Programmed press and positional interchange: Tactical analysis of Milan’s win against Atalanta

By Rohit Rajeev -

AC Milan arrived at Sunday’s game against Atalanta on a good run of form with three wins in a row in which they did not let in a goal, but with arguably their toughest test to come.

Looking at the Serie A table prior to kick-off would have been enough on its own to make it obvious how big a game it was against the team from of the Autostrada A35, as Milan were three points ahead of Atalanta hoping to make it six, while conversely Gian Piero Gasperini’s men wanted to pull level with the Rossoneri and with Inter who had lost to Bologna earlier in the day.

In the end it would be the over 74,000 fans at San Siro who would be going home happy as Milan emerged victorious thanks to an own-goal from Juan Musso – one we really want to give to Theo Hernandez who hit the post with a 25-yard volley first – and a late sealer from Junior Messias.

Stefano Pioli outfoxed Gasperini – who has been an opponent for 35 years now – and secured a massive win that seemed to prove that the tunnel of January is in the rear-view mirror. Below is an analysis from the game…

High press returns

One of the big mysteries coming into the game was how Milan would approach such a fixture in terms of their plan for pressing. Pioli continued his man-oriented style of pressing with 1v1 duels all over the pitch, and also reduced the size of the playing area by making the width of his side extremely narrow.



Gasperini for his part decided to opt a more defensive approach – owing to not having much choice in terms of personnel – as he chose to play Ederson as an attacking midfielder/third central midfielder to mark the player between the lines.

Laying the groundwork

As fans noted by voting Theo Hernandez as the MVP of the game, Pioli’s clever use of the wing-back meant he had the license to wreak havoc. To scatter the Atalanta markers – who also use a form of man-oriented pressing – Theo would tuck inside to the centre of the pitch.

To exploit this space Leao would move out wide, dragging Toloi with him and creating space between the middle centre-back and the Italian. This meant that Zappacosta had to stay as the right wing-back and remain in his zone.

Atalanta thus had to use zonal marking instead of man-marking and this created confusion between Toloi and Zappacosta, as can be seen when Theo draws out a centre-back to make space for Leao to cross to Giroud.


This led to the first goal. Toloi came out as he saw Theo and Leao free, but he was confused as to who he should mark. He finally made the choice to mark the Portuguese forward, leaving the Frenchman free to shoot on goal.


Two-flanked attack

On the Right side Milan used positional changes to manoeuvre and scatter the markers of Atalanta. Rade Krunic, Pierre Kalulu, Brahim Diaz and Junior Messias would often exchange their position to suck in Atalanta’s markers and look to switch the ball or play through the press.


To prevent the switch, Atalanta would try and keep Milan’s play to the wide areas by committing extra men to the wide areas of the press.


Gasperini’s mistake

Pioli also cleverly had his men overload between the Atalanta lines of press using Lookman’s lack of pressing to exploit the gaps left half-space.


Gasperini, in his defensive approach, needed Lookman to act as the creative outlet. He needed him to drop between the lines and carry the ball forward or feed to Hojlund. This meant Hojlund was isolated, which was a mistake.

Conservative approach

In the second half Milan decided to conserve energy and sit in a deep block to absorb the Atalanta attacks and break into counters using the pace of Leao, Diaz and Messias.


This was seen perfectly in the 84th minute when Leao dropped deeper to offer an option for the pass while Messias kept running forward down the centre of the Atalanta defence. The former found the latter with a lovely through ball, finished with a dink over the keeper.

The data

We thank MarkStatsBot for the numbers from the game, which show that Milan had an xG of 2.03 compared to Atalanta’s 0.16, which is up there with the heaviest tilt in favour of the Rossoneri all season.

For the fourth game in a row Milan had less possession than their opponents with 47.7% to Atalanta’s 52.3%, while the Field Tilt was 62.1% in the visitors’ favour showing clearly the intention after the first goal to contain and counter. The attack is still not flowing seamlessly, with Milan having 13 sequences of 10+ passes to La Dea’s 19.

The passing network below also demonstrates the point about Milan’s right flank with the positional interchange and sucking the press over to that side in order to create the space for Theo and Leao, the main threats. The isolation of Rasmus Hojlund (No.17) for Atalanta must be noted.


Looking at the territories of control, it has been some time that Milan have been quite as organised as that in terms of the areas covered in possession, with not much overlap in terms of zones.

The work rate of Giroud out of possession is shown by how vertical his coverage is, and the crowding of the right flank is again quite apparent.



Milan have now won four games in a row and it must be said that the performances have gotten better with each victory. Against Torino it took one moment of quality to win an otherwise dreadful game, against Spurs the team defended an early goal effectively without creating much and against Monza it perhaps should have been more than one goal scored while allowing bigger chances at the other end.

In the win on Sunday, though, Milan combined their new-found defensive resilience with more fluid attacking play and the intelligent pressing that characterised the team during the Scudetto-winning campaign.

There was no fear about the one-on-one battles occurring across the field as there was in January because confidence levels are back to a high level, while the pressing from the front made life difficult for Gasperini’s men and the contain-and-counter approach worked a treat in the second half.

A three or four-nil win wouldn’t have been a gross misjustice which speaks volumes about the control and maturity of Milan’s performance. Now the challenge is to ensure it happens consistently.

Tags AC Milan Milan Atalanta


    1. Pioli is a good tactician, but sometimes he fails with his approach. Earlier I’ve seen Pioli getting the best out of his players, but these days it’s not the same. He created a system Earlier to support the underperforming players, which I’m not able to see these days. Even Thiaw was an accidental revelation due to the injuries he had, otherwise he would have been on the bench right now. He can try to use Vranckx, Adli and CDK with different instructions, I do firmly believe these three players can offer a lot, but rights now we can’t see any of that. Hope this changes soon before the season ends.

Comments are closed

Serie A Standings

Live football scores . Current table, fixtures & results.