Another trip to Turin beckoned for Milan after their historic win against Juventus as Milan gained the upper hand in the race for Champions League spot for next season.
With Milan and Juve playing simultaneously, Stefano Pioli’s side had the task of winning at the other stadium in Turin, the Stadio Olimpico Grand Torino. Flashbacks of Milan’s 2-0 loss in 2018-19 and 2-1 defeat in 2019-20 haunted fans, but the morale boost after the 3-0 victory at the Allianz Stadium was enough motivation as an extraordinary 7-0 victory followed.
Below, Rohit Rajeev has provided a comprehensive tactical analysis…
Milan fielded a weakened line-up without the evergreen Zlatan Ibrahimovic who got injured mid-way through the Juventus match and Alexis Saelemaekers, whose accumulation of yellow cards earned him a suspension.
For Torino, Davide Nicola benched star striker Belotti and their key players such as Rincon, Verdi and Sanabria perhaps keeping in mind they have Spezia at the weekend, which is a more important game.
Same old tale
Pioli stuck to the same game-plan that brought him the success against Juve. He fielded Brahim Diaz, Hakan Calhanoglu and Samu Castillejo as the triumvirate behind the roaming striker Ante Rebic who ran the channels and hustled Torino’s back three. Pioli struck the right balance choosing caution over aggression, while he was content for the opposition to push high up while Milan pressed and countered. Torino took the bait.
The plan to overcome the 3-5-2
With a 4-2-3-1 Milan’s midfield often seemed to get overloaded whenever opposition teams play a five-man midfield especially on the centre of the pitch.
To counter this, Pioli fielded Calhanoglu and Diaz – two attacking midfielders – leaving the left wing vacant. Whenever Milan won the ball back Diaz, Calhanoglu and Castillejo would dart forward occupying space rather than an assigned position. Whenever Milan built from the back one of Hakan or Diaz would drop into midfield while one of them stay top to support Rebic. This is a clear example of Milan’s “fluid formation” setup where the team principles are centred around zones rather than positions.
One of the key features of Pioli’s game in Fiorentina was the formation of passing diamonds. Nikola Milenkovic would push up and with two midfielders and a forward, Fiorentina would form a passing diamond. Milan were given so much space by Torino that they could easily form them all over the pitch to beat the press.
One of the key ideas behind Pioli’s Milan had been Milan’s pressing and Milan pressed Torino out of the park.
From horizontal pressing to the build-up to the third goal from Kessie, Milan forced Torino into errors and moved the ball with quick vertical passes.
It can be seen from the stats how Milan were so effective in pressing. Kessie topped the charts in pressure percentage (the amount of pressing done which was successful) with 83.3% and Rebic came second with 50%. Kjaer and Tomori came joint-third.
Torino’s game plan and gap at the back
Initially Torino’s idea was to defend in a 5-2-3 formation isolating Bennacer with pressing traps and defending deep but with Milan taking the lead they had to push forward.
Torino usually countered through either Simone Zaza or Wilfred Singo, trying to take advantage of the space left by the advancing Theo Hernandez. To push Milan deep into their own half and press, Nicola had Bremer overlap and join the midfield to try and pressurise Calhanoglu along with joining the attack. Mandragora would compensate for the numbers sitting deep and acting as the anchor.
A huge problem Torino faced was the gap between their centre-back and the left centre-back which got breached more than thrice, ultimately ending in Lyanco fouling Samu Castillejo for the penalty.
The Granata’s grave mistake
One of the most baffling points from Wednesday’s match was why Torino pressed up so high even when they were 4-0 down. Usually teams that chase a score of a 2-1 or a 3-1 or even a 3-2 press high up the pitch leaving only one defender behind, but il Toro were pressing Milan even when they were 5-0 down.
You can see from below chart that Torino’s line was as high 60 metres up the match, like how a star studded team chasing a game against minnows would play. All Milan had to do was wait for Torino to come into their half, break up play and launch quick counters with vertical passes.
The false nine
One of the advantages of a false nine is that the defender does not have a fixed target to mark and thus it causes confusion and the defender to be drawn out of position. The danger is that intelligent defenders can easily nullify the false 9 (unless he is a Messi or similar calibre) and make him redundant.
However, against Torino Rebic ran rings around Torino’s defence. He drew defenders out, scored a hat trick and crossed well to assists Theo.
Here are Milan’s athletic stats for the game…
Rafael Leao’s 34km/h seems to have been the run he made to catch up to Meite’s forward pass and put it on a plate for Rebic to score. As usual Kessie covers the most distance in the game, as the Ivorian and his engine has been by far Milan’s best player this season.
We would love to give Pioli one hundred per cent of the credit for another tactical masterclass like the one he pulled off in the win over Juventus, but this was quite frankly a self-destructive effort from Torino that almost seemed borderline deliberate.
After a cagey start they were picked off twice leading to the opening goal and the second through the penalty, and rather than deploy a streetwise approach they just sunk further and further into Milan’s trap.
Unlike other occasions when the Rossoneri have been wasteful when presented with chances, they were like a possessed lion (ironically, in the absence of Ibrahimovic) who really looked like they wanted to prove a point.