Tonali’s role and left side chemistry: Tactical analysis of Milan’s win against Dinamo Zagreb

By Oliver Fisher -

AC Milan secured a huge win on Tuesday night as they demolished Dinamo Zagreb 4-0 at the Stadion Maksimir to give a big boost to their hopes of reaching the Champions League knockout stages.

The deadlock was broken not long before the break as Matteo Gabbia scored his first senior goal for Milan with a header from a Sandro Tonali free-kick, but it was the second half when the floodgates really opened.

Rafael Leao made it 2-0 with a solo run that he finished clinically at the near post, then Olivier Giroud buried a penalty after Tonali had been hauled down, and finally an own-goal from Robert Ljubicic capped off the scoring but it could have been more in truth.

The win means that Milan just need to avoid defeat against Red Bull Salzburg at San Siro next week to secure their progress to the Champions League round of 16, while Dinamo Zagreb are virtually out. Below is a brief tactical analysis…

Initiating the battle

Going into the game, it was already well known that the forward duo were the main threats for Dinamo as their excellent league form shows. Bruno Petkovic is their top scorer with 7 goals and 2 assists to his name in just 6 starts domestically, and he demonstrated at San Siro that he is a handful.

He was partnered by Mislav Orsic who scored the goal that temporarily halved the deficit in Italy last month. He has 6 goals and 4 assists in 12 games played in the 1. HNL this season.

The objective for Dinamo was to soak up Milan’s pressure as much as possible and counter quickly through the lines. One big question mark about the centre-back pairing of Gabbia-Kjaer is whether they would have the pace and athleticism to follow and engage the forwards as Kalulu and Tomori do.

They answered that very quick, as the below screenshot shows Kjaer making a sharp run as he sees the ball being played into the path of Petkovic, thus wanting to put him under pressure so he either surrendered possession or slowed the move.

This was then followed by Gabbia breaking his defensive line by around 30 yards to follow Petkovic and stop him having an easy turn to then build the attack quickly and vertically.

Tonali’s positioning

We have seen Pioli give Tonali positional freedom before, but this is perhaps the most striking example that has been on display so far this season at least.

Every time Milan attempted to build play through either one of the centre-backs stepping out, Bennacer at the base of the midfield or even out wide, Tonali can almost always be seen taking up a position on Dinamo’s defensive line.

This is the kind of role you might expect the attacking midfielder (in this case Charles De Ketelaere) to take up, but by constantly pushing forward it disrupted Dinamo’s plans to play a pretty flat midfield three and it generated space in pockets around the edge of the area for crossing or switching.

The most obvious example of Tonali’s attacking tendency was seen when he made the run in behind to try and latch on to Ante Rebic’s flick, winning the penalty.

We have seen the Italian midfielder pushing up from the double pivot into a 4-1-4-1, but for large parts of Milan’s attacks against their opponents on Tuesday he was even beyond that, playing off Giroud or making runs in behind while De Ketelaere looked for the resulting space.

Chemistry is key

It is quite hard to draw many concrete conclusions from the four goals that Milan scored given one was a free-kick converted from close range, one was a penalty and one was an own-goal, but the second deserves a mention.

Here we see why Rafael Leao and Theo Hernandez are among the most dangerous flanks in Europe at the moment. As the Portuguese winger picks up possession a few yards into his own half in isolation with the wing-back, not many full-backs would think to sprint and stay ahead of their team-mate.

However, the run that Theo makes is one of the highest intelligence. He runs in a crossed path, stays close enough to Leao and his markers to attract enough attention and then continues sprinting towards the byline just as Leao makes that decisive dart infield.

The end result is the chaos you see below. Neither Dinamo defender knows whether to track Theo or put a foot in on Leao, and that allows the No.17 to take a couple of quick touches and he’s through on goal. A dangerous and cohesive combination.

The data

We think MarkStatsBot for his excellent presentation of the data from the game at the Maksimir. It starts with the xG, where Milan massively outperformed Dinamo who registered 0.48, with the Rossoneri getting 4.09.

Possession was 55.1% in favour of the home side but the field tilt was 52.1% to Milan, suggesting that Pioli’s men were happy to cede the ball knowing that when they did have it, they would do more with it.

In addition, Milan’s defensive line height was 52.1m compared to 41.0m for Dinamo, demonstrating just how aggressive the approach was and how the ball was won back higher up the field on most occasions.



Milan were well ahead on penalty box shots (4-17) and they also had more deep completions (8-17) which generally suggests they were far more incisive than their hosts in possession.

Despite the fact Milan generated four high turnovers (recovered the ball within 40m of the opponent’s goal) the Passes Per Defensive Action (passes completed before losing possession, essentially) was 10.8 for Dinamo.

The Rossoneri had a PPDA of 8.8 in Serie A over the last two years as they have become known for an intense style, but it is clear that this year they cannot carry out as effective a press, perhaps by instruction given the differing opponents, injury problems and packed schedule.


The graph above demonstrates just how far forward Tonali got to essentially form a 4-1-4-1 and allow De Ketelaere to drift wherever needed, with Bennacer staying back as the anchor. It also shows how much ground Theo covers from his left-back role (Kalulu, in comparison, covered a much smaller space).


A statement win in Europe had been a long time coming and Milan scored four times in a Champions League game for the first time since they did so against Fenerbahce in 2005.

Given Dinamo were unbeaten in all competitions at home in 2022, this game was not a foregone conclusion and to win so handsomely under the pressure of having to do so to keep last 16 hopes alive is a great achievement.

As several of the players have remarked the scoreline could have been even greater but for some poor finishing, so the shooting boots must be on next week as Salzburg will carry a greater threat.

Tags AC Milan Dinamo Zagreb Milan
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