Structure variations plus game state cause and effect: Tactical analysis of AC Milan 1-0 Empoli

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan held onto a first half goal to secure the three points against Empoli at San Siro. The win moved the Rossoneri up to second place in Serie A with Juventus dropping points at home to Atalanta.

It was a familiar tale of encouraging and discouraging signs for Milan despite the victory. In the opening forty-five minutes, the hosts had 65% possession and out shot their opponents (8-2). However, after the break, a more proactive approach from the visitors, both with and without the ball, led to a momentum shift.

Whilst this change of tack did result in a more even sharing of the ball (53%-47%) it did not translate to chance creation with Milan still superior to Empoli in that statistic.

Stefano Pioli summarised his team’s victory as ‘a very good first half… then in the second half we weren’t so brilliant but we were good at controlling and conceding little’.

Here to provide some tactical observations on both halves of the game is @Tactics_Tweets.

In possession structure variations

In his post-match interview, Pioli shared that his side had ‘prepared our game so that Theo [Hernández’ could push up a little more and he [Noah Okafor] could concentrate more close to Jovic.” And we saw an example of this in the second minute.

Here, in the Milan possession phase, the home side had formed a base three with Davide Calabria staying deeper alongside his two centre-backs, Ismaël Bennacer and Tijjani Reijnders positioned themselves as a double pivot, Ruben Loftus-Cheek operated between the lines, Christian Pulisic and Theo Hernández provided the width and Noah Okafor played near Luka Jović to occupy the centre of the opposition backline.

Above, the Empoli defensive formation appeared to be 5-4-1. However, as Pioli went on to say: “…then when we saw that Theo (Hernández) was followed by (Emmanuel) Gyasi we preferred to keep him (Theo Hernández) deeper and widen Okafor more and he was very good in one-on-one situations.”

So the away team were not necessarily using a back five system, instead it quickly became apparent that Emmanuel Gyasi was positioning himself out of possession in reference to where Theo Hernández was on the pitch. And after identifying this defensive tactic from Empoli, Milan did their best to try and manipulate it.

At the end of the 3rd minute, we saw an immediate example in practice of what Pioli was referring to when he touched upon keeping Theo Hernández deeper and Okafor benefitting from 1v1 situations. In this instance, Milan had possession with their backline and a pass to Theo Hernández attracted Gyasi. Below, you can see how Empoli’s defensive system now appears as a 4-5-1.

After receiving the ball, Theo Hernández intelligently carried the ball infield to drag Gyasi with him and this left Okafor 1v1 against the opposition right-back, Ardian Ismajli. Below you can see how Gyasi had spotted this pending danger and began to retreat…

…however, he was too late. As after Theo Hernández passed to Okafor, the Swiss attacker beat his opponent on the outside before crossing into the box where Milan won a corner kick.

And Milan continued to manipulate this aspect of Empoli’s defensive set-up throughout the first half, with Theo Hernández’s positioning giving Gyasi constant decisions to make.

His choices, either stay more connected to his right-back and afford Theo Hernández more time and space to receive the ball in deeper areas or push higher to stay in closer proximity to the Milan left-back and leave Ismajli more isolated in behind.

But finding defensive solutions for Theo Hernández and Okafor were not Empoli’s only issues. There was also the problem of who covered the Milan players between their midfield and defensive lines. Loftus-Cheek was the number one operator in these spaces but Reijnders also played a key supporting role at times too.

There were examples of all of these combined defensive issues for Empoli in this passage of play from the 10th minute. Here, Milan had the ball in the middle third, with Theo Hernández slightly deeper which caused Gyasi to position himself in between.

The reason Gyasi had not fully pushed up to get nearer the French full-back on this occasion is because of Loftus-Cheek’s position – who Ismajli was alerting his teammates towards in the visual below (pointing).

After Milan began to work possession up their right-side, they passed back infield where Bennacer did have the opportunity to find the still unmarked Loftus-Cheek with a line breaking pass.

However, the left-footed Algerian initially received with a square body shape meaning by the time he was facing forward the passing lane had been blocked off. So instead, Bennacer continued to switch play laterally…

…where they again found Okafor 1v1 against Ismajli, with Theo Hernández’s underlapping run attracting the full attention of Gyasi, but in this action the Empoli right-back won the duel.

Milan were not only keeping Theo Hernández deeper to create 1v1 situations for Okafor though. Another byproduct of Gyasi positioning himself in relation to where the French full-back was located was that it resulted in Empoli being required to defend in a back four more often than not.

And whilst Davide Nicola’s side were clearly happy and prepared to do this, their back four was frequently left vulnerable to being overloaded by Milan forming a forward line of five – a consistent trait of Pioli’s team.

In case there is any confusion as to what is meant by a ‘forward line of five’, it simply refers to getting five attacking players up against, and in between, the opposition backline.

This forward line of five is not necessarily flat, as often two advanced central midfielders are positioned slightly deeper to occupy pockets of space in behind the opposition midfield line and in front of the opposition defensive line.

There was an example of this ‘forward line of five’ overload in the 14th minute. Below, Malick Thiaw had just passed the ball to Fikayo Tomori – with Empoli sitting off their opponents in a mid-block.

In the first half, the visitors PPDA was 19.6 demonstrating how relatively passive they were without the ball during this period.

Above, you can also see how Theo Hernández’s deeper positioning (and threat of receiving the ball from Tomori) had caused Gyasi to position himself higher up the pitch, subsequently leaving the default Empoli back four behind him.

At this moment, Reijnders had advanced higher to join Loftus-Cheek in operating ‘between the lines’ – and these two players, alongside Okafor (left), Jović (central) and Pulisic (right) completed the forward line of five.

The action picks up in the below visual. But first, something the screenshots do not do justice is the small details which led to Thiaw’s line-breaking pass into Loftus-Cheek.

If you look back at the image above, you will notice how Bennacer moved towards the ball, and there were also five other Milan players in the left-side zone too.

These five players’ left-side occupation helped create space for Thiaw to first receive the ball, then carry forward and then fire a pass through the opposition midfield line into Loftus-Cheek’s feet.

Another small detail to credit in this move is Davide Calabria off-ball movement into a higher position on the right flank. This helped capture the view of left winger Nicolò Cambiaghi who consequently turn his back which allowed the passing lane into the Milan number 8.

With six Empoli players now bypassed (forward and five midfielders), Loftus-Cheek received between the lines and passed out wide to Pulisic who attacked the opposition left-back before crossing towards the far post but was unable to find a teammate.

But Milan ensured they varied their in possession structures to ensure their attacking play did not become too predictable and the Empoli players could never settle or relax out of possession. Here’s an example of this just a few minutes after the previous attack.

In this attack, a Bennacer short carry of the ball attracted an opposition midfielder and as such Niang repositioned himself to mark Reijnders (now back in the double pivot) using this cover shadow. All of this helped create an easy pass to Thiaw with space ahead of him.

The German defender took the initiative to carry forward and AGAIN benefitted from Calabria attracting the attention of Empoli left winger, Cambiaghi, which created a passing lane into Loftus-Cheek to receive between the lines.

Thiaw expertly executed his line breaking pass and from there, Loftus-Cheek carried the ball into the opposition penalty area before crossing low into the six-yard box where Milan had a 2v2 situation – but neither Jović and Okafor could connect to finish and the chance was cleared.

And these types of defensive issues persisted for Empoli. This example from the 32nd minute shows Gyasi nearly defending in isolation, fully focussed on Theo Hernández, with the rest of his teammates forming two banks of four with M’Baye Niang providing the sole responsibility of being the first line of defense.

In this Milan move, Reijnders had again advanced to occupy a pocket of space behind the Empoli midfield line which Tomori was able to find with a line-breaking pass.

With six opponents bypassed, Reijnders carried towards the final third where he passed to Okafor who was 1v1 against Ismajli. The Dutch midfielder then made an underlapping run which helped drag an opposition midfielder with him.

This off-ball movement helped create space for his Swiss teammate to beat the Empoli right-back on the inside before pulling the trigger on a tame near post shot.

But all Milan’s domination in the first half counted for nothing with the scoreline still 0-0. However, that changed in the 40th minute. The attack started from a quick Milan freekick but this cannot necessarily be used as an excuse for the opposition, as both sides were arranged in relatively settled structures.

Empoli were organised in their two banks of four, with Gyasi near Theo Hernández, and their single centre-forward up top. Whilst had Milan formed their base of four, with a single pivot ahead, two advanced midfielders between the lines and three forwards occupying the opposition last line.

With Bennacer in possession, he began to carry the ball forward which attracted one of the Empoli midfielders to jump and engage.

However, with Reijnders occupying a pocket of space behind the opposition midfield unit, the covering Empoli central midfielder prioritised blocking a vertical pass into Reijnders which opened up a potential diagonal pass out wide to Okafor who was 1v1 against his familiar foe, Ismajli.

However, in a costly error of judgment – perhaps determined not to lose another defensive duel (lost 3 out of 6 across the ninety minutes) – the Empoli right-back preemptively pushed out to engage Okafor. But what Ismajli had not recognised was that the Swiss attacker was not shaping to receive to feet, instead he was making an out-to-in run to exploit the space in behind.

These two opposite directional movements, and Bennacer’s delay and timing of his pass enabled Okafor to get in behind…

…and enter the opposition box, where he cut the ball back for Pulisic to arrive and shoot first-time to score courtesy of a slight deflection.

Milan headed into the half-time break 1-0 up. But the second half was a different story altogether.

Game state cause and effect

As mentioned, in the opening forty-five minutes, Empoli were passive without the ball. They allowed Milan unopposed possession in their own half and instead preferred to sit in a mid-block and only engage as the ball approached their half. This concession of control led to territorial advantages for the hosts and an ability to sustain their attacking pressure.

But as the cliche goes, goals change games. And with the game state of this match now altered with Empoli now trailing (game state is the concept that describes the situation of a match at any given moment), the visitors initial game plan of sitting off and counterattacking was not going to proactively help them get back level.

Therefore, a change of approach was needed, both in and out of possession. And within the first minute of the restart we saw an example of this. Milan had a goal kick and Empoli decided to set up high, ready to immediately pressurise the ball if played out. And that’s exactly what happened. Niang closed down Thiaw…

…Cambiaghi sprinted up to Calabria, the left-back followed Pulisic, before an Empoli midfielder regained the ball infield with Milan suffering a ball loss due to the coordinated pressure they were under.

And this pressing intensity without the ball continued for the remainder of the second half. See the difference in PPDA in the graph below, with a jump to 10.9 after the interval.

This more proactive approach out of possession helped shift the momentum of the game with Empoli gaining more territory and possession of the ball (47% share after half-time compared to 35% in the first).

Game state also played its part in Milan’s approach out of possession after the break. The hosts seemed content to sit off their opponents, confident that even with a higher share of the ball Empoli would not have enough attacking quality to cause them any real issues in the final third. (The visitors have scored the lowest number of goals in Serie A this season and have the fourth lowest XG too).

As can be seen below, Milan defended in their usual system. Their back four (black line versus blue circles) covered the three opposition forwards, there were player-oriented responsibilities in central midfield (red & white circles) and then an -1 underload in their forward line against the Empoli back four (black line versus blue line).

But despite not finding any great success in terms of chance creation in the second period, Empoli did find joy in manufacturing a free player in their team to at least create more final third threat.

Picking up from the screenshot above, the below shows how the away side were able to manipulate Milan’s marking scheme to free Sebastiano Luperto, their left centre-back. Once Jović attempted to split the two Empoli centre-backs, a dropping midfielder helped execute a third-man combination to find the free Luperto…

…who was then able to carry forward into space, as had no direct marker, unlike the rest of his teammates. In this attack, Luperto failed to commit any Milan players towards him but his pass out wide still helped lead to the winning of a corner kick.

Luperto proved to be Empoli’s key attacking player in the second half. Here in the 78th minute, there’s another example of the centre-back benefitting from being the free player in the visiting team.

With Milan players all covering other opponents, Luperto was able to receive and carry forward into space before clipping a dangerous cross into the opposition box which no teammate managed to get on the end of nor even attack.

And despite this next chance being removed the record books as it was later adjudged to have been offside, a free Luperto caused a few Rossoneri hearts to skip a beat when his cross was met Mattia Destro whose header, inside the six-yard, hit the outside of the Milan post.

Despite Empoli’s improvement in the second half the visitors never truly (or legally) threatened Mike Maignan and therefore Milan’s solitary goal was enough to secure the three points.

The start of a ‘very important week’

Speaking after full-time, the Milan coach revealed that he considered “this is a very important week for our season.”

The Rossoneri hold a 4-2 lead over Slavia Praha and have the chance to complete the job on Thursday evening to progress to the quarter-finals of the Europa League. Plus, the club moved above Juventus in Serie A to reclaim second position for the first time since October.

It’s therefore been a more encouraging week than not, so far, for Pioli – at least from a results perspective – at this important stage of the season.


Tags AC Milan Milan Empoli

1 Comment

Comments are closed

Serie A Standings

Live football scores . Current table, fixtures & results.