AC Milan secured a narrow victory over Fiorentina on Matchday 13 to end a run of four Serie A fixtures without a win. The game’s solitary goal came at the end of the first half courtesy of a penalty kick which was won and converted by Theo Hernández.
The opening forty-five minutes generally lacked quality from either side and this resulted in a void of clearcut goal scoring opportunities. The first shot on goal did not come until the 19th minute and even though the volume of attempts increased from this point, the quality of shots remained low.
In the second half, after a chaotic ten minute end-to-end spell, Milan prioritised protecting their lead – something they’ve failed to do on recent occasions. This gamestate afforded Fiorentina a higher share of possession and resulted in more attempts on goal for the away team. However, through a combination of wasted attacks, resolute defending and heroic goalkeeping, Vincenzo Italiano’s side were prevented from equalising.
In what was an ugly, but much needed, win, here’s @Tactics_Tweets observations from the game.
With continued injuries and suspension to manage, Stefano Pioli made three changes to the team which drew to Lecce in their previous league outing. Christian Pulisic and Luka Jović came into the forward line, alongside Samuel Chukwueze, and Yunus Musah started in midfield ahead of Rade Krunić.
Whilst on paper the Milan side appeared as if it would (and could) operate as normal, in and out of possession, in reality the Rossoneri formed different systems in different phases of play. More on this shortly.
For Fiorentina, Vincenzo Italiano made two changes to the side which beat Bologna in their last match, with both coming in attack. Lucas Beltrán came in as the centre forward and Riccardo Sottil started on the left wing. The visitors were also equally interchangeable systematically, in and out of possession, and this appeared part intentional and part forced upon them.
Creating confusion in attack
For the majority of this season, a recurring theme for Milan when in possession has been having five players behind the ball and five players ahead of the ball. This has manifested itself in variations of a 3-2-5, 2-3-5 or 4-1-5 shape. But despite seemingly having the player profiles to keep to these structures in attacking phases of play, Pioli opted for something different against Fiorentina.
In the opening few minutes, Milan were predominantly in their defensive set-up, as Fiorentina took early control of the ball. So it took until the 4th minute to get the first glimpse of Milan’s gameplan when in possession. Upon first viewing of Milan’s deep build-up, all looked relatively standard, with some notable aspects being Tommaso Pobega dropping alongside Tijjani Reijnders to form a situational double pivot and the two full-backs maintaining their width.
However, after some deep ball circulation, ten seconds later, the picture looked a very different story. Both full-backs were no longer in sight and Pobega had pulled out wider left. As a result of this altered possession structure, Milan had disjointed Fiorentina’s defensive system. Note, the difference in Arthur Melo positions in the images above and below. With gaps now appearing in the Fiorentina midfield line, Pulisic dropped infield to receive the pass from Mike Maignan…
…and from here, Milan progressed possession upfield where the rest of their attacking structure can now be seen. Both Davide Calabria and Hernández had advanced on the wings and Chukwueze had come infield to take up a more centralised position nearer Jović.
After deciding to recycle possession, a new Milan structure began to reveal itself when faced against a settled Fiorentina defensive shape – a 3-1-5-1. Pobega had dropped to form the left-side of a situational back three, with Reijnders infront as a single pivot. Ahead of this, the full-backs provided the team with width and this enabled Chukwueze, Musah and Pulisic to occupy central areas, with Jović the focal point, occupying the centre of Fiorentina’s backline.
And to demonstrate this 3-1-5-1 was not just a one-off circumstantial event, here’s the exact same structure in the 16th minute.
So the question begins to arise as to why? Why, in a must-win game, would Pioli opt for this shape, especially when, as mentioned, he had the player profiles to form their usual attacking structures. Well, part of the reason appeared to be to create confusion for the opposition.
In Serie A this season, Fiorentina have the lowest PPDA in the league with 8.64. PPDA, short for Passes Per Defensive Action, is a proxy metric of pressing intensity at a team level, used to try and capture the degree to which an opponent is pressuring the opposition when they don’t have the ball. A low PPDA number indicates higher intensity when trying to win the ball back.
So Fiorentina have a tendency to be proactive without the ball. Therefore, Pioli’s decision to form a new in possession structure looked to be an attempt to counter this and disrupt any pre-planned pressing scheme the away side may have made. And this ‘structure’ was only the starting point, as Milan players also appeared instructed to be dynamic in their off-ball movement, with players taking up different positions to exploit any gaps manufactured in the Fiorentina defensive shape.
A few of the perceived upsides this new imposed structure provided Milan were:
➤ Pobega dropping alongside Malick Thiaw and Fikayo Tomori allowed Theo Hernández to advance which subsequently caused an issue for Fiorentina of who would track who. Another likely reason for Pobega dropping was to provide additional defensive cover, especially with both full-backs pushing so high.
➤ As Fiorentina wanted to be proactive without the ball, having so many (six) opponents behind their forward and midfield lines gave these units a decision as to whether it was best to press forward or stay in position.
➤ Milan’s six players ahead of the ball enabled the home team to gain numerical and positional superiority against both the Fiorentina back four and midfield units. Plus, it enabled their central players to drop on the blindside of the Fiorentina midfield to help with ball progression.
These are just some of the likely reasons, but in reality, there will have been a myriad of other factors in play, both from an offensive and defensive perspective. And whilst in the first half, Milan were no way a slick operation in possession – perhaps a byproduct of the changed structure causing confusion in their own team too – they did lead the shot count 6-3 (not including their penalty kick) by the break.
And the majority of their attacking moments were generated through their manipulation of the Fiorentina defensive shape. So whilst it would be remiss to solely attribute Milan’s victory to Pioli’s tactical decision, as the first half drew to close the Rosseneri did build some momentum through this approach and it eventually culminated in the game’s decisive goal.
Here are some examples to help demonstrate. Firstly, in the 22nd minute, Milan had deep build-up. Again, initially starting in a 4-2 base structure.
However, fast forward 19 seconds and after some ball circulation amongst their backline, Milan began to dynamically shift into new positions. On this occasion, not only did Pobega drop into the backline but also Reijnders, which consequently drew Alfred Duncan up the pitch creating a gap in the midfield line which Lucas Martínez Quarta jumped up from the backline to fill and cover Musah.
After passing back to Maignan (who has the technical ability to pick out long range passes), the French goalkeeper spotted a potential opportunity to exploit a disjointed Fiorentina…
…and found Calabria in space, high on the right wing. From this attack, with Fiorentina still in retreat mode, the ball ended up with Pulisic on the edge of the area who shot to give Milan their first meaningful attempt on goal in the game.
Next, in the 42nd minute, where momentum began to build, Milan had settled possession and formed their base of three, with Calabria on this occasion dropping to help form. With Musah recognising the team no longer had a player occupying the right wing, he sprinted out to take this slot and received the pass on the outside of the Fiorentina block.
Once the USMNT international received the ball out wide, it triggered a jump from the Fiorentina left-back which enabled the centrally positioned Chukwueze to make an in-to-out run to receive a line pass and exploit the vacated space.
But unfortunately for Milan, despite entering the penalty box with teammates in good positions, Chukwueze failed to execute the final pass.
And then finally onto the lead up to the awarding of the Milan penalty. The sequence started in the 45th minute, with a deep throw in.
Pulisic again took advantage of his positional superiority to drop lower, on the blindside of the Fiorentina midfield to receive a line breaking pass from Tomori.
From here, Milan maintained possession on the left wing before recycling the ball backwards where there were various dynamic off-ball movements to exploit the manufactured gaps in the Fiorentina defensive organisation. In the below instance, Reijnders made a horizontal movement to attract Duncan and create a passing lane into Musah in space between the lines.
With no Fiorentina player in immediate in close proximity, Quarta jumped out of the backline to engage which forced Musah infield and into a collision with the retreating Duncan which caused the ball to divert to Jović…
…who delicately flicked the ball into the path of central and advanced Hernández who carried into the box before being fouled to win, and then convert, the penalty kick.
In the second half, Milan’s attempts on goal were few and far between. Instead, Fiorentina had 60% of the ball and flipped the shot count in their favour to 17-2. But what helped Milan limit the quality of these on goal was their defensive organisation which in comparison to their offensive gameplan, was relatively simplified.
Simplifying in defence
Recurring out of possession themes for Milan this season have been being player orientated in central midfield and having specific pressing schemes which are prepared to allow for 1v1 matchups in their backline. And whilst it could be argued that any change to this approach for this fixture could be complicating matters, due to Fiorentina’s style of play, Pioli’s decision to simplify matters for his side aided their solidity.
As Italiano likes his side to be dynamic in possession, his players can often take up different positions and interchange with teammates. So to avoid the Milan players being pulled into different areas of the pitch, Pioli set his side up in two compact banks for four, with Musah pushing up alongside Jović when engaging the opposition backline higher up the pitch and dropping when the team were defending lower.
Both Musah and Jović also seemed to be tasked to pivot off whoever was playing as the Fiorentina midfield 6, with one always ensuring this player was in their cover shadow. And this out of possession approach was visible within the opening minute of the game.
Here, in the 37th minute, Milan were defending low with their two banks of four. Chukwueze dropped to support Calabria on the Fiorentina left wing and Musah lowered his position to protect any horizontal pass into central areas. With no progressive passing options available, Fiorentina were forced backwards to reset their attack.
A key feature of the whole Milan team in defensive phases was prioritising marking zonally as opposed to specific opponents. This meant the home team could maintain their compactness and shift across as a unit to whether the danger was, as opposed to having individuals being dragged out of position creating gaps in their block. It was also meant that every player knew their specific defensive responsibility, exactly where to position themselves without much consideration. And these factors came to Milan’s benefit in the second half, as they looked to protect their one goal lead.
Here’s an example from the 77th minute where Fiorentina initially progressed possession via their right wing. Note Chukwueze’s initial position, he had further distance to get back into shape than others after just being on the attack on the right wing.
But in a demonstration of his awareness of his defensive responsibilities, following a diagonal switch from Fiorentina to their left wing, the Nigerian winger knew he had to get back quickly to support Calabria and that he did.
But unfortunately for Milan, Fiorentina had a relay pass option via Cristiano Biraghi who was able to put a cross into the box with substitute Ruben Loftus-Cheek not getting back in time to prevent. However, he feared not, as the rest of his teammates had dropped accordingly, with seven players now inside the penalty area, and Pobega was able to head clear.
Whilst Milan’s defensive gameplan may have been simple in theory, in execution it was anything but. The Milan team deserved credit for their work ethic and whilst they undoubtedly rode their luck at times, the team also put up their highest number of interceptions (51) and clearances (32) showing how active the team were required to be to keep Fiorentina out.
Post match, Pioli was quoted as saying ‘we played the game we had to play’ and this was very evident in their performance. But in a must-win game, Milan mustered a win, so the manner in obtaining their victory is somewhat obsolete.
Next up, Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, in another must-win game.