AC Milan were able to navigate past adversity to secure a vital 3-1 win at home to Frosinone, but drastic changes are required to save Stefano Pioli’s job and the club’s season.
Make no mistake, the Rossoneri currently find themselves in a serious crisis both with the ridiculous amount of injuries sustained coupled with underwhelming performances on the pitch, even though third place in the Serie A standings may suggest otherwise.
To be sitting in one of the four Champions League positions and not settling with just ‘making up the numbers’ in Europe’s elite competition is a testament to how far the club has grown leaps and bounds in the space of a few seasons.
No longer is the iconic ‘Pioli’s on fire’ chant echoing around the San Siro prior to kick-off, as the scrutiny has never been this high due to questions surrounding his tactical approach and his involvement with the load management on players. The recent criticism is completely valid.
That all may prove to be true, but one thing that you can’t accuse Pioli of is his adaptability and courage to try new experiments when the going gets tough.
The 58-year-old is no stranger to these types of scenarios during his four-year period at the helm, and once again there will be little choice but to find new tactical formulas in order to gasp the most out of this depleted squad.
If Pioli is to avoid the sack and avoid Milan slipping any further down the Serie A table, these are the four tactical tweaks that he should seriously consider implementing:
1. Revert to a 3-4-2-1 formation
During Pioli’s first two seasons at the club, we began to see a three-man defence start to creep its way in, but more so in possession. For example, the first time the Milan boss used a 3+2 in build-up was on 20 October 2019, during a 2-2 draw against Lecce which is ironically the same as one of his recent results.
The 3-2 build-up structure entails having a consistent back three with two players ahead. This typically manifests itself either in a 3-4-3 or a 4-2-3-1 with one of the full-backs moving over.
Last season, a similar approach was taken after the humiliating 5-2 defeat at the hands of Sassuolo toward the end of January. A 3-5-2 setup was applied against city rivals Inter Milan in an attempt to match their structure, as Pioli’s men suffered a 1-0 defeat in what was a disciplined defensive showing compared to recent results.
Another variation in the form of a 3-4-2-1 formation was utilised to great effect after the Derby Della Madonnina, helping Milan string together four consecutive victories and clean sheets to discover a newfound blueprint in their defensive shape.
The obvious concern is the lack of natural centre-backs currently available for selection with Fikayo Tomori standing alone in that regard. Theo Hernandez demonstrated great leadership by putting his hand up to partner with the Englishman in a central role.
However, given the Frenchman’s qualities going forward, it cannot be a permanent solution given the long-term absentees of Pierre Kalulu, Malik Thiaw, and Marco Pellegrino. We saw Theo’s willingness to push up the field with his full-back instinct against Frosinone, and that could be a vulnerability against better opposition.
“Talent has no age,” said Pioli after Francesco Camarda’s recent debut at 15. If that is the case, then surely 18-year-old Jan-Carlo Simic should be seriously considered to contribute to the three-man defence.
The German-born Serbian international was largely impressive during Milan’s pre-season tour in the United States and could be a valuable asset to feature in the starting 11. Rade Krunić and Davide Calabria are potential options to round out the back three.
A natural right-wing back is lacking within the squad, but the Italian duo of either Calabria or Alessandro Florenzi are more than fit to fill that void and offer significant contributions both in defence and attack. Yunas Musah has also played in that role before, albeit in an emergency situation against Hellas Verona in a 1-0 win using the 3-4-3 formation.
The American told DAZN after the match that he “felt really good in this position, I do have the characteristics to play on the wing. I like to play more or less anywhere, as sometimes when I am a midfielder, I tend to drift wide anyway.”
Ismaël Bennacer’s long-awaited return is a boost to the midfield which will certainly add some class and experience in a system that is midfield-dominant, but the lingering concern will be the impact of Rafael Leão who was hamstrung and isolated playing in the formation at the beginning of the year despite scoring against Verona in the adopted 3-4-3.
At the end of the day, the number one priority at stake is what’s best for the team to maximise its potential with the limited options at Pioli’s disposal. There would be nothing wrong with allowing the Portuguese starlet more of a freedom role with the opportunity to roam around both centrally and out in wide areas.
2. Deploy Pulisic as a number 10
Before Frosinone, Christian Pulisic has struggled to make a real impact on games in the past few weeks for one reason or another. No doubt he has proven his quality in stretches during the season, but could a more central role in the number 10 position potentially be the answer to help the American gain regular consistency?
According to The Athletic, Pulisic shared 41% of total minutes as an attacking midfielder in 2020/21 and 51% in the 2021/22 campaign respectively. This makes sense considering his strengths including dribbling, energetic pressing, and opening up to receive the ball in promising areas in the attacking third.
Given the 25-year-old’s versatility, it’s totally feasible to see him being able to offer something different in a creative sense behind the main centre-forward which has arguably been sorely missed since the departure of Brahim Diaz.
Alongside him should be Ruben Loftus-Cheek until Leão returns to action, who has been a revelation since joining the Milanese giants and has excelled in a more advanced position.
3. Give the wing-backs license to go forward
Analysing Inter Milan since Antonio Conte took over the club and instilled his most preferred 3-5-2 formation, the wing-backs are fundamentally pivotal to determining how successful the setup is.
From Achraf Hakimi to Federico Dimarco; the wide positions are a crucial piece to how the system functions both tracking back to offer support in a five-man backline to the forward link-up play to combine with the forwards up top.
.@TheoHernandez is the only defender to have scored at least two goals in each of the last five Serie A seasons, the second in the 'top five' European leagues in the period, after Achraf Hakimi.
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) November 26, 2023
Hernandez is built for this exact position with his lightning pace and attacking mindset which is why it would be criminal to take away his strengths in a central defensive position. It would also provide more opportunities for crosses into the box and offer either Olivier Giroud or Luka Jovic more service than usual, utilising their strengths in the air.
Milan has the right ingredients for a counter-attacking style of football to execute this game style to good effect which is when the wing-backs will cause the most damage.
4. Pressing improvement
Besides the win against Paris Saint-Germain at the San Siro with a vocal crowd and an incredible atmosphere behind them, it’s difficult to remember the last time Milan accomplished a complete performance based on an effective press for a considerable duration of a match. The attacking third deciding to drop when the opposition backline is allowed to carry the ball out has been frustrating as of late.
Yes, Giroud isn’t getting any younger but even he at 37 has constantly worked his socks off which is an underrated part of his qualities. However, the players around him need to buy into the collective effort to suffocate the life out of the opposition and recover the ball to catch up with the modern game.
On the contrary, the amount of injuries the squad has suffered is a real distress knowing full well that this tactic probably isn’t realistic on a consistent basis.
That’s why the press needs to be conducted in the right moments, which was perfectly demonstrated in the match against PSG when after Milan took the lead in the second half, they fell back into a more defensive-minded approach and picked their moments to go forward on the counter.
Whether it be a 3-4-2-1 or a 3-4-3, Pioli needs to seriously consider his options if he hopes to salvage not only his job, but also any chance of Milan achieving some sort of success.