Devil’s Advocate: Why the ‘super attack’ Pioli is considering is a risk worth avoiding

By Oliver Fisher -

Reports emerged on Monday suggesting that Stefano Pioli and the AC Milan coaching staff are considering a new configuration for the attack.

It was La Gazzetta dello Sport who reported how Ante Rebic and Rafael Leao are in a battle for the left wing spot, but Stefano Pioli does not rule out that in some situations we could see a ‘super attack’, as the paper calls it, with the Rebic-Calhanoglu-Leao trio behind Ibrahimovic.

Pioli, by his own admission, has some reservations: “I think neither Rebic nor Leao like to play on the right, they are more inclined to stay on the left. Ante played there in the national team, Rafa has already done so. It may be a solution, but let’s see. If there is availability we can play with many forwards.”

The paper made it clear though that it is a hypothesis that fascinates everyone at Milanello, including Pioli, who however knows well that balance is needed on the pitch.

It is no doubt something that excites supporters and the media too, because Milan have almost become too predictable of a well-oiled machine in that the system stays the same – the 4-2-3-1 – and everyone has their place within it.

There have been times when we have seen some surprising tactical flexibility and curveballing from Pioli, such as when he decided to field Soualiho Meite as the most advanced midfielder against Atalanta and when Davide Calabria had to be played in midfield out of necessity, but other than that he has remained formulaic in his approach of having two players for each spot in his formation.

That is perhaps why the idea of changing things up has aroused so much intrigue from sections of the fanbase, evident on social media, because the concept of Pioli making a subtle but potentially revolutionary change is one that carries a certain sense of mystery, as if the team would be treading into the unknown again.

There are some fairly sound arguments as to why the idea of Rebic, Calhanoglu and Leao all co-existing behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic could work. For example, the Croatian has played on the right for his national team so he is not entirely unfamiliar to the concept, while the Portuguese talent has also been used on the right wing on occasion.

The most obvious talking point is the fact is that it would allow Milan to get their four most clinical and dangerous forwards on the pitch at one time and carry a genuine goal threat from both flanks and down the middle.

The data proves it: Rebic has 4 goals and 8 assists in 18 games (all competitions), Calhanoglu has 6 goals and 11 assists in 25, Leao has 6 goals and 5 assists in 23 and Ibrahimovic has 16 goals and 2 assists in 17 games. Combined, therefore, that front four has 32 goals and 26 assists in 83 games.

Alexis Saelemaekers meanwhile has 3 goals and 3 assists in 21 appearances, while Samu Castillejo has 3 goals and 2 assists in 27 games. Neither of them are as productive, to point out the obvious.

So, the evidence is pretty compelling that Pioli should opt for the best and most potent attack he could field, right? Well, it isn’t as simple as numbers on paper in football, as we all know by now.

The fact of the matter is that the head coach has achieved a very fine balance in his 4-2-3-1 formation thanks to countless hours on the training ground perfecting the mechanisms. There are so many reasons why it works: the coverage, the pressing, the balance, the play in transition, the build-up, the intensity, the sacrifice – the list goes on.

The old adage ‘don’t fix what isn’t broken’ is too simplistic to dismiss arguments for the ‘super attack’, but there are other more convincing signs. For starters, the function of Castillejo and Saelemaekers is not necessarily to rack up a combined 30 goals plus assists per season.

In fact, their tactical importance to Pioli’s way of playing – particularly that of the Belgian – is evident in other areas of the pitch. The link-up the pair have with Davide Calabria on the right side is fundamental for balance. It allows the midfield double pivot to remain narrow for ball retention, and brings Calhanoglu into the action allowing him to focus almost as a roaming playmaker occupying a dangerous box of space.

To simply pick up Rebic or Leao and place them on the other wing and expect them to quickly adapt to such instructions would be perhaps naive and dangerous in equal measure, as this isn’t the time for experimentation. There is no arguing that both could adapt to that role in time, but there’s a reason they haven’t been seen there for more than a handful of minutes.

Not only that, but Rebic is the more obvious candidate to shift over to the right and doing so would eliminate the chemistry that he has with Theo Hernandez down the left side, which is a joy to watch when the pair truly click.

If it were the former Sporting CP and Lille man who took up the new role, then he naturally would occupy spaces further away from goal – something he would prefer not to do by his own admission – and would not be able to play off Ibrahimovic as almost a supporting striker at times, which we have seen him do so well.

Moreover, it would not send the best of messages to both Saelemaekers and Castillejo, who have worked incredibly hard to learn their role in their preferred position and have for the most part executed it very well, hence the current position in the table.

This would most likely not be a long-term adjustment either. Most major outlets are now reporting that the Rossoneri are determined to bring in a new right winger this summer with Florian Thauvin the name most heavily linked. Therefore this begs the question why bother risking all the aforementioned for what could be a solution for a few months?

One more argument against: Milan’s left wing is now the strongest it has been in a long time. There is a surplus of options now with Leao, Rebic, Hauge and even Brahim Diaz, all of whom offer something different from intensity and skilfulness to goal threat and pace. Consciously depleting riches on what has now become the favoured side in terms of build-up play again seems counter-intuitive.

As a final talking point since this does not refer to the configuration proposed by the newspaper, there is one player who could potentially forge out some space if he were willing to work and adapt to the left wing and that is Hauge.

He actually has all the requisites to potentially become a more dangerous version of Saelemaekers. He has great technique on the ball and an eye for goal – albeit preferring to cut in onto his right from the left – but arguably more importantly he understands defensive work rate, has good ball recovery ability, links up well with his full-back by occupying an area nearer the touchline and has a knack for timing runs (as seen vs. Celtic and Napoli).

That, as an example, would be something worth potentially exploring rather than trying anything too brash at such a delicate point of the season. As always we must trust Pioli, who sees these players every day in training, but for now it feels like moving the cogs around could disrupt a machine that is pumping out results.

Tags AC Milan Alexis Saelemaekers Ante Rebic Hakan Calhanoglu Jens Petter Hauge Rafael Leao


  1. Agreed particularly the last hypothesis presented in this article. Hauge has a chance to add more value to this squad by increasing his utility. If he could learn to become an efficient right-winger rather than confined solely to the left, it would provide a short term solution while also improving his value long term, that way we could happily cash in on Castillejo in summer and still have several options for RW (thauvin, saelemaekers and hauge).

    If Hauge becomes a true AM RLC then I doubt we’ll ever leave him off the European squad in future! Forza Milano

  2. It’s hard to disrupt what is already working, but to not continue to innovate and sit on our laurels may be just as dangerous. We all know we need an upgrade at RW. Sammu just isn’t good enough and Salemaekers gives his heart and soul but lacks high end talent. I wouldn’t mind trying Rebic or Hauge against a lower team like Spezia. We cannot think we are invincible team that doesn’t need to continue to improve. The Meite experiment at CAM was a disaster but Leao at CAM was a success. Would love Hauge to be the RW give him more playing time. Hope we sign Thauvin. But until then why not give Rebic or Hauge a run at RW – they both work hard and I don’t think would do worse than Sammu/Salemaekers combo IMO. Forza Milan!!!

    1. And I disagree with this comment that putting someone else at RW would upset Sammu and Salemaekers. These are professionals. In every big team, there is competition – Real Madrid, Man City, Liverpool, Juve, Barca, etc…all have multiple players at same positions. It pushes them to improve and be better. If Sammu or Salemaekers scored 12-15 goals a year I get that argument, but they haven’t earned that right yet.

  3. Great argument for and against the experiment. I think any such experiment should be given a trial when the stake isn’t too high, like against a low ranked team against whom we can quickly regain control if things go awry.

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