The two phases, benefits and drawbacks: Pioli’s use of inverted full-backs explained

By Rohit Rajeev -

Every now and again there is a new buzz word or phrase that does the round in football and sometimes they apply to AC Milan. Inverted full-backs ticks both of those boxes.

Recently we have seen some changes in how Milan head coach Stefano Pioli uses his full-backs as they come inside when Milan have the ball. This is what is called as an ‘inverted full-back’, which can be explained through observations of certain principles.

What does an inverted full-back mean? Quite simply it is a full-back who moves inside to the central areas of the pitch and it is a tactic used by teams that want to focus on dominating possession, but there is more to it than that.

Possession phase

One of the main purposes of having an inverted full-back is to outnumber the opposition in the centre of the pitch.

This in turn adds another passing option especially for the centre-backs while moving the ball out from the back or while building attacks using short passes, and functions so as to not give away possession cheaply.

The full-backs who play this style have to have spacial awareness to create forward passing angles for the defenders in the back line.

They should also have the ability to make vertical passes or dribble past their opponents to break opposition lines.

Lastly they should be able to switch play to the opposite full-back, so for example if Pierre Kalulu inverts he should be able to switch it to Theo Hernandez.

Non-possession phase

Since Inverting a full-back is mainly to dominate possession one of the main method of attack for the opposition will be counter-attacks.

This means that the full-back can add to the counter-press (pressing initiated when the team on the ball loses possession) and restrict the space for the opposition to progress the ball towards the centre, hence pushing them wide.

The inverted full-back can screen passes to the opposition striker (No.9) during a counter-attack based on the spaces taken up and the options cut off.

They can also carry out defensive duties and kill attacks in the centre of the field. In the event the attack gets beyond a certain point, the full-backs can invert back to their traditional role and defend wide areas.


One plus is that helps to dominate possession since that is the main focus of the entire exercise. Being a central passing option it helps to facilitate building out from the back through the central areas.

This is something Milan lacked last season and it meant Mike Maignan often punted the ball towards Olivier Giroud or Rafael Leao, due to absence of alternative options.

If a winger follows the inverting full back to the centre, if frees up spaces for the winger on the other side. As an example, this was something that led to Milan’s first goal against ES Sahel over the weekend.


In addition, inverted full-backs help to defend and protect central areas of the pitch and push opposition attacks wide.


When a player from the back four moves into midfield it quite obviously means there is one less player in the rearguard. If the opposition can get past the midfield on the counter, this can create a numerical disadvantage for the team.

There needs to be clear understanding between the inverting full-back and the team-mates so that there is no mix up between players.


Last season – particularly during the horrible spells of January and March – the Rossoneri were repeatedly caught in transition because the other team were able to overload and exploit the gaps due to this lack of understanding.

Qualities needed

An inverting full-back needs to have pace to cover the space between the phases of possession and lack of possession.

The player needs to have great positional awareness and spacial awareness to help the back line open up passing lanes as well as an astute sense of timing.

This is to understand when to press in the central areas and when to go back to their original role as full-back.

Some of the best examples of elite performers in the position are Joao Cancelo under Pep Guardiola and Trent Alexander-Arnold with Jurgen Klopp.

Guardiola is one of the greatest exponent of this tactic but it was initially used a lot by his mentor Johan Cryuff.


The fact that Milan have started using the idea of inverted full-backs more and more signals a change in approach from Pioli.

On the face of things, it suggests that the coach wants to move from a team that pressed with very high intensity to team that controls possession and uses the ball well.

It can also impact transfer strategy, and perhaps explains  why Pioli was reportedly against Wilfried Singo’s arrival from Torino as Singo is not a player comfortable with possession.

It is a role that Alessandro Florenzi knows well, for example, but the flip side to that is that his defensive side isn’t good enough and he has doubts about his fitness.

Pierre Kalulu has slowly grown into the role in preseason but once the competition sets in it could be a whole new different ball game.

Tags AC Milan


    1. I agree he could do it well, but the drawback to that is that Theo must stay back as part of the back three.
      It would make more sense that Theo advances and Calabria/Kalulu stays back. Theo can then advance even furher as the ball progresses, as he often does, and create danger.

      1. If Krunic drops into a CB position it frees Theo up. Of course in that case you cannot play a type like Jorghino in the DM spot, it must be someone with a bit of heft.

        Also Kalulu can stay back and Theo can go forward, or you simply only have a rest defense of 2 CBs, if there are 2 players screening it and the opponent is pinned back that’s not that bad either.

      2. They used kalulu in the example, but normally both wingbacks invert at different times, I didnt watch this game, but the USA tour games, both RB and LB were moving into midfield at different times depending on the play and positioning of the opponents, its a good tactic which counters theo’s predictable runs from the back, so this adds up to what the team is overally trying to achieve, to be less predictable, and have many attacking options

      3. The awareness the article talks about is between the FB. Simplest way to think about it is if inverting the weak side the strong side holds and vice versa. This often is a function of the profile of the players in the opposition.

        For example if playing against a team with Mbappe on the front the strategy may be to invert the side hole is not on allowing the other to shadow such a speedster.

  1. The downside is we have a limited numbers of players pressing or trying to create something upfront while 5 players sit idle at the back. I’d expect Theo to push higher and we utilize Tomori’s pace to cover threats from the left flank before Theo recovers and the frontline has a lot to contribute to the defensive phase.

    1. I agree. I came to be a Milan fan in part because of the high press Pioli was running.

      That said now that I am a fan, I’ll prefer winning over just about anything short of Allegri parking the bus.

  2. Bad idea. This does not work with Calabria, as he is always getting caught out of position anyways and doesn’t have the speed to recover. Also Milan is not good enough in posession or passing to pull this off. It’s just going to further stress an already shake back line. I also don’t like Theo coming inside as he can’t use his right foot. He is better suited to use his speed out wide overlapping with Leao and sending good crosses into the box.

    1. You haven’t seen his coast to coast goal? Yeah, it is better that the inv’ wb has the inside foot working, but the most important part of his game is the decision making. When the wb arrives at the opponent half, he need to decide what move to make, where he should be, or when to pass the ball, etc

  3. It is always good to innovate. New ideas improves the game. For example, Tele Santana Brazil’s 4-2-4 in 1982, Rinus Michels and Johan Cryuff’s 3-3-3-1, Ardgour Sacchi’s Milan 4-4-2, Guadiola’s false 9 at Barca and 4-1-4-1 at Bayern and 3-2-4-1 at Man City last year.

  4. Third linked clip is a beautiful example of how to create and exploit space.
    Tomori is decent at spotting a vertical opening, but the range of passes he can deliver down the left side is limited by his dominant leg.

  5. Two seasons ago we would see Kalulu or (less so) Tomori up the field aggressively patrolling passing lanes.

    Last year with Tartar they seemed glued to our half and never got that aggression back. It’s unclear why. To my eyes Calabria was the same and Theo much improved defensively.

    That said, those runs upfield by Kalulu and the passes he’d make when stealing the ball make me believe he can invert on the outside. His ability to move all across the back line lead think he’s got the intelligence to adapt quickly.

    Tho I must admit to being a big a Kalulu fan boy 🙂

    1. Im a fan too, for me he is the best high up the pitch, i also enjoy his interceptions and quick counters with long runs, he is bad though when defending inside the box and can follow the ball around too much, if he can be more disciplined on positioning, i prefer him and thiaw over tomori

  6. I think this isn’t new for all ACM’s side-backs. Since Theo arrived, we already have this kind of side-backs. Calabria & Theo already go to mid often. That’s why Calabria ever said that he always thought he is a midfielders so he can easily play like that.

    And that’s why Fode Ballo-Toure & Sergino Dest can’t fit well with Pioli’s ACM. They used to play very wide & rarely go mid so didn’t used to making passes to mid. Their technical & physical attributes are fit, though.

  7. This is why they don’t look for right wb, instead they searching for a cb. Pioli projects Kalulu as an wb for next season, so Milan still one cb short.
    Great analysis, writer.

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