AC Milan managed to get the job done with a 1-0 win against Fiorentina on Sunday afternoon, but they certainly left it late to open the scoring.
In the end it was Rafael Leao who seized a stray pass from Pietro Terracciano in the Fiorentina goal to surge into the box and finally show the composure the team had been missing, securing a pivotal 1-0 victory that puts Milan seven points away from a first league title in 11 years. Here is our tactical analysis…
In recent analyses we have touched on how Milan had a very obvious approach of trying to score early in the game through a high intensity and fast-paced start, and on Sunday it was no different.
Fiorentina are a team that can set up to frustrate but seldom do under the progressive Vincenzo Italiano, and inside the first few minutes it became apparent that the trademark Italiano midfield press was in full effect, the same one he used to stifle the Rossoneri with Spezia in that very damaging 2-0 defeat in the second half of last season.
Milan played their way around it quickly and effectively with Sandro Tonali dropping deeper to be the ‘quarterback’ of the double pivot while Franck Kessie (at the other end of the green line) could often be seen 20-30 yards further upfield.
This sequence saw Milan quite literally play around the sides of the frantic Fiorentina press with Olivier Giroud getting involved by dropping deep and the wide men – Junior Messias and Rafael Leao – looking to stretch with runs off the shoulder in behind.
The result of this opportunity was Theo Hernandez scoring albeit after Messias was offside in the build-up but the sheer number of bodies (five Milan to six Fiorentina players) inside the box showed a desire to generate overloads and capitalise on La Viola’s disorganisation.
Familiar warning signs
It wasn’t all attacking issues that Milan had to focus on though as Fiorentina nearly took advantage of some dreadful set piece marking to take the lead. The line of players plus two near post men and some runners showed a familiar mixed approach between zone and man-marking, but it can leave gaps.
In this case it did and when all of the away side’s runners plus the Milan defenders saw the cross from the left drift over their head, Igor (circled above) found himself exactly in the position he hoped, yet drove his low shot wide after even having time for a touch to steady himself.
The frame below doesn’t look like it will result in arguably the best chance of the first half, however it combines some interesting things that indicated some pre-instructions.
Firstly, Leao drops well behind where Theo Hernandez is positioned further up the left flank, finding himself in isolation ready to cut inside or dart outside of his man to get runners in motion and open space upfield.
The plan works perfectly as the former Lille man easily strolls past his opponent on the dribble, and we clearly see Giroud and Brahim Diaz acting as almost a forward pairing ready to make a run in between the centre-backs with the wider players causing the back four to have attention all over.
Ultimately the ball was deflected into the path of the onrushing Theo, who somehow shot into the side netting despite Terracciano being down and Brahim ready for a cut-back to slot into a virtually empty goal.
Just a few minutes later we again see a similar kind of situation to the aforementioned chances. The ball is worked wide to Leao who is able to manufacture space ahead of him with the dribble, and it is the runs of Giroud and Brahim that preoccupy Milenkovic and Igor, thus creating the space for Kessie to stroll into.
This really should have resulted in a quite lovely team goal as Kessie released a perfectly weighted through ball (one that was missing from Brahim Diaz all game sadly) but Giroud could not finish the one-on-one.
Keeping at it
The atmosphere of San Siro was beginning to get tense heading into the final quarter with over 71,000 fans yet to see a goal. Aside from some odd instances of more direct play (clearances or long balls from Maignan) the strategy remained to be patient with build-up play and to play through Fiorentina’s still very active press.
In order to do that you need press-resistant midfielders and Tonali had an excellent game in terms of showing that, shrugging off the pressure to get out of the situation seen above and below, all with the knowledge that if he got past it he had taken four Fiorentina players out of the picture.
A frustrating element of the performance was the inability to make the right run at the right time. A lot of the time it was the right run, but the inability to read the line Fiorentina were playing resulted in many chances being thwarted due to offsides. In this case it was Theo who didn’t look across at the back four before the pass was released.
Simplicity brings rewards
For all the talk of systematic presses, utilising half-spaces, generating isolations and other tactical mechanisms, something you just need to stand in the way of potential passes and let the opponent make the mistake.
We saw Ibrahimovic come on and do that to generate the turnover that led to Tonali’s winner against Lazio, and both he and Rebic pressed while blocking the lane forcing Terracciano into somewhat of a rushed pass that resulted in the winning goal.
➤ Brahim Diaz: The Spaniard is not suffering from a confidence crisis from minute one. Instead he backs his own ability but then he loses that edge and the belief that he can influence the game when he misplaces easy passes. Sometimes he needs to simplify play – spinning a man doesn’t have to result in an assist.
➤ Davide Calabria: When rewatching the game it became apparent how much he struggled when one-on-one with his man. Saponara is not the quickest or the most physical and technical, but Calabria looked repeatedly at sea.
➤ Attacking changes: The conditions of a game in the first half vs. the second half are often very different (play more stretched due to tiredness etc.), but there were positive signs from Krunic, Rebic and Ibrahimovic off the bench. They showed tenacity in both the possession and non-possession phase, perhaps giving Pioli a thought or two when it comes to his starting line-ups.
The average position map for the first half shows just how high Theo Hernandez was playing while in possession compared to the midfielders and his full-back partner Davide Calabria. Brahim also played close to Giroud with Leao a runner in almost a 3-2-3-2.
The heat map also shows how much Milan were able to enjoy a more balanced approach to their build-up play and dominated the central areas.
Milan created enough chances to have at least a two-goal lead at the break and the youthfulness of the squad can also be indicated by over-exuberance and snatching at chances as much as it can a fear of failure.
Hellas Verona are unlikely to concede as much space and to press so frantically, which could make clear chances harder to come by. When they do arrive, composure is a necessity.