AC Milan beat Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 in matchday four of the Champions League to breathe new life into the group of death, even coming from behind in the game.
PSG took an early lead in the ninth minute when Milan Škriniar found himself free to head in at the far post from a corner kick. But Milan recovered three minutes later when Rafael Leão reacted quickest to a rebound to score a close-range overhead kick.
Despite shots aplenty from either side for the remainder of the first-half, the scoreline remained level at the interval. But five minutes after the restart, Milan took the lead following a pinpoint Theo Hernández cross and thumping Oliver Giroud header.
The Rosseneri defended valiantly to see out the game and secure a much-needed three points to keep their hopes of qualification more than alive.
In what was a much improved performance (and result) compared to Udinese and the reverse fixture against the same opponents two-weeks prior, here’s @Tactics_Tweets to provide his tactical observations.
Stefano Pioli welcomed back Hernández and Christian Pulisic into his side, and brought in Ruben Loftus-Cheek to replace Rade Krunić. For PSG, Luis Enrique named the same side which beat Milan in matchday three.
In that game, at the Parc des Princes, Milan used a specific pressing-scheme to engage PSG high up the pitch in an attempt to disrupt their deep build-up. Whilst this approach helped force some early turnovers, it also resulted in the Milan backline being left 1v1 against PSG’s dangerous forwards on occasions
Perhaps having been burnt from their 3-0 defeat, Pioli changed tack in defensive phases and instructed his side to be more passive out of possession in the PSG half. With the visitors being afforded more possession and territory gain, the home side’s offensive gameplan revolved around counterattacking.
Change of approach
It could be argued that Pioli’s out of possession set-up was not too dissimilar to how Milan have operated for the majority of this season – man-marking in central midfield and then allowing an underload (-1) in their forward line to maintain an overload (+1) coverage in their backline.
However, whilst, systematically, Milan were arranged in a familiar formation, one metric which highlights Pioli’s change of approach in defensive phases in this match is Passes Per Defensive Action. PPDA is a metric that counts the average number of passes a team allows the opposition to make before attempting to win the ball back with a defensive action; a higher figure indicates a team that is more passive without the ball.
In Paris, Milan’s PPDA was 8.8 whereas at San Siro it was 22.7. In fact, this 22.7 PPDA was Milan’s highest of the season across all competitions (their previous highest being 17.08). Even with the caveat of Milan taking the lead against PSG in the 50th minute – and therefore defending deeper for the remainder of the game to protect their lead which would have skewed the overall metric – in the first-half, when the scoreline was level for the majority of the time, Milan’s PPDA was still 18.7.
So Milan were prepared to allow PSG more uncontested possession and decreased the height of their off-ball engagement, all in a match in which they needed to win – but why? Well, there were a myriad of interlinked defensive and offensive reasons, and tactical trade-offs.
By sitting off PSG, Milan could protect their own half more, allowing their defensive lines and units to remain closer together, reducing the spaces for the visitors to play in. This approach, coupled with their usual man-marking in central midfield, allowed Milan to reduce the opposition’s progression routes centrally.
With pass attempts into midfield being quickly engaged, increasing the risk of ball losses and turnovers, the hope was that PSG could be forced into more ambitious (and therefore lower quality) forward passes. But, as the Milan backline had a numerical superiority (remember, underload up top, to maintain an overload at the back) they could increase their probabilities of defending these situations.
Whilst these were the (theoretical) upsides of this defensive plan, the obvious downside was conceding the majority of possession, with the Parisians having 58% of the ball in the first-half. But one way Milan tried to mitigate this risk was by manufacturing which of the PSG back four would have the most of this possession. Queue Milan Škriniar.
Allowing Škriniar possession
Part of Pioli’s defensive gameplan appeared to be allowing Škriniar possession of the ball, at least in the PSG half. In the two sides previous meeting, the Slovakian centre-back attempted 44 passes in total, the 6th highest of any PSG player. In this reverse fixture, Škriniar attempted 100 – the highest in the team.
Let’s see some instances of what happened when Milan allowed Škriniar possession.
From the 2nd minute, the plan kicked into action. Škriniar received the ball from Gianluigi Donnarumma, or Dollarumma as the Rossenri faithful christened him for the evening, and Milan allowed the centre-back to carry forward.
Seven seconds later, and no pressure on the ball nor a short passing option into his man-marked midfield teammates, Škriniar opted to play a long forward pass but it was overhit and the Milan backline were able to comfortably regain possession.
A similar scenario occurred in the 28th minute. Škriniar received the ball and the Milan forward line made no attempt to engage, instead allowing the defender to carry forward.
But again, with no safe pass into midfield, Škriniar decided to go long where Milan’s overload in their backline put the odds in the favour of Fikayo Tomori and Malick Thiaw against Randal Kolo Muani and the centre-back pairing came out on top.
Early in the second-half, the pattern continued. Here, the free Škriniar received from his goalkeeper, with all other PSG players covered by a Milan opponent.
Nine seconds later, Škriniar was over 30-yards further forward without any contest. However, after a pass out to left-back Lucas Hernández…
…the Milan forward did spring into action, with Pulisic engaging, forcing the ball back inside to Škriniar.
After nearly ten seconds of Škriniar holding onto the ball, and with all nearby teammates covered by a Milan player in close proximity – two Milan players in Kolo Muani’s case – Škriniar again makes a lateral pass to Hernández.
But whilst the Milan press was not exactly aggressive, the pressure did at least force the PSG passing triangle back to its original starting point.
And then lo and behold, a safe pass is made to the spare player, Škriniar. If there was a moment which highlighted this part of Milan’s plan the most, it’s perhaps the below screenshot. Despite the ball traveling to Škriniar, and Giroud being in much closer proximity to the Slovakian compared to his centre-back partner, the French striker’s first thought is – where’s Marquinhos?
But the Brazilian defender would face the same issues, with all short passing options restricted or risky, he decides to go long. But over hits his pass with the ball going out of play.
Over the course of the ninety-minutes, Škriniar actually ended up successfully completing 97% of his passes. But for Milan it was the threat of these passes, or more accurately lack of, that mattered most.
However, don’t let this selection of screenshots be misconstrued, Milan’s out of possession was not flawless. PSG still managed 11 shots in the first-half. Some were generated by their individual attacking talent, some came during the basketball – sorry, transitional – moments of the game, and others from PSG disjointing the Milan marking-scheme.
One of the best examples of the latter resulting in chance creation came in the 27th minute, when a Ousmane Dembélé shot crashed against the bar. This sequence started following a flurry of turnovers from either side in the Milan half. Play eventually settled and both teams began to organise themselves in their respective defensive and offensive structures.
Here, PSG have the ball and Milan are set in a lower block. As Mbappé was central at this moment and Vitinha on the left wing, Davide Calabria was tasked with pushing out to engage so to maintain the Milan +1 overload, Tijjani Reijnders sat in front of his centre-backs (as had no opposition midfielder to man-mark).
After receiving, Vitinha recycled possession back to the backline, and Škriniar – now taking advantage of being the free player – easily passed into the tucked infield Achraf Hakimi who was being tracked by Leão.
PSG then ended up circulating possession back along their backline and out towards the left wing again. After Lucas Hernández’s backwards pass, Milan pushed up the pitch but had to adjust their marking responsibilities with Hakimi and Warren Zaire-Emery making opposite off-ball movements – see Yunus Musah (red spotlight) signaling to Leão to swap opponents.
PSG then progressed the ball down their right wing to Dembélé, where you can see below how this caused Theo Hernández to jump and Musah and Leão now had new marking responsibilities.
After receiving and dragging Theo Hernández up the pitch, the French winger made a pass over the top into the vacated Milan left-back area for Hakimi’s run. Also note below Zaire-Emery’s body shape, as he was also making a forward run.
Next you can see that after collecting the pass in the corner, Hakimi was able to pass to the supporting Zaire-Emery. However, the recovery runs from Musah and Theo Hernández has allowed them to be 2v2, and Milan have maintained their +1 overload in the penalty box too.
Everything appeared in-hand, but suddenly Dembélé was free on the edge of the box to receive an inside pass. Whilst Leão had eventually tracked (see him just in shot below), it was evidently too late, and Dembélé was able to shoot at goal but his left-footed strike could only find the crossbar.
So as we’ve seen, Milan’s defensive gameplan – like any tactics – was a balancing act of trade-offs. Pioli picked his PSG poison, and as showcased, he and his team survived.
However, allowing PSG’s least threatening player (in their eyes) most of the ball was only one part of Milan’s wider defensive gameplan. They also needed a solution for the other end of the threat spectrum, and this meant having a plan for Kylian Mbappé.
Plan for Mbappé
The plan for the PSG superstar is simple in description but required high levels of discipline, organisation, communication and work rate in execution.
In essence, when Mbappé received the ball on the left wing, where he spent the majority of the game, Reijnders’ job was to basically to abandon his man-marking responsibilities and get over to support Calabria. And on the whole, he did this without fail.
Here’s an example towards the end of the first-half. Milan are set in their defensive block, man-marking in central midfield and their forward line covering the PSG back four – Giroud’s positioning below proves that Milan did eventually engage Škriniar the closer he got to entering their half. A pass was made out wide to Mbappé…
…and Reijnders immediately leaves Vitinha, his job is now to support Calabria.
Which he did, and not fancying his chances of beating two opponents, Mbappé passed back inside to the now free Vitinha – the lesser of two evils, clearly in Milan’s eyes.
On the hour-mark, a familiar scene appears with Škriniar able to carry forward uncontested. Again, note all Milan players performing their defensive responsibilities, with Reijnders in very close proximity to substitute Lee Kang-in.
However, after a pass is made out to Mbappé, Reijnders ditches the South Korean to take up his supporting role of Calabria.
The play that followed the above action involved Mbappé again passing inside to his now free teammate and PSG switching play to their right wing before the developed attack found its way back infield, with Lee Kang-in able to receive on the edge of area and had Mbappé free in space on his left-hand side. The PSG sub of course chose the pass to his French teammate…
…but within seconds Mbappé was swarmed by three players blocking his route to goal. The striker’s shot actually ends up getting blocked by Tomori’s head.
And Milan, and more importantly Reijnders, continued to execute this plan over and over.
In the 72nd minute, PSG had deep possession but everyone knew where (and who) they wanted to get the ball too. In this situation, Reijnders was again performing his primary role of covering his midfield opponent.
But as soon as the inevitable pass was made to Mbappé, Reijnders released himself to get back and cover Calabria, limiting the angles the French attacker had to attack.
Milan certainly had to ride their luck on occasions throughout this game, but their individual and collective commitment to the gameplan was undeniable. As Pioli put it post-match: “We suffered, they kept the ball more, but we also had opportunities to score more goals.”
And without stating the obvious, goals are required to win. But so far in their Champions League campaign, Milan had neither managed to win nor score. So whilst it was all well and good Pioli having a defensive gameplan, he also needed an offensive one too.
Utilising Milan’s super-strength
One characteristic a number of the Milan squad share is ball carrying ability. Leão, Loftus-Cheek, Pulisic, Reijnders, Theo Hernández and Musah, all share the ability of being able to progress possession of the ball up the pitch, at speed, and over various distances.
And as hinted at earlier in this tactical analysis, Milan’s plan of allowing PSG uncontested possession in their own half not only had defensive intentions, but also offensive ones. By allowing the visitors to progress the ball up the pitch, Milan were creating more space in behind that they could exploit in transition.
But Milan did not only plan to utilise this ball carrying ‘super-strength’ through counterattacks – albeit their created multiple attacking moments and opportunities through this tactic – they also aimed to bait PSG forward in their build-up phases and then exploit these manufactured spaces.
In build-up, Milan often formed a situational double-pivot with Musah dropping lower alongside Reijnders. This not only helped Milan with deep ball retention and progression, but it could also disjoint the PSG pressing-scheme.
In the 7th minute, Milan found an easy build-up exit with a pass into Reijnders who then found Calabria in the right-back slot. But what to note here is the PSG midfield line. In this instance, Zaire-Emery was responsible for engaging Reijnders, Vitinha covered Calabria and Dembélé was in between Musah and Theo Hernández.
Calabria barely looked up, knowing this pattern of play, and played a long ball forward into the right wing channel, aware that Pulisic would be dropping short to drag up Lucas Hernández and Loftus-Cheek would be making an opposite movement with a forward run into the vacated space. Now you can see the final member of the PSG midfield, Manuel Ugarte who was tracking the English midfielder.
The above passage of play was dealt with by PSG, but a few minutes later they had to deal with another similar scenario. However, in this instance, once Theo Hernández received the ball out wide, Dembélé left Musah and pushed out wide. You can see below, how the rest of the PSG midfield were each in close proximity to their respective opponents. So who would now cover the free Musah…
…well, like the reverse fixture, it was Hakimi who jumped, passing on Leão to Marquinhos who would push wider to cover the Portuguese attacker.
In this sequence, Milan attempted to switch play to the right wing and the PSG weak side but Milan ended up conceding a throw-in. Also note below, Calabria’s forward run, which had clearly not been matched by Vitinha.
And now onto the Milan equalizer. The lead up to the goal began with Milan playing out from the back via their left-hand side, triggering the PSG pressing-scheme of Dembélé jumping to Theo Hernández and therefore leaving Musah to Hakimi, who in this action had preemptively jumped.
But Theo Hernández exploited this early jump and made a pass into Leão’s feet. Despite Marquinhos being on his heels, Leão used his physical presence to shrug off the challenge and then execute his, and Milan’s super-strength, a carry forward against a disjointed PSG backline.
From this attack, Leão found Giroud whose shot rebounded just outside the six-yard box and then was put in by Leão’s improvisation.
This ball carrying super-strength of Milan’s was not only an advantage in an attacking sense throughout the game, but the home team also used this skill set to relieve defensive pressure – particularly in the second-half, with Leão and Loftus-Cheek being at the forefront.
Milan’s winning goal also utilised some of the side’s other strength’s. With one specific strength helping overpower a PSG weakness.
In one of the examples shown above, a forward run from Calabria appeared to catch Vitinha off guard. But on closer inspection, both Milan full-backs appeared instructed to test the PSG wide midfielders (Vitinha and Dembélé) willingness to track back for the team.
Here’s a perfect example of this in practice in the 36th minute. Milan regained possession and Theo Hernández immediately looked to initiate a counterattack with a forward run. If you look closely enough in the image below, the Milan left-back is on his toes whereas Dembélé flat-footed, helping Hernández get a head-start.
Seven seconds later, Hernández has possession in the final third. From here, Milan looked to change their point of attack towards their right wing…
…where Calabria was only too happy to make a sacrificial overlapping run to occupy the PSG defenders for Pulisic to cut inside.
Only one example, but most watchers of the game will recall countless forward runs from Calabria and Hernández. And these two full-backs played their part in Milan’s winner.
This sequence started, rather poetically, with a Škriniar being given time on the ball but losing possession. After the regain, Milan progressed play down their left wing, before coming back inside…
…where a sacrificial underlapping run from Calabria…
…opened up a passing lane into Pulisic on the right wing for a 1v1 opportunity which he duly accepted, beating his opponent to cross into the box but it had too much power on it. Before scrolling onto the next screenshot, note below the positions of Hernández and Dembélé.
Which made Hernández’s collection of Pulisic’s cross, even more impressive.
However, the French full-back did not stop there, whipping in a perfect delivery which allowed Giroud to use his aerial ability super-strength to power the header past Donnarumma.
Signs of life in the group of death
Milan’s victory put the Rosseneri on five points in Group F, with two games remaining. Next up, Borussia Dortmund at home. Another win, and qualification will firmly be in Milan’s hands going into their final group stage match away to Newcastle United.
Before then, two fixtures in Serie A against Lecce and Fiorentina. Whether Piolo can transfer this ‘underdog’ gameplan to league matters may be a different story. But if the Milan players are able to at least match the same performance levels, the Rosseneri will surely get back on a successful track after three games without a win.
Stats referenced within the article were sourced from Wyscout.