Benefits of in-possession structure and rotations: Tactical analysis of AC Milan 3-0 Lecce

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan comfortably secured the three points against Lecce with a 3-0 home win. The Rossoneri were already two goals ahead when the visitors were reduced to 10 men, shortly before the interval, making the second half a mere formality. 

Christian Pulisic got Milan off to the perfect start, when his well-struck left-footed shot, from the edge of the area, nestled into the corner of the net. The hosts doubled their lead in the 20th minute, when Oliver Giroud headed in from a corner kick.

Despite having less of the ball in the opening forty-five minutes (41%), Lecce still managed to create six attempts on goal – the same amount as Milan. However, any genuine hopes of the visitors staging a comeback were diminished when striker Nikola Krstović was shown a straight red card for a high-footed challenge in the 45th minute. 

After the break, the Rossoneri control of the game understandably increased with the player advantage. And in the 57th minute, Rafael Leão put the fixture beyond all doubt by finishing off a Milan counterattack to make it 3-0, whilst Lecce were still claiming a penalty kick from their previous attack. 

Post-match, Stefano Pioli referenced his side’s attacking gameplan when reflecting on the victory: “We always try to play with the positions that we have prepared to cause issues in the opponent’s defensive phase”, before adding “we played the game we wanted to play.”

So whilst Milan’s gameplan may have only been truly relevant, and needed, in the first half, here’s @Tactics_Tweets to provide some observations on what Milan’s plan of attack actually involved. 

In-possession structure and rotations

Immediately from kick-off Milan showed signs that their players would arrange themselves into a different structure when in possession of the ball, compared to when without. As you can see below, right-back Davide Calabria pushed infield alongside Yacine Adli in central midfield, which left three players behind at the base.

Elsewhere, ahead of the ball, Tijjani Reijnders advanced into the left half-space, to occupy the pockets in between the Lecce midfield and defensive lines, whilst Christian Pulisic did the same job in the right half-space.

The Dutch midfielder’s higher positioning also helped Milan form a forward line of five, alongside Pulisic, Samuel Chukwueze (right forward), Olivier Giroud (centre forward) and Rafael Leão (left forward).

By the 5th minute, Milan were still forming similar arrangements. Although, by this time it had become clear that not all players were tied to set positions within this ‘structure’.

Below, there is an example of Adli dropping back into the base of the three, which meant Reijnders was filling his space in central midfield, alongside the still inverted Calabria. With the forward line of five now missing a player, Hernández was advancing, off-ball, to fill the left half-space.

So the early indicators were that Milan were aiming to (roughly) form a 3-2-5 structure in possession / attacking phases. As Lecce defended in a 4-5-1 system, the purpose of Milan’s shape was to, as Pioli put it, “cause issues in the opponent’s defensive phase”. 

To be more specific, the Rossoneri aimed to get certain benefits by targeting particular, perceived, weaknesses in the opposition’s out of possession shape. These benefits included:

  1. Overloading the Lecce back four with their forward line of five.
  2. Positioning players, namely Pulisic and one other, between and/or behind the opposition lines to create questions for their opponents of who will pick them up.

One further benefit included manufacturing situations where Milan could position a number of their players towards one side or a certain area of the pitch. The idea being this could attract more opponents towards that area, and then potentially leave spaces on the opposite side that could be exploited.

This tactical ploy is often referred to as ‘overload to isolate’, and if you look back at the two previous screenshots you will notice Milan’s possession had a left-sided bias. Plus, Chukwueze can not be seen on either visual as he was positioning himself so wide on the right wing.

This was intentional, as it gave the hosts the option of manufacturing situations where they could draw Lecce over to their (Milan) left-side, leaving Chukwueze isolated on the right wing, ideally 1v1 against the opposition left-back.

And whilst most of the credit should be awarded to the individuals for Milan’s opening goal – e.g. Chukwueze (attacking and beating multiple players, plus, making the assist) and Pulisic (finding space and the ball strike) – the team’s structure and principle of ‘overload to isolate’, also played its part.

As can be seen in the pass that preceded the Nigerian attacker (still out of frame) receiving the ball. Also, note how all ten Lecce outfield players were focused, and tilted, towards central areas and the right-side of the pitch.

This enabled Chukwueze to receive in an initial 1v1 situation. 

The action which followed, was all down to individual brilliance – as Lecce actually got players over to support their left-back, but it wasn’t enough. In the words of Pioli, Milan “succeeded thanks to the quality of my attacking players” and this goal was the perfect illustration of this.

After taking the lead, Milan continued to show the benefits of their in possession structure. Here in the 8th minute, their 3-2-5 is again visible, and noticing a 2v1 overload against the Lecce left-back (see Reijnders and Leão), the inverted Calabria played a long pass to exploit.

After Reijnders won the aerial duel, Leão was now in possession of the football, in the final third, with five Milan players up against four Lecce defenders. Ideal conditions.

Whilst this initial attack broke down, Milan kept the play alive and it resulted in Hernández crossing for a Pulisic header which the USMNT could only direct straight at Wladimiro Falcone.

Due to his proximity to goal and connection of his header, if Pulisic had directed the ball either side of the Lecce goalkeeper it would have certainly made it 2-0.

In the opening fifteen minutes, despite allowing Lecce three low quality attempts on goal, Milan had near full dominance of the game.

This is best demonstrated by their 77% possession share, which was aided by the structure they were forming on the ball – and the fact that Lecce dropped into a 4-5-1 mid-block when the home team had settled spells of possession.

Milan were able to use their 3-2 base, which often involved a lopsided back three – with Theo Hernández positioned wider left (see below) – to patiently circulate possession in front of their opponents. This group of five players aimed to draw out players from the Lecce midfield line to create spaces, or confusion, that could then be exploited.

But as already highlighted, certain Milan players (mainly Theo Hernández, Adli and Reijnders) were not restricted to only one position within the team’s wider structure, and it was these positional rotations which helped cause confusion for Lecce, as it raised questions as to who should mark who once the Milan players executed their interchanges?

This situation from the end of the 15th minute shows Milan in their most typical 3-2-5 arrangement. However, ten seconds later…

…the picture looks a different story. Adli had dropped into the left-back slot, Reijnders lowered his position to join Calabria in the double pivot and Theo Hernández had again advanced to occupy a position, in between the lines, in the left half-space.

When you compare the white lines depicting Lecce’s defensive units in the images above and below, you can see how these positional rotations caused a reaction from the opposition players.

This included Ylber Ramadani (right-sided central midfielder) pushing up to engage Adli and Patrick Dorgu (right winger) dropping as he followed Theo Hernández’s movement.

Whilst in this instance nothing came of the situation, and it’s clear that Lecce had a plan to deal with these types of rotations, Milan were banking on it only taking one occasion where an opposition player switched off or was late to react for them to gain the upsides of their approach. 

And a few minutes after this sequence, the home team got their reward. The action picks with the hosts in possession so each side where in their corresponding structures, Milan 3-2-5 and Lecce 4-5-1.

After Milan exchanged passes amongst their base of five players, they soon began to execute their positional rotations, meaning that the Lecce players needed to adjust the opponent they were originally marking. The most notable case of this was Lorenzo Venuti (right-back) and Dorgu (right winger) switching between Theo Hernández and Leão.

Now, the static screenshots do not serve justice to the additional, and simultaneous, opposite movements Theo Hernández and Leão were making to create further separation for themselves in this attack. But the ‘proof is in pudding’. 

These two players, who seemed in perfect sync, were able to work the ball in behind for Theo Hernández to receive and then win a corner kick. From the resulting take, Giroud headed home to make it 2-0.

After this point, with game state likely playing a factor, the momentum of the matched shifted. Lecce began to grab more of a foothold in the game, but in the 45th minute, everything switched back in the favour of Milan when Luca Gotti’s side were reduced to ten men.

In the second half, Milan scored in the 57th minute via a counterattack which allowed them a final thirty minutes of controlled football (71% possession) to secure a comfortable 3-0 win. 

All-Italian clash in Europe

Tijjani Reijnders described the victory against Lecce as: “A nice afternoon to play at the San Siro. We got the three points and we had fun.”

The seriousness will soon return for Milan, however, when they welcome Roma to San Siro for the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final on Thursday evening.


Tags AC Milan Milan Lecce


        1. yeah a bit irritating even though inter were the best team they could still have drawn or even lost with a bit of luck for udinese even though they were pretty much testing their own luck throughout the second half.

          1. No doubt they were a better team but it’s always nice to see a minnow taking down your rival.
            Side note: I liked Udinese’s keeper, the goal he conceded was also somewhat tough luck

          2. No doubt and in general i will always cheer on the minnow that is unless they of course meet milan or a couple of other teams i to some degree has some sympathy towards, Also one of the reasons why international tournaments sometimes gets the extra spice for the time being.
            Yeah he seemed to get his hand on the ball but it deflected and hit the post and created an open opportunity for fratesi. He did also have some other good interventions so he desserves some credit for the fact that they was in the game for so long,

  1. Looked like Inter accumulated two yellows/suspensions intentionally ensure availability of two important players for the derby

    1. Yeah lautauro and parvard seemed to get the cards by purpose but they should be commended for the timing of the fouls because they didnt impact their game. Well guess we will just have to beat them ourselves so they doesnt get the second star against us.

    2. Dirty club. They started it in the middle of additional time. Pavard just screaming at the ref for given an obvious freekick then went smiling with a guy immediately after getting booked bunch of criminals!

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