he doesn’t really offer much going forward either. I think this is a bad idea as it is just going to stretch an already shaky defense and as we saw in the preseason it is not creating any offense either. It doesn’t suit Theo either because he is more of a straight line runner and doesn’t use his right foot well, so he is better off overlapping to the outside with Leao cutting in. Another example of Pioli not playing to the strength of his personnel.

      1. You are getting me wrong. The idea is the pressing and possession handling, Calabria has played as a holding midfield before and he did well his passing is okay to play as an inverted fullback, Theo won’t be playing as an inverted fullback, but running the Left wing along sid Leao.
        And defense is shaky because of the team’s setup, if the right balance is found, we’d be alright. If you watched Manchester City play yesterday you’d get what I’m saying.

        1. The formation is really set up for the 8s to be the threats in the half spaces and not the fullbacks, but they could make some alterations to allow theo to get up. The wings stay very wide and invert so it is possible. But then someone would have to cover for Theo in the press….

        2. I did watch Man City play, and if we had their personnel I would agree with you. If it were that easy to do, everybody would be doing it.

    2. Will be intereting to see if they can cut up a low block in the same way with some 1-2s in the half spaces with the 8s, Giroud, with wide wingers pulling the defense out of the half spaces and making runs.

  4. You are getting me wrong. The idea is the pressing and possession handling, Calabria has played as a holding midfield before and he did well his passing is okay to play as an inverted fullback, Theo won’t be playing as an inverted fullback, but running the Left wing along sid Leao.
    And defense is shaky because of the team’s setup, if the right balance is found, we’d be alright. If you watched Manchester City play yesterday you’d get what I’m saying.

    1. It actually sets up a pretty good press structure if you don’t lose the ball in the build up. I mean they are playing man city’s offense except they push up a CB into the midfield instead of a FB….

      Turns into a 4-2-4 High Pressing Structure…The key is being aggressive high work rate from RLC and Giroud in the middle of the pitch to push the ball towards a winger who can defend. They stay in the middle to block passes to switch the field. Theo and Calabria pressure the wingers while Krunic and Reijnders (they are no Gundogan and Rodri) sit behind the front 4 hoping for a misplace pass but also deep enough to help out the CBs if a striker or AM makes a counter run. Done well turns into a lot of turnovers high up the pitch. I see it as one reason we see Pulisic on the wing a lot because he can play the bernardo silva role…

      Hoping we see this kind of pressure defense if they are going to steal city’s build up, might as well go all the way…also musah would fit will in the middle of this press as well.

      Can be dangerous if Calabria/Florenzi get caught up too high and they counter on that flank. Hence why City pushes forward a Stones/CB instead…It will be up to a CB to go wide and Krunic to cover for the CB probably in that situation.

      Indeed, expecting it to look exactly like city is likely futile. RLC is no KDB, Krunic is no Rodri, Stones is the goat…but hopefully they can build some comfort level with it. The problem i everyone knows these actions so they will have to come up with counters for the counters…

      1. Well said, the bigger problem I foresee is converting chances and tracking back, for me I’d bench Krunic and play RLC or Adli as the DM while Musa plays as a CM with Reijnders pulling the strings the most important play here is not loosing possession unnecessarily. We are no Manchester City 😂😂 but if we get the right play, create and convert more chances than we give, we’d be good. It’s certain we’d conceded goals but if we score more than we concede we’d be fine.

        1. Yeah, tiny adjustments that make up for the difference in players could be key. I think having Musah as a safety net is likely a better option than RLC as RLC has shown ability in the half spaces in the box and quick connections with guys like pulisic and Musah’s speed, vision and work rate could make him useful in shutting down counters and tracking back (which RLC doesn’t show much interest in)…Losing possession is only dangerous if players aren’t reacting fast and running hard.

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