MN: Density, inversion, El Shaarawy – the five things Milan struggled with vs. Roma

By Oliver Fisher -

AC Milan put in one of their worst performances of the season during their 1-0 defeat to Roma last night in the Europa League, and there were several reasons behind this.

As MilanNews write, it is correct to give credit to the opposition when it is due and Daniele De Rossi’s men were the deserved winners at San Siro thanks to an effective tactical plan that was perfectly carried out. They also list what put Milan in difficulty.

El Shaarawy: The former Milan player was deployed by De Rossi wide on the right, on Milan’s left flank. The objective: to create a lot of density, helped by Celik, and to neutralise Leao. It took a lot of physical sacrifice from ElSha, but the move worked great as even Theo struggled.

Beating the wall: Milan mainly tried to play down the right, the side of Calabria and Pulisic, and they attempted to create the situation that often led to goals this year.

The winger receives the ball nearly the touchline, the full-back and midfielder (Bennacer) go to occupy the half space, the pass goes infield and then is returned to the winger as they head for the byline, where cut-backs and crosses become possible.

It practically never worked, because Roma were not attracted by fast play, remaining in their positions, and Cristante’s great work lent a strong hand. Milan voluntarily congested the centre-right and did not get any joy in behind, barring Chukwueze’s solo run that should have been an assist for Giroud.

Dybala’s role: Milan chose to press high and with the first two lines, attacker and attacking midfielders, but the pain came due to the positions of Lukaku and Dybala. The Belgian remained very high, with Gabbia and Thiaw forced not to take risks by raising the line given the obvious speed mismatch in the open field.

The team was thus stretched, giving Dybala the opportunity to ‘drop in’ between Reijnders and Bennacer, who were instead occupied in their individual duels with Cristante and Pellegrini. As a result, Roma’s excellent dribbling almost always had a vertical outlet.


Inverted players: One of the moves that Pioli often does is to deploy the two midfielders in an inverted way, so Bennacer on the right of the double pivot and Reijnders on the left.

It makes sense if you think of a situation in which Milan are camped outside the opposition box and the duo are in a more advanced position, because when they receive the ball they can then either pass wide or look for a shot.

However, when there is a lot of central density due to the opponent and the position in which the ball is received is not so close to the area it becomes a double-edged sword: whoever controls, to go on the strong foot, often delays a decision and it breaks up the move.

Loftus-Cheek ineffective: Yesterday he probably played one of the worst matches of his short Milan career due to poor technical choices and difficulty in finding the most suitable position on the pitch. Between the lines he was swallowed up by Roma’s density and was unable to perform his usual runs.

When he got into the box he was never found by his team-mates, who as we explained before found it enormously difficult to get free on the wing and then go for the cross. Finally, we add the horror marking that led to Mancini’s goal.

The second leg is in less than a week and there is plenty to work on after a difficult night, but the feeling is that a lot of things conspired against Milan – including their own demerits – so there is a large margin for improvement.

Tags AC Milan Milan Roma


  1. If we had a distinctive style we could just play and not worry so much on the opposition but alas. No distinctive style, mostly just reacting. If we’re lucky Pioli gets a brainfart mid game.

  2. All of the above.

    Putting ElSha on the right and his work rate against Theo and Leao effectively doubling and tripling up on the left side congested that flank. And many a times Roma were neglecting their entire LW. It was bizzare and amazing to watch at the same time. Roma did not care about the right flank (their left) only until the final third where Puli was. They identified Calab as being ineffective and were correct because our game plan didn’t revolve around Calab being on offense often.
    Someone in the matchday said it was a 451 disguised as 433 and I’d have to agree. With 3 being stretched right infront of defence (like Inter vs Barca back in the day) and the other two helping on the flanks….against Puli and Leao our two main threats. And it worked a treat.
    What didn’t work for us is that weird inversion of only one full back at a time. This IN COMBINATION WITH having Leao for some inexplicable reason play as a support striker next to Giroud (my guess is so that he doesn’t get yellow to rule him out of the next leg) in some quasi 442 stuff. This led to an easy pick up of Theo because he no longer has the Theo outlet out wide. The game was there for the taking for RLC if he roamed properly, he was the wild card as the markings didn’t necessarily involve him, he just happened to ran into a congested middle or flank, plus with both Leao and Giroud up top, he didn’t have space there….perfect time to roam. Given Roma’s tactics at the time, it rendered inversion meaningless and fell right into their hands (ElSha can easily pick out the inverters). Inversion really should be meant for the fullback to create numbers in the middle but with Theo, he maraudes leaving the backline exposed. When Calab inverts to make numbers in the middle and not move upfield it makes sense only if Theo/Leao do their thing…but Roma didn’t care about Calab and that forced us into congestion everytime.
    Only in the second half when we went back to our regular tactics (notice Leao is less close to goal and more on the wing where he’s most effective) that things started to get better.
    But overall, it was painful to watch. DDR got his tactics spot on. So correct that our players had a look of shock that the other team read all their moves to a T.
    Speaking of moves, Lukaku did the same move everytime. Held up the ball and fake to the opposite side of the runner (thereby moving his marking defender away from the runner so he doesn’t leave him to tackle). My gripe was no one picked up the clear runs made through the middle knowing the same exact move they were going to do (looking at you pivots…deer and Benny). Smh 🤦‍♂️.
    Furthermore, we were simply lethargic. No energy, no urgency and psychologically shocked by Roma’s tactics.
    At the same time though, we were unlucky and a bad call imo cost us a precious goal.

  3. TACTICS TACTICS TACTICS……unfortunately that’s the thing Pioli isn’t good at and it always shows against better and more tactical coaches.

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