AC Milan narrowly lost to old foes Juventus at San Siro on matchday nine of the 2023-24 Serie A campaign, going down 1-0 to a goal from former midfielder Manuel Locatelli.
Milan averaged 65% possession for the majority of the first-half and enjoyed prolonged spells of territorial dominance. With that said, the home side failed to create neither multiple nor high quality attempts on goal when on top.
Their most threatening chance came courtesy of a Rafael Leão counte-rattack in the 14th minute which concluded with an Oliver Giroud swivelled shot and a Wojciech Szczęsny fingertip save.
In the 40th minute, the first major incident of the game occurred, when Milan were reduced to ten men with Malick Thiaw shown a straight red card for a last-man foul on Moise Kean. Juventus nearly compounded Milan’s misery a few minutes later but Kean failed to convert Adrien Rabiot’s inswinging cross at the far post.
After the break, despite having the numerical disadvantage, Milan continued to have their fair share of possession, with Juventus content to remain in their 5-3-2 defensive block. It took over fifteen minutes for either side to have a shot in the second half but the first one proved to be decisive.
In the 63rd minute, Manuel Locatelli’s long range effort took a cruel deflection off the knee of Rade Krunić to divert the ball past a helpless Antonio Mirante. The 40-year old goalkeeper was making his first-ever start for Milan but he couldn’t do anything to prevent Juventus taking a 1-0 lead.
A spirited but increasingly tiring Milan tried their best to get back into the game but to no avail. Understandably, the hosts attacking threat was limited in the second period, with the Milan only managing one attempt on the opposition goal.
The game ended with Juventus taking the three points back to Turin and the Rosseneri left to rue what might have been had the sides remained 11v11.
Whilst gameplans were undoubtedly impacted following Thiaw’s dismissal, up until the red card an interesting tactical battle had been unfolding. @Tactics_Tweets explains how Massimiliano Allegri managed to ultimately win this game of risk versus reward against Stefano Pioli.
Set-ups and gameplans
Injury and suspension played their part in both manager’s personnel selections. But Pioli and Allegri each set-up their respective side’s from kick-off in their usual systems and styles of play.
Pioli wanted his side to be the protagonist so Milan’s gameplan revolved around controlling the game through possession. The home side aimed to circulate play in front of and around the Juventus defensive block in an attempt to stretch and disjoint the opposition, both horizontally and vertically.
Their intended outcome was to manufacture opportunities in the final third which their forward line could then benefit from. But there was also a defensive aspect to this too, as their territorial gain allowed the team to squeeze high up the pitch and then counterpress following turnovers which enabled them to sustain their attacking pressure.
When defending against settled Juventus possession, Milan used their usual approach of man-marking in central midfield and then switched between zonal and player-oriented responsibilities in their forward- and back-lines.
Their ultimate intention with this approach was to restrict the oppositions passing options, making their play more predictable and therefore affording them to focus their defensive efforts in specific areas of the pitch – all whilst (ideally) maintaining defensive coverage.
In stark contrast, Allegri was happy for this side to be the antagonist. Therefore, Juventus’s gameplan centered around controlling the game without the ball. Using a compact 5-3-2 block, the visitors were prepared to concede possession and territory, allowing Milan relatively uncontested progression into the middle third of the pitch.
Their intended outcomes were two-fold – defensively, limit spaces in their own half, making it difficult for Milan to create, and offensively, entice Milan to push up the pitch and then exploit the large vacated spaces with direct attacks following regains.
When in settled possession, Juventus had specific tactical ploys, mainly involving player rotations, to disjoint, create gaps and ultimately exploit the Milan defensive system.
Risk versus reward
All tactical gameplans will have elements of accepting certain allowances (the risks), in order to achieve their intended and desired outcomes (the rewards).
Therefore, before judging a team’s performance it is important to understand what they were actually trying to do. Then with this knowledge, more informed questions can be asked of a manager’s decisions.
But to further muddy the water, the success or effectiveness of any collective gameplan is dependent on one thing – the players’ individual decisions and actions to execute consistently in moments throughout a match.
So taking into account all of these considerations, let’s take a look back at the opening forty-minutes of this game starting with Milan’s gameplan in possession versus the Juventus defensive block.
Below was a frequent sight in the first-half.
Milan predominantly positioned their full-backs, Davide Calabria and Alessandro Florenzi, on the outside of the Juventus block. For reasons we’ll come on to.
Yacine Adli primarily operated as a single pivot but on occasions could be joined by a full-back, roaming infield to create space and a passing lane out wide, or by one of the two typically more advanced central midfielders, Yunus Musah and Tijjani Reijnders, dropping deeper to help with ball retention or progression.
Occupying the Juventus backline was Oliver Giroud, who in addition to acting as a focal point, worked in tandem with Musah and Reijnders in trying to find spaces to receive and link play between the opposition midfield and defensive lines.
Then, providing the width was Christian Pulisic and Rafael Leão, with the latter accepting any opportunity to take-on his opponent when a situation arose.
From a Juventus perspective, the responsibility of their forward line, Kean and Arkadiusz Milik, was to block direct access into Adli.
Their ever-shifting midfield three were tasked with blocking central areas of the pitch, getting out to the Milan full-backs and providing support in wide areas. This left their backline of five to cover the width of the pitch and retreat into their penalty area in numbers to defend crosses and shots.
With Milan aware of Juventus’ intention to remain compact, the positioning of their full-backs was a key component in their build-up phases. The rationale being it caused the ball-side Juventus midfielder to jump, thus creating potential space to exploit in behind, and also it shifted the Juventus midfield line across the pitch, where switches to the far-side could create openings.
Here are some examples in practice. Firstly, early in the 5th minute, a pass towards Calabria caused Rabiot to jump and engage and the rest of the midfield line to shuffle across the pitch to provide cover.
But with the right wing blocked, Milan quickly switched play back towards their left-hand side which now required Weston McKennie to quickly get out to close down the left-back.
In this scenario, despite Reijnders moving into the vacated space behind McKennie, Florenzi opted to attempt a pass over the top for Leão to chase but Juventus dealt with the situation.
Florenzi making this pass attempt would have been more understandable had one of the Juventus backline jumped out to cover Reijnders, as this would have left Leão in more of a 1v1 situation.
Like in the 35th minute when Florenzi’s positioning again helped draw McKennie towards him and on cue, Reijnders drifted over to exploit the space behind.
On this occasion, Florenzi was right to attempt the direct pass in behind as he recognised that Federico Gatti had preemptively jumped out to cover Reijnders between the lines.
This therefore left Juventus with one less defender to cover Leão’s run. The Portuguese attacker was able to collect the ball inside the penalty area but his attempted pass was easily cut out by the Juventus defenders.
In the 24th minute, there was a similar scenario…
…but on this occasion, Florenzi did pass to Reijnders. As a result of Locatelli being dragged out of position, Adli spotted an opportunity to exploit and his Dutch teammate found him with an inside pass.
From there Adli carried the ball forward, bypassing the Juventus midfield in the process. But his attempted pass out wide to Leão lacked accuracy and an opponent easily intercepted.
In a final example, in the 30th minute, following some possession on their left-hand side which dragged Juventus over, Milan found Calabria in space on the outside of their block.
From here, Calabria played the ball onto Pulisic in a 1v1 situation. But with Rabiot performing one of his many defensive responsibilities by dropping to support his wing-back…
…Pulisic decided to lay the ball back to Calabria in space who then attempted to cross into the box but failed to beat the first defender.
So Milan’s positioning of their full-backs in build-up did help them progress the ball into the final third. This part of the plan worked. But as we’ve seen, once in the final third, the decisions and actions of individual players restricted Milan’s ability to convert this progression into chance creation.
Crossing was a particular failure. Whilst post-match Pioli seemingly laid blame at a lack of box occupation, saying: “…we had to fill the penalty area better in the first half.” Delivery was also a major issue.
Milan attempted 26 crosses against Juventus, their highest total of any league game this season. But only 5 successfully found a teammate, their lowest accuracy rate (19%) of the campaign too. Even though Leão was most guilty, with 11 cross attempts and only 3 successful, he was at least effective in his dribbling, successfully executing 6 out of 8 attempts.
But with Milan not capitalising upon the ‘rewards’ their in possession plans afforded them, let’s now take a look at how Juventus tried to exploit the allowances (risks) Milan’s off-ball approach provided them.
In the 6th minute, we got to see both the desired intent and allowances Milan’s out of possession approach entails. Firstly, a backwards pass and then mis-control from Gleison Bremer triggered the Milan pressing scheme…
…which aims to restrict the opposition’s passing options, making their play more predictable and therefore affording Milan to focus their defensive efforts in specific areas of the pitch.
In this example, Milan regained possession and found Reijnders whose subsequent shot flew high and wide.
From the resulting goal kick, Juventus accessed Timothy Weah with a lofted pass. Usually, this would be a trigger for the left-back to jump but…
…as you can see, Florenzi was being pinned by McKennie which therefore required Adli to adjust and cover Weah. As a result of the hesitation, the right wing-back was able to carry the ball forward and find his fellow countryman…
…who then poked the ball through Florenzi’s legs to attack the space behind but Milan eventually dealt with this danger.
The rotations between Weah and McKennie was a clear tactical ploy from Juventus to try and manipulate and exploit Milan’s out of possession system.
In the 14th minute, Weah received the ball on the right wing and McKennie immediately made an underlapping run which not only created space for Weah to carry infield…
…but it also caused initial confusion between Florenzi and Adli as to whether to stay with their opponent or pass them on. Although, this attack from Juventus also failed to materialise into any attempt on goal.
In an example of Juventus exploiting the large spaces behind Milan’s backline in transition, here in the 20th minute following a Milan attack and failed Leão cross, the visitors regained possession and then played a direct ball in behind with six Milan players high up the pitch.
This left Milan 3v2 at the back. And after the forward ball somehow bypassed Tomori who was preoccupied with Milik…
…Kean was 1v1 against Thiaw. The Juventus forward chopped back inside to evade the German defender but the covering Calabria was able to intercept and clear the danger.
In the 30th minute, after Musah’s wasteful pass lost possession, the loose ball fell to McKennie…
…who then found Milik who passed onto his strike partner Kean to again be in a 1v1 against Thiaw. In this passage of play, Thiaw managed to get his body in front of Kean and draw a foul.
But in the 39th minute, Milan were less fortunate. The sequence started from deep Juventus build-up and again Weah and McKennie were involved with the two combining to progress possession and subsequently draw up their respective markers in Milan’s pressing scheme.
After receiving, Weah managed to turn his marker and find space to make a pass in behind for Kean, who as you can see below was 1v1 against Thiaw as Tomori had jumped up to cover Milik.
In this situation, Calabria was not in position to provide cover for his centre-back whether through fault of his own or Thiaw dropping too deep too early.
And with Thiaw more focused on the player than the ball, both managed to bypass him which resulted in panic and a foul on his opponent.
The outcome, a straight red card and Milan down to ten for the remainder of the match.
Throughout this article, the balancing act managers must make when devising a gameplan has been highlighted. In order to achieve any desired offensive or defensive outcomes, trade-offs must be made somewhere to afford this. And whilst a specific tactical plan can work multiple times throughout a match, it can also be undone by an individual moment of brilliance or a mistake.
In Milan’s case, their out of possession approach had the ability to force Juventus into mistakes but it also led to their defenders being in frequent 1v1 situations where successful actions are now easily forgotten, whereas the unsuccessful duels are remembered for resulting in game changing moments and further cautions.
In Juventus’ case, their gameplan managed to limit Milan’s attacking threat and cause them problems in defence, so much so that it caused a sending off. However, ultimately, the away side still required a heavily deflected goal to break the deadlock and win the match.
Both manager’s accepted the risks their respective gameplans afforded to the opposition in this fixture. But in a game of fine margins, it was Allegri and Juventus who left with the rewards.
All stats referenced within the article sourced from Wyscout.