Off-ball approach holds the key: Tactical analysis of AC Milan 2-0 Lazio

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan beat Lazio 2-0 at San Siro on Saturday evening for their third win on the spin in Serie A, meaning they have recovered from the derby loss in the ideal way.

In the opening 45 minutes, both team’s defensive gameplans were having the biggest impact upon the match. With neither side able to breakdown the other in settled possession, trying to exploit in transitional moments was proving the biggest threat for each.

Whilst Lazio were leading on the shot count come the interval, the majority of their efforts were from distance. The visitors best chance came courtesy of a Simon Kjær misread which enabled Felipe Anderson to carry the ball into the box before shooting into the side netting in the 13th minute.

For Milan, despite having the majority of the ball, they struggled to convert their possession into attempts on goal in the first-half.

On the stroke of half-time, however, after a low Yunus Musah cross from the right wing and a Oliver Giroud shot forced Ivan Provedel to parry, Tijjani Reijnders pounced but could only sort his feet enough to hit the outside of the post after rounding the goalkeeper.

In the second-half, after a visible increase in intensity from Milan without the ball, the home side took control of the game in all phases and got their breakthrough in the 60th minute when Christian Pulisic fired in a Rafael Leão cutback.

After this opening goal, Milan were content to protect their lead and counterattack. This therefore afforded Lazio more possession but the away side were predominantly limited to shooting from distance.

Milan wrapped up the victory in the 88th minute when they played out from a goal kick and down the left wing before another Leão cutback was converted by substitute Noah Okafor.

In what was a deserved win, even Arrigo Sacchi stated in his post-match analysis that Milan’s second-half performance: “…bordered on perfection. An organized, aggressive team, where everyone helped each other.”

Equally impressed was @Tactics_Tweets who has taken a closer look at how both team’s out of possession set-ups impacted the game.


Stefano Pioli continued to make changes to his starting line-up due to fixture congestion. Coming back into the side were Mike Maignan, Davide Calabria, Simon Kjær, Olivier Giroud and Rafael Leão.

In possession, Milan maintained their 4-3-3 shape with both full-backs maintaining their width in build-up phases. Without the ball, the home side used a 4-2-3-1 system which enabled them to go player-for-player in central midfield.

For Lazio, Maurizio Sarri made three changes to his side which beat Torino in midweek. With the ball, the visitors formed their usual 4-3-3 shape and without, they dropped into a compact 4-5-1 mid and low block.

Lazio’s mid-block

Despite Lazio’s lower line of engagement, they were not passive out of possession.

The visitors implemented a specific pressing scheme from their mid-block which involved the ball-sided midfield 8 (either Mattéo Guendouzi or Luis Alberto) jumping out to engage the Milan backline when on the ball.

Nicolò Rovella would then shift across in behind to cover the vacated space and Valentín Castellanos aimed to use his cover shadow to block passes into Yacine Adli.

The screengrab below was a common sight in the first-half – Milan in possession in their 4-1 base structure, with their two midfield 8s advanced, and Lazio in their compact 4-5-1.

With Lazio’s compact mid-block blocking central areas of the pitch, the majority of Milan’s play involved trying to progress the ball down the flanks (around the block) or in behind (over the block).

However, often in the time it took Milan to enter the final third, Lazio had been able to drop into their low block shape, limited space and access into the penalty area.

But Milan appeared aware of Lazio’s defensive game plan and had prepared potential solutions.

In build-up phases, their full-backs maintained in an attempt to stretch the opposition, allowing for easier ball circulation and retention around their backline, and creating overloads on the flanks.

In addition to this, Milan also tried to disjoint the Lazio defensive structure with timed opposite movements, particularly by Giroud (coming short) and Reijnders (depth run). The idea being this could either create space for Giroud in between the lines or Reijnders could be found in behind.

In the 3rd minute, Maignan rolled the ball out to his back line and Adli was found but he was quickly blocked off from making any central progression so was forced backwards to Kjær.

The Danish defender having time and space on the ball appeared to be a cue for Giroud and Reijnders to spring into action. The French forward begins to make a blindside movement back in front of the Lazio defender and Reijnders has initiated his depth run in behind.

It was unclear who Kjær was targeting due to the pace of his pass, but due to its lack of height it found Giroud.

Reijnders’ run had drawn the Lazio backline deeper which momentarily created separation between the opposition defensive and midfield lines which, if Giroud had been able to control the ball (spoiler, if couldn’t and lost possession), Milan would have had an opportunity to attack the last-line.

There was another example of this tactic in the 9th minute. Again, Milan are in front of the Lazio mid-block and a pass is made to Kjær with space ahead of him – the signal.

Once in possession, Giroud and Reijnders make their respective opposite movements.

And Reijnders is nearly found in behind – after a better pass from Kjær on this occasion – but the Lazio retreating defender does well to intercept and prevent a goal scoring opportunity.

Even on the occasions Milan did attempt to access and execute central progression, the Lazio block was quick to recover and defend the situation, as can be seen below.

Here, Fikayo Tomori exploited Guendouzi’s jump and Rovella’s lateral covering movement to find a passing lane into a dropping Giroud.

However, due to the congestion (and perhaps unaware of having more time than he realised) the forward laid the ball back to Adli.

But Lazio were already retreating into their compact shape and Adli’s further attempt to make a central pass was cut out by the opposition wide midfielder.

As already mentioned, Lazio’s mid-block primarily restricted Milan’s possession play to trying to progress the ball up the pitch via the flanks and in behind.

In this sequence below, you can see the difficulty Lazio’s mid-block caused Milan. We start with the recurring scene of Milan’s 4-1 base structure and two advanced midfield 8s nearer the forward line, against Lazio’s 4-5-1.

After circulating the ball along their backline to shift the opposition from side-to-side, Adli dropped to get on the ball and passed out wide to Theo Hernández, as this is where the space was.

Once Hernández received the ball, he drifted inside and then immediately looked to play a ball over the top of Lazio’s block for Leão’s run in behind.

However, as was the case in multiple scenarios such as this one, the retreating Lazio defender was able to intercept the pass and regain this visitor’s possession.

Lazio’s compact defensive organisation helped limit the home team’s attacking threat in the first-half. But it was not only the visitors who had a specific defensive gameplan.

Milan’s out of possession approach was equally effective and in the second-half helped make the difference in swinging the momentum in their favour.

Milan’s midfield man-marking

Without the ball, Milan organised themselves into a 4-2-3-1 formation which helped them match-up to Lazio’s 4-3-3 in possession shape.

This was most apparent in central midfield where Milan’s midfield three could go player-for-player against Lazio’s midfield three. Reijnders pushed highest to get near Rovella, and this left Adli to cover Guendouzi and then Ruben Loftus-Cheek (and subsequently Musah) on Luis Alberto.

Milan were prepared to be -1 in their forward line (Pulisic, Giroud and Leão) versus the Lazio back four, as this allowed them to maintain a +1 in their backline (back four) against the Lazio three forwards.

This +1 in the back four resulted in one of the Milan central defenders predominantly being spare at the back and able to provide coverage where needed, with both full-backs able to track the wide Lazio forwards.

The trade-off of this numerical superiority in their backline was their forward line being a player short. Milan therefore relied upon Giroud splitting the two Lazio central defenders (i.e. preventing passes in between them) or the wide forward vacating a full-back to press inside (more on this shortly).

This out of possession approach from Milan had a similar outcome to Lazio’s in that it helped force the away side into looking at alternate progression routes, as opposed to central ones.

By ensuring Lazio’s central midfielders were all covered by a Milan player, this reduced the visitors backline’s access (and risk factor) of passes into their midfield.

Like Milan, Lazio were therefore restricted in their possession play, as can be seen in the 2nd minute of the game.

Lazio had a freekick which enabled Milan to get into their 4-2-3-1 formation. Giroud blocked the passing lane to the far-side central defender which enabled Pulisic and Leão to cover the opposition full-backs. Then, in central areas, the Milan midfielders are each in close proximity to their respective responsibility.

With central progression both difficult and risky to access, Lazio attempted to progress the ball down the left flank.

Below, you can now see the advantages the +1 in the Milan backline affords them with Calabria able to stay tight to the Lazio left winger (preventing him from turning), Kjær covering the central striker who had drifted over towards the ball-side and Tomori providing coverage.

In the above scenario, Lazio were forward to play backwards and recycle possession. And these types of instances of Lazio struggling to create from settled possession occurred frequently throughout the game. Their main threat (like Milan) instead was from transitional moments.

However, in the first-half in particular, Lazio were able to exploit a weakness in the Milan defensive structure – their -1 in their forward line. The visitors specifically appeared to target Leão’s side to find their free (spare) player – their right-back, Adam Marušić.

The idea being, by bypassing the Milan forward line and getting their free player (Marušić) on the ball, Lazio could force one of the Milan midfielders or defenders to jump up and engage, thus, leaving space and opponents behind them – and, more importantly, remove their +1 backline advantage.

Despite Lazio not capitalising on the several occasions they executed this forward line bypass successfully, it did help negate the effectiveness of Milan’s out of possession approach.

Here are some examples of all of this in practice…

In the 4th minute, Lazio passed backwards to Provedel which triggered the Milan high press. As Giroud curved his press towards the goalkeeper to block a pass into the left-sided Lazio central defender, this left the right-sided central defender open. Leão’s responsibility was therefore to jump up and engage, vacating Marušić.

To access Marušić, Guendouzi dropped lower (and dragged up Adli in the process) to execute a third-man passing combination.

Despite Lazio having initially bypassed the Milan forward line and Adli (five players), Marušić opted to maintain control of the ball as opposed to progressing into the space ahead of him.

Below, Guendouzi was gesturing for his right-back to advance to draw a Milan opponent (likely Hernández) towards him, to potentially create a 3v3 opportunity against the Milan backline.

However, instead, Marušić chose to make a line pass but as you can see, he was not on the same wavelength as the right winger who showed short and infield. Opportunity wasted.

In the 19th minute, there was another example (and opportunity wasted). Lazio had deep possession and Milan were set in their 4-2-3-1 block, with everyone close to their designated opponent.

Giroud is again curving his press to the ball-side central defender in an attempt to cut the pitch in half and prevent access to the opposite side.

But Lazio again dropped a central midfielder, Luis Alberto in this instance, to execute a third-man pass and access the current free right-sided central defender which is Leão’s cue to release from Marušić and press ahead.

Leão’s pressure forced a backwards pass to Provedel (equally likely a trap from Lazio). Recoginsing the opportunity, Guendouzi dropped to offer a vertical passing option for his goalkeeper…

…and drew his marker up with him, which Adli duly obliged, before the Lazio midfielder accessed the vacant Marušić who on this occasion…

…did draw Hernández towards him and also found a pass into Castellanos who laid off to Felipe Anderson on the right wing. Below, you can now see how Milan are 3v3 in their backline.

But in this passage of play, Lazio failed to capitalise by not seeing Guendouzi’s forward run into the space between the disjointed Milan backline and instead recycled play backwards.

Subsequently, Lazio’s recycling of possession triggered the Milan press and once the ball reached Provedel, the Lazio goalkeeper was able to clip a pass out to Marušić who was again in space and this led to a Lazio attack which led to a (unthreatening) shot on goal.

But these instances were more exception to the rule in the first-half. In general, Milan’s out of possession proved effective, as seen in the 34th minute.

Milan were set in their out of possession set-up and Lazio attempted to progress centrally. In this example, the Milan forward line’s multiple responsibilities can be seen, with Pulisic and Leão initially in between opponents.

Due to Milan’s player-orientated approach in central midfield, Adli intercepts the ball which lands to Leão who can then attack the disjoined Lazio backline.

Leão managed to enter the penalty area via a carry but the retreating Lazio defence were able to usher away the pending danger.

Subtle half-time adjustments

At half-time, in addition to encouraging his team to continue with their out of possession approach, Pioli also appeared to instruct his team to make some slight adjustments.

And these evidential (and perceived) adjustments helped Milan’s out of possession performance go up a level in the second-half which ultimately helped contribute to them taking the lead.

Some of adjustments appeared to include; 1) avoid their forward line being exploited as much as it had been in the first period, with Leão holding his initial position for longer, 2) increase their off-ball intensity, and 3) restrict Lazio’s opportunities to counterattack (their biggest threat in the first-half), by sustaining pressure in the final third and making tactical fouls.

Another adjustment Milan evidently made at the interval was giving license to their full-backs, Calabria and Hernández, to come infield during possession phases. This not only helped create direct passing lanes into wide players, who were then more isolated against the Lazio full-backs, but it also improved Milan’s counterpress (as more players infield to protect against transitional moments) and therefore help restrict Lazio’s ability to counterattack.

Immediately at the start of the second-half there was evidence of Milan’s half-time adjustments not only in action but taking effect. Here, Milan had possession in the middle third and due to both of their full-backs being positioned infield, it created an opportunity to pass out wide to Pulisic…

…who could receive in a 1v1 opportunity against the Lazio left-back. In this instance, Pulisic’s attempted cushion inside to Musah loses Milan the ball but…

…Musah and Giroud’s intensity to regain possession results in Lazio being put under immediate pressure…

…which forced Lazio backwards. Giroud does not give up the hunt, however, and closed down the Lazio player to block the clearance, concede a throw in and pin Lazio in their own third.

The increased intensity increased in their pressing scheme. In the 55th minute, Lazio are trying to play out against the usual Milan 4-2-3-1 high block. Giroud split the two central defenders and forced play towards the right flank (perhaps intentionally away from Leão’s side).

Due to the intensity and angle of Pulisic’s press, Elseid Hysaj…

…is forced down the line, where Calabria has closely followed the dropping Lazio left winger. With Mattia Zaccagni under immediate pressure and no safe passing option infield, Milan turnover the ball…

…and can immediately attack the disjointed Lazio backline but in this sequence failed to exploit.

There were further examples of Milan’s high block and press forcing Lazio issues in both the 57th and 58th minutes. And all of this led to Milan gaining momentum and control of the match that eventually helped lead up to the opening goal.

The action which preceded Milan’s goal involved a successful build-up through the thirds, a combination on the left-wing that got Leão in behind and running at his opponent, before crossing into the box failed to find a teammate, with all three Milan players making too similar a run inside the penalty area.

Lazio managed to dispossess Pulisic and began to carry the ball outside of their penalty area but due to Milan squeezing up the pitch to sustain pressure in the final third, namely via Hernández and Kjær, the home side regained possession.

From here, Milan initially began to probe down the right wing with Musah, who regularly interchanged positions with Pulisic, but he passed back to Calabria who crossed into the box from a deeper position.

Lazio managed to clear this cross but as Milan had squeezed up the pitch, they easily reclaimed the loose ball. From here, Lazio were able to get into their defensive shape, however, perhaps due to the continuous pressure, nobody picked up Reijnders in the left half-space.

Reijnders then slipped in Leão’s run and from this cutback, Pulisic learned from Milan’s previous mistake and made an opposite movement to Giroud – who dragged the Lazio defenders towards their own goal – to power the ball into the net and put Milan 1-0 up.

After taking the lead, Milan were more content to sit in their defensive block, making it difficult for Lazio to break through and counterattack in opportune moments.

Despite Lazio gaining more control of the ball, they were limited to mostly shots from distance. Of Lazio’s 13 shots over the whole game, 10 were from outside the penalty area.

Milan not only saw out the remainder of the game, with the whole team working hard collectively and individually without the ball, but in the 88th minute they put the gloss on the top of the performance. Okafor’s second goal in as many games made it 2-0 and game over.

A trip to Dortmund

This victory was as equally deserving as it was impressive. Milan’s organisation and work-rate without the ball not only helped restrict Lazio’s threat on it, but it also increased the Rosseneri’s own attacking threat.

Up next, a trip to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, where a similar level of out of possession performance would only likely increase Milan’s probabilities of getting a result.

Tags AC Milan Milan Lazio Tactical Analysis


  1. PIoli seemed to insinuate that musah pulling pulisics defender and going wide was tactically incorrect. But I am surprised that pioli doesn’t recognize these calculated risks for what they are. It very nearly led to a cross for the first goal and musah knows christian is reading the same thing and would man cover for him as he retreated.

    Similarly I notice on the first goal, musah has shifted himself to the left side of the field just to pull the defender a couple feet further from TR which surely is “out of position’ but another really smart read.

    Frustrating when pioli says he wants musah to be more disciplined but they will take thay for the energy….like hes not making calculated moves to improve spaces for his teammates on the fly.

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