Midfield dominance and half-space problems: Tactical analysis of Milan’s win over Napoli

By Rohit Rajeev -

Milan until Sunday night had failed to beat Napoli at the Stadio San Paolo for over 10 years, but they ended that hoodoo in style.

With head coach Stefano Pioli and his assistant Giacomo Murelli out with COVID-19, the mantle was ready for Daniele Bonera and the players to show their tactical maturity. Napoli had a big absentee in Victor Osimhen, while Milan had Leao out with a knock.

A brace from Ibrahimovic a first Serie A goal from Jens Petter Hauge completed a famous win for the Rossoneri against their former coach and club legend Gennaro Gattuso. But how did Milan perform so effectively?

Napoli: Pressing, build-up and defence

Napoli set up in a 4-2-3-1 under Gattuso. The double pivot was formed by Bakayoko and Fabian Ruiz while the front three consisted of Insigne, Politano and Lozano with Mertens up front.

Napoli with the ball used a patient build-up method waiting for the front players to make deep runs or occupy the half spaces before making the pass. If they had won the ball back, Napoli would try and use quick passes out towards the wings with full-backs making overlapping runs. Lay-off’s and horizontal passing were often used too.

While defending Napoli used a narrow 4-4-2 formation with the front two – Mertens and Politano – pressing Kjaer and Romagnoli. In their own half, Napoli tried to be compact and did not allow Milan much space to carry out passing combinations.

Napoli’s narrow and compact 4-4-2 against Milan.
Napoli’s narrow asymmetric 4-4-2 narrow press in Milan’s half.

Milan: Pressing, build-up and defence

Milan meanwhile took advantage of the fact that Napoli didn’t have a tall striker upfront and tried out to play out from the back. They extensively used cover shadows that press by cutting out passing options for the player on the ball. Anytime the ball went out for a goal kick, Milan committed players forward to prevent Napoli from playing out from the back.

Milan pressing Napoli high.

In defence, Milan played a strict and narrow 4-4-1-1 with Hakan and Ibrahimovic pressing Koulibaly and Manolas. The idea of Bonera’s side was to press and win the ball back and break into quick counters.

With the home side having quick players, hard-working wingers like Rebic and Saelemaekers assisted their full-back to prevent an overload, i.e. 2v1 situations for the defenders. Keeping in mind the danger of Insigne, Calabria rarely ventured forward and Milan used Theo Hernandez to cause problems for Di Lorenzo.

Milan quite often used switch of play by sucking the opponent to one side and then using one of the double pivot to switch flanks.

Milan using a switch of play.

With Napoli playing a high line it always made Milan aware of the opportunity to counter-attack, and Milan used that opportunity well.

The problem of the half space

When pressing from their own half, Milan leave quite a gap between the last line of defenders and the double pivot of Kessie and Bennacer. Quite a few times Napoli exploited this space but the final ball was lacking.

Another bad day at the office

Alessio Romagnoli had quite a day to forget. A modern day footballer’s most potent weapon is his recovery pace – i.e. the ability to catch up to an attacker that has broken through the last line of defence and is speeding towards the goal.

This is particularly prominent because Milan play a high line. Against Politano, Lozano and later Petagna, Romagnoli was left behind when the attackers hit top speed. And then for the goal, Mertens turned Alessio very easily to score.

Milan’s golden duo at their peak again

Once again the double pivot of Bennacer and Kessie dominated and bullied the midfield. Keeping no more than 10 meters between them, the Algerian and Ivorian form a deep midfield block in their own half while acting as a passing option during build-up play, forming slick triangles to pass the ball out from the back. Against Ruiz and Bakayoko, Kessie and Bennacer passed yet another litmus test.

Rejuvenated Theo a force

Milan fans were concerned that Theo Hernandez was tailing off in the last few games, but two weeks of rest has shown us how much of a factor fatigue has played in his levels. He is the epicentre of the Rossoneri’s counter-attacks and was the creator of the first goal.

Hauge’s individual brilliance

Even though Bennacer played a defence-splitting pass, Hauge had to deal with Manolas, one of the best defenders in Serie A. The Norwegian showed us his brilliance, by speeding past the Greek at first and then dummying past him by using quick shifts of pace.

He slowed down at first and deceived Manolas before changing pace quickly before his opponent could make a tackle and then lifted it over the keeper.

Tags AC Milan Napoli-Milan
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