Poor build-up play and limitations: Tactical analysis of AC Milan Women’s defeat to Sassuolo

By Steph Insixiengmay -

AC Milan Women lost to Sassuolo by a score of 0-2. This is the first loss for the team in the league. It’s a temporary setback and one they must learn from if they are to meet their objectives of winning a trophy and qualifying for Europe next season.

Down below is a look at where it all went wrong Rossonere and how they can improve for the upcoming games.

The formations

AC Milan (3-4-2-1): Giuliani; Fusetti (60′ Árnadóttir), Agard, Codina Panedas; Bergamaschi, Grimshaw (46′ Jane), Adami (72′ Thrige), Tucceri Cimini (72′ Longo); Thomas (60′ Stapelfeldt), Vero; Giacinti

Sassuolo (4-3-1-2): Lemey; Santoro, Dongus, Filangeri, Philtjens; Tomaselli (76′ Orsi), Mihashi, Parisi (82′ Brignoli); Dubcova; Clelland (82′ Benoit), Cantore (87′ Ferrato)

The First Half

The game started off with both teams struggling to keep the ball in the first 10-15 minutes of the match. Milan’s main offensive threat was Vero, who tried to score from long-range shots. The shots didn’t do much damage though, and they were easy pickings for Diede Lemey.

Milan initially had more of the possession and initiative that resulted in a few corners. Most of these corners were the result of crosses that were sent into the 5-yard-box.

Then, in the 15th minute, Sassuolo took the lead. After Erika Santoro successfully exerted pressure on Linda Tucceri Cimini, Sassuolo won the ball on the right side of the final third. Parisi then won the second ball and put it long to Cantore. She managed to get the ball after poor anticipation and positioning by Laura Agard. Agard was caught ball watching and Cantore passed the ball to a perfectly positioned Kamila Dubcová, who then struck the ball into the top right corner. Sassuolo took the lead with the first chance they created in the entire game.

Sassuolo lined up in a 4-3-1-2 but their formation was anything but rigid. They were unorthodox in their approach and style of play, with their centre-backs drifting into the midfield to build up the attack and the right-back, Tamar Dongus, dropping back to start the play. While defending, they did not use an organized defensive structure but rather resorted to individually marking players on the pitch, which sometimes led to confusion.

While it was difficult to understand their formation, the Neroverde did a good job of neutralizing Milan on the pitch. This was evident by how Milan couldn’t find a way to hurt Sassuolo no matter how organized their attack was.

Sassuolo played with four at the back while Milan played with three at the back. The Rossonere tried to play out of the back with their three-player defensive line, but Sassuolo opted for a high press that disrupted their attempts to build up play. Sassuolo also played with a high player to player press which then switched to a low block when Milan managed to beat that press.

The Neroverde were more aggressive from the start, while Milan wanted to keep the ball and attempted to disrupt Sassuolo’s defensive organization through a series of short passes. The problem was that their passing was either aimless (with no intention to attack) or direct and sloppy passes that led to a loss of possession. Milan’s only threats came from corners or free kicks. As time passed by, the Rossonere got desperate and attempted long balls since their method of possession was not working.

The Rossonere’s main attacking threat, Valentina Giacinti was neutralized by Sassuolo’s defensive duo of Mana Mihashi and Maria Filangeri. Lindsey Thomas was the only one that was quick on her feet and was able to make some productive runs both with and without the ball. But she couldn’t make the most of her opportunities and the Neroverde’s defense eventually got to her too.Sassuolo had an interesting approach in defending free-kicks, they sat down deep in the keeper’s box. Milan, however, didn’t know how to punish that risky defending of set-pieces.

Sassuolo’s risky defending of set pieces

The build-up play

The Rossonere also had problems in the build-up as they couldn’t find their strikers in good positions, especially Giacinti and Grimshaw. Giacinti was obviously frustrated as the game went on, probably because of the fact she barely touched the ball thanks to how effectively and aggressively Sassuolo marked her out of the game.

Thomas was the most visible attacking threat for Milan in the first half, as she circulated in all attacking areas from left to right, but the problem was that she didn’t have the support she needed to make something happen. The problem was not limited to Lindsey, as even Vero, who is usually Milan’s best-attacking player, had trouble dictating the tempo of play and finding teammates in good positions.

Milan’s main problem is that they didn’t have the patience and calmness to patiently build up their attack and to create space. They also didn’t find the time to find their teammates in better positions. They were rushed in their decision-making, as they played too quickly and in a direct manner, and they rarely veered from this plan of attack too. This game plan just played into Sassuolo’s hands, and it gave them the opportunity to hit the Rossonere on the counter-attack.

Sassuolo, on the other hand, didn’t take any risks in the build-up. For example, when they saw they could lose the ball in dangerous positions because they were outnumbered, they opted for long balls to get out of danger. They did so, even if they didn’t have much success with them. Milan actually had the advantage over Sassuolo in that sense, though the final score of the match would say otherwise.

Sassuolo attacked with a lot of players, as they had as many as seven or eight of them in the opposition’s half, and most of their attacks went through Milan’s left defensive side. Linda Tucceri Cimini, in particular, had trouble dealing with the overloads on the left flank.

One interesting detail about Milan’s defending focuses on their concentration and anticipation. An example of this is their defensive positioning, as we see three Milan players look at the ball, and not the players behind them. They also created problems for themselves by playing three players on one, which created defensive vulnerabilities elsewhere.

The way Sassuolo defended deserves to be commended, as they always stood close to their opponent, And did not allow them to control the ball and start attacking play.

Milan’s defense, on the other hand, was poor, as they stood far from the opposition and were unable to stop counterattacks.

Sassuolo also overloaded the midfield with a lot of players and Milan just couldn’t cope with the numerical advantage. They also sometimes built up with no one in the middle, and used Lemey as a sweeper, with Miyashi moving to a holding midfielder position. Milan lost the battle in midfield, as they did not have the wide midfielders and wingers needed to counter the Neroverde’s effective press. Milan mostly attacked in the middle, and their midfield trio of Adami, Grimshaw, and Vero were not up to the task.

Sassuolo overload midfield

In the 35th minute, Sassuolo pulled another counter-attack on Milan’s left side where Agard, Codina, and Tucceri had big problems with Clelland and Cantore. Milan actually lost shape in the second part of the first half, as they stood too far from Sassuolo’s attacking players, and they lost second balls while not being able to control runs in behind, especially on the left defensive side. Mistakes like this would ultimately lead to their downfall.

The Second Half

At the beginning of the second half, Christy Grimshaw was substituted out for Refiloe Jane. One could argue that Grimshaw probably should have not started this game, despite the fatigue Jane may have felt prior to the game. Milan started the half on the front foot, but it was Sassuolo who doubled their advantage. Sofia Cantore won a corner, then took the corner kick that found the top of Dongus’ head. Once again, poor marking led to the second goal, as Milan’s players were caught ball watching again. Just four minutes later, Laia Codina got a yellow card for fouling Lana Clelland as the last player in defense. In retrospect, it probably should have been a red card.

Sofia Cantore played a good game, as her constant runs in behind Milan’s defense, aggression, and energy caused Milan a lot of problems.

Sassuolo continued to implement a low block, and aggressively marked the Rossonere’s players in dangerous positions while waiting for opportunities to counterattack. Milan didn’t play well in the first 60 minutes so Ganz implemented a double change at the 60th minute. Nina Stapelfeldt and Guðný Árnadóttir came in to replace Fusetti and Thomas. Fusetti had a lot of problems with Cantore, so her substitution was done to solidify the defense. Stapelfeldt’s substitution was done to connect the midfield and attack with smart passing and by switching play from one side to another. Unfortunately, her substitution was too little too late, as – aside from one attempted header after on goal, she didn’t show much in the thirty minutes she played.

Sassuolo were really good in keeping defensive shape, shifting between a high press with six to seven players and a defensive line pushed 40-50 meters from goal to a low compact block within 20-30 meters in front of their goal, where they just waited for Milan to make a mistake in transition. Sassuolo’s midfield also did their part, as they were great in anticipating Milan’s moves. They also managed to stop a lot of Milan’s attacking play before they became too dangerous, which left most of Milan’s players frustrated and not being able to respond. You could see in every action, duel, and play that Sassuolo had a bigger belief and ambition.

Sassuolo’s defensive shape

When attacking the Neroverde’s low blocks, Milan lacked both the idea and vision to unlock Sassuolo’s defense, and they also didn’t put enough dangerous balls from crosses into the box, even when the Sassuolo defense was 20-30 meters away from goal. Milan didn’t create a single dangerous chance in the whole game. Milan also lacked speed and quick feet in their attack, while it was the opposite case with Sassuolo. Lemey also contributed to their attack, as she was good at distributing the gall. She also knew when to switch sides, how and where to put the ball to avoid Milan’s pressing and she did it well.

After the second goal, Sassuolo didn’t have any problems avoiding Milan’s pressing, and they even started to play more on the ground with fewer long balls and through more direct passing. With a combination of short passes and direct balls, they could easily beat Milan’s first two blocks (in attack and midfield) and come to the last 30 meters of the goal with 5-6 players and creating chances to increase their scoreline.

Sassuolo avoiding Milan’s press

Ganz made two more substitutions in the latter half (Andersen and Longo) and took out Tucceri Cimini and Adami. Milan then switched to a back four with Andersen behind Bergamaschi. Milan continued with high pressing, but Sassuolo still continued to avoid their pressing.

By switching tactics, Milan had more bodies in the sixteen-yard box and it is no accident that in that period Milan had the best chances in the whole game. Sassuolo’s coach, Gianpiero Piovani then tried to slow the rhythm of the game with a lot of substitutions as a way to distract Milan’s momentum.

Vero also dropped deep to be more with the ball and to move the ball quicker in transition.

In the end, though, it was too little too late. Sassuolo would emerge the victors of the match, and deservedly so.


This was yet another disappointing loss for the Rossonere. This loss was almost a carbon copy template of their loss against Hoffenheim. You would have thought that the team would have learned their lessons by now but apparently, they need a few more knocks before they finally get it.

It would perhaps serve the Rossonere well to bench Laura Agard and Laura Fusetti. The two veterans have been prone to mental lapses and it has cost the team dearly. They probably need to be benched to make way for the younger, more talented players like Guðný Árnadóttir. Linda Tucceri Cimini might need to sit for a few games to let Sara Andersen play in her place.

Milan might want to consider switching formations too. Playing a four at the back might serve the team well. The team trialed this formation during the preseason and had success with it, particularly against Atlético Madrid and FC Zürich.

By implementing a formation such as the 4-3-1-2 or a 4-2-1-3, they could make great use of the defensive talent they have on hand while allowing Nina Stapelfeldt to connect the midfield and the defense.

However, don’t hold your breath for the team to implement these suggestions. Ganz has shown that he’s quite stubborn and tactically limited and that he doesn’t listen to other people, no matter how many times others point out his flaws to him. And in the end, the Rossonere pay a dear price for it

All we can hope for now is that they don’t drop any more points while not making use of all the talent on the team.

Up Next

Milan will play S.S.D Napoli at 12:30 CET this Sunday. A lead-up to the match will be posted fairly soon.

READ MORE: The schedule of the day as Milan prepare for important Atalanta encounter

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