False nine failure and slow reactions: Tactical analysis of Milan’s draw against Atalanta

By Oliver Fisher -

AC Milan met a familiar foe in Atalanta at the Gewiss Stadium on Sunday night and they were forced to settle for a share of the spoils as a 1-1 draw was played out.

In many ways a few of the same frustrations from certain games last season reared their heads as Milan dominated possession and territory but fell behind through Ruslan Malinovskyi’s deflected strike that sent the hosts in 1-0 up at the break.

The Rossoneri were more than good value for the draw they ended up snatching in the end, and the equaliser came via a shot in off the post from Ismael Bennacer. Here are some brief tactical points from the game…

Gasperini’s unconventional system

Gasperini in Italy was known for his pressing system with Atalanta. Using man-oriented pressing and a high intensity system, but for this game he dropped his usual plot completely and went for a mid to low-block system.

In this approach, he would have 10 or sometimes 11 men behind the ball to frustrate Milan’s passing rhythm. It worked really well in stifling the creativity and tempo that the Rossoneri like to get into dangerous areas, but it came at the cost of not having much joy in their attacking phase.

If you look at the average position map from the match we can see how even in the first half Gasperini only had Zapata beyond the half way line, while he had 10 other players in defensive positions.

Early intent

We spoke in the analysis of the win over Udinese about the importance of Milan causing confusion through the movement of their players and their positional rotation.

The below example shows how Milan set up from an attacking stand-point at times in the first half when the build-up started from the right. Leao would tuck in and partner Rebic as a second striker, with Brahim drifting towards space on the left and either Bennacer or Tonali pushing up with the aim of making late runs into the box.

The instance below is just another example of how Milan would try to break down a tough defensive line by having multiple runners at once to cause disorganisation.

Theo Hernandez crossed the ball from just past the halfway line but with so many players targeting the box it was not dealt with well, drifting all the way to the far post where Messias arguably should have done better.

Failure of the false nine

Rebic as a false 9 was a necessity that turned into a masterstroke against Udinese, but against Atalanta the wheels did not click into motion.

The Croatian was constantly moving to the wings which meant there was no target for him or his team-mates to aim a cross at. Junior Messias or Brahim Diaz would often make late runs into the box that weren’t found, so Pioli’s move backfired with Olivier Giroud and Divock Origi both summoned from the bench.

Weak on aerial duels

Atalanta targeted Milan aerially and it was Milan not clearing a cross that led to the first goal. The ball ended falling to Maehle who squared it to Malinovskyi, who took advantage of the space available to wind up a shot and score.

In the second half the attacking midfielder Mario Pasalic times a run well and got onto the end of a cross with a powerful header, but it was thankfully tipped over the bar by Mike Maignan.

Slow reactions

The three goals Milan have conceded so far this season have not been pretty. After Rodrigo Becao’s easy near-post header and Masina stealing in at the back post for Udinese’s goals, Atalanta’s opener was also very avoidable.

Milan sit deep in the area and are caught static after failing to properly deal with a cross. Maehle picks up possession and the marking assignments are all lost, with three players stood in the vicinity of Zapata, Toloi and Pasalic outnumbering Bennacer and Malinovskyi (circling) spotting the danger.

Rather than pushing out Tonali hesitates for a split second and Theo hernandez does not follow the run of Malinovskyi. The result is that he gets a chance right where he wants it: first time on his left foot on the edge of the box. Maignan is also unsighted by a screen in front of him.

Quality off the bench

As the game progressed spaces began to widen between the Atalanta midfield and defence, and this was the perfect chance for Charles De Ketelaere to show his quality.

The playmaker role needn’t be a fine art at all times, as just drifting into the space, receiving the ball and playing in a runner is enough to open up a tiring or disoriented defence.

Theo opened up the passing lane and rolled a ball into the feet of the Belgian, who turned and sent a perfectly weighted through ball that met the intelligent run of Tonali, and it deserved to be an assist.

As a final point, Tonali also showed his intelligence to screen the defender knowing that his midfield partner was looking for the far corner with his shot for the equalising goal.


As mentioned in the introduction, it was a game where things didn’t seem to click for Milan in the attacking phase for all their territorial superiority. Pioli was right to mention the fact that limiting Atalanta to just two shots on target was a big positive, however it should have also resulted in a win.

Pioli put more faith in Brahim Diaz, Rebic and Messias after the Udinese game but the front four (Leao included) just never got going. Saelemaekers, De Ketelaere, Origi and Giroud coming off the bench may be a sign of what will happen for the line-up versus Bologna.

Tags AC Milan Atalanta-Milan


  1. The false nine wasn’t the problem. Rebic played that role well. As a false 9 you are supposed to roam and at times be on the wings. After all that’s why it’s called a false 9, it’s having a supposed 9 that’s not necessarily in that position all the times. The problem was when he was in the 9 and pressed but Leao didn’t. It basically nullified his effect

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