High lines, transitions and a change in formation: Tactical analysis of Milan’s win over Roma

By Rohit Rajeev -

After being winless in their last four games across all competitions, the tension within Milan and its fan base was palpable.

The losses to Spezia and Inter hung on people’s minds as Milan travelled to the Olimpico, a place where Milan had only won one of their last six fixtures, and with Roma the only team not to lose at home this season in Serie A prior to the game.

Teams and formations

The big news for Milan was that captain Alessio Romagnoli was dropped for loanee Fikayo Tomori, but Milan lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1. Roma meanwhile lost their talismanic striker Edin Dzeko to injury. Fonseca stuck with his strong 3-4-2-1 with Borja Mayoral playing as the No.9. Roma were also without Smalling, Ibanez, Zaniolo and Kumbulla.

Roma’s transition and pressing

After the last few games it’s pretty clear that Milan’s kryptonite is that they failed to build out from the back if the opposition press their double pivot and cover their passing lanes.

Roma pressed in a 5-2-3 formation off the ball. They packed the centre of the pitch, cut off passing lanes to Tonali and Kessie and forced Milan to go wide. When Milan play wide they used their wing-backs to press our full-backs.

Roma’s 5-3-2 formation.

In order to maintain the high press, Roma kept a very compact shape not having more than 15-20 metres between their first and last line. This high line tactic was a high-risk high-reward approach.

In terms of chance creation, Roma often had one of their forwards drop deep and use one of the double pivot to form passing triangles with a centre-back, bringing the ball out from the back to break out of Milan’s rather efficient press. Once Roma have progressed into Milan’s half they use overlapping runs from their wing-backs, mainly Spinazzola and later Bruno Peres to capitalise on Milan’s narrow 4-4-2 formation off the ball.

Milan’s chance creation, high line and switches of play

What improved in this game was Milan’s urgency, their pressing intensity and lightning quick counters. The biggest sigh of relief was how Milan were able to execute passing combinations and create chances. The scoreline does not show how Milan were good at forging opportunities.

One of the main chance-creation techniques was to take advantage of Roma’s high line. Once Milan won the ball back by pressing Villar or Mkhitariyan, they would try and spring balls in behind the defence for Ibrahimovic or Rebic.

Saelemaekers with a ball behind Roma’s defence.

Another tactic to break out of Roma’s press was to suck Roma towards a particular wing and use Kjaer or Kessie to switch play to the opposite wing. Quite often, Milan would even use Calabria or Saelemaekers to carry out the switch.

A very important factor worth mentioning is how Milan were able to maintain a very high line, as high as some of the Premier League teams do, thanks to the pace of Milan’s back-line.

Adding Tomori to the rearguard helped Milan in multiple ways. For one, it helped Milan to free Kjaer and Kessie to push and press Roma’s midfield pivot. Tomori would sweep up behind Theo, Kessie and Kjaer hence even though Roma tried to target Milan’s high line nothing came out of it. The recovery pace shown by Tomori has shown fans how even if you get beaten high up on the pitch you can make it back to your defensive position.

Substitutions and change in formation

A rather confusing substitution for Milan fans was how Pioli brought in Krunic for Rebic instead of Hauge. This was because Pioli wanted to change the formation to the conventional 4-3-3 with no recognised striker.

The 4-3-3 goes into a 4-5-1 without the ball.

Diaz acted as a false-nine, giving Leao the space to drift in from the left wing. Krunic prevented any counter attacks Roma had planned on Milan’s left hand side incase Theo lost the ball and Roma sprung the counter with Bruno Peres.

How Milan’s 4-3-3 with a false 9 works.


Milan had failed to score in their last four games from open play leading up to this fixture when discarding the own-goal in Belgrade, so it was important that the team got back to playing a fast, flowing and piercing style of football to prove they hadn’t lost their edge.

As we seem to have said a lot over the past few weeks, it could have been a completely different game had a couple of the early chances gone it, but the Rossoneri were made to sweat out an important win. The key thing was to find a way to win despite the tough patch, and hopefully it is a launching pad for better things.

Tags AC Milan Roma Milan


  1. It’s been awfully quiet since we picked up that win. Where are the Pioli bashers? I guess we’ll have to wait until the next loss.

    I’ll say here while Calabria had some great interceptions there were a couple of times when he lost his man. Kjaer and Tomori did well but let’s be honest Roma’s attack doesn’t have that much pace just guys who used to have pace. Saelemakers need game time for consistency and it shows. Hopefully this isn’t a one off

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