Superior in and out of possession: Tactical analysis of AC Milan 3-0 Rennes

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan demonstrated their European pedigree with a comprehensive 3-0 win in the first leg of the Europa League play-off clash against Stade Rennes.

The Rossoneri controlled the opening forty-five minutes of the game (62% possession) but only had one goal to show for it come half-time, courtesy of a Ruben Loftus-Cheek 32nd-minute header.

Any hopes of the visitors staging a second-half comeback were quickly diminished though, with Milan scoring two goals in quick succession to put the game to bed before the hour mark.

Here’s @Tactics_Tweets to provide some tactical observations on this convincing performance and win.

Superior in possession

Rennes set out their stall early at San Siro. Julien Stéphan’s side arranged themselves in a 4-4-2 mid-block, with their forward line’s first priority trying to block vertical passes into the opposition midfield. The away side’s game plan without the ball intended to remain compact and block central areas of the pitch.

Milan’s in-possession solution to gain advantages against this block was to (initially) form a 4-1-2-3 shape – with the five most advanced players, at times, positioning themselves both staggered and flat (4-1-5). This structure was most visible during build-up phases and did morph into different iterations as play reached the final third.

The Milan gameplan, enabled by the system, revolved around creating opportunities to gain numerical (overload in any area of the pitch), positional (getting players into positions between or behind the opposition lines, where they can benefit from more space and time) and/or qualitative (getting a player who is superior to their direct opponent isolated in a one-on-one situation) superiorities.

The best way to demonstrate these superiorities, and the upsides they provided Milan, is by showcasing various examples in practice – starting with these visuals from the opening minutes.

Here’s Milan’s 4-1 substructure base – plus, Mike Maignan, whose central position afforded the two centre-backs to split wider. Meaning, that despite the two Rennes forwards trying to block passes into Tijjani Reijnders, once Simon Kjær received the ball.

…he was able to find a diagonal passing angle, through the lines, into Reijnders who then had space ahead to carry, on account of the Rennes midfield line being pinned deeper due to the concern of the five players behind them.

This specific attack immediately broke down, however, when the Dutch midfielder conceded possession by attempting a direct pass to get Loftus-Cheek in behind (and in between) the opposition backline – more on this movement shortly.

As would soon become a theme of the tie, especially in the first half, Milan were soon back in control of the ball. And the below screenshot, taken less than 60 seconds after, helps show the two teams’ formations in full.

Above, you can see the Milan back four, spread across the width of the pitch to stretch play (and the opposition). Ball circulation along the backline helped shift the Rennes block from side to side – increasing the possibility of creating gaps within it.

Then, five advanced players, gaining both positional (between and behind the opposition lines) and numerical (overloading the back four) opportunities. And finally, a lone Reijnders in between the two units, playing an important role of both offering a midfield link but also occupying spaces within the opposition block, to help manipulate and impact the opponent’s positioning and decisions.

A specific example of this is from the action above where Reijnders’ positioning impacts the Rennes right winger (Benjamin Bourigeaud). As Bourigeaud prioritised blocking any infield passes, Rafael Leão found space out wide to drop and receive the ball which triggered the opposition right-back to close down – thus, creating gaps and underload in the Rennes back four (that were not exploited on this occasion).

One additional aspect of Milan’s play, that aimed to further disrupt and disjoint Rennes’ defensive organisation, was player movements and positional interchanges. This can be seen in the image below where a semblance of Milan’s 4-1-2-3 structure remains but the players’ locations within it have changed. These tactics intended to keep the opposition guessing and readjusting in the hope that hesitation or consequential decisions were made that could then be exploited.

One feature of Milan’s play, and superiority, not highlighted yet, is qualitative. Put simply, this means getting one of your players isolated in a 1v1 against an opponent you think they can better e.g. Leão against the opposition right-back. And it was this exact tactic that led to Milan’s, and the games, first attempt on goal.

We will pick the action up below with Milan in possession on their right-hand side. As mentioned, with Rennes aiming for compactness without the ball, their block would aim to stay connected when shifting vertically or laterally, resulting in weaknesses being afforded elsewhere e.g. out wide or in behind.

Milan aimed to use this defensive principle against their opponent by firstly manufacturing situations where they could exaggerate their compactness by overloading one side of the pitch, like you can see here – with six home players (plus, Theo Hernández tucked infield) forcing nine Rennes to one side of the pitch and leaving Guela Doué (right-back) isolated with Leão.

With the trap set, Milan switched play to the Portuguese attacker who used the momentum of his out-to-in movement and the flight of the ball to bypass his opponent with his first touch before shooting inside the box where his shot was deflected onto the bar.

And this ‘overload to isolate’ tactic was repeatedly used by Milan. Here’s another example from the 17th minute. This sequence began with Milan building up, using their 4-1 base. Again, with Rennes prioritising blocking central progression, Milan could manipulate their opponents in wider areas.

Note Loftus-Cheek taking advantage of his initial ‘positional superiority’ – behind the Rennes midfield line – by making a blindside dropping movement to the right wing, giving the opposition left winger (Désiré Doué) an issue in the process.

Does he go and engage Alessandro Florenzi, leaving a potential 2v1 (Loftus-Cheek and Pulisic versus the Rennes left-back) on the right wing, or does he stay and hold his position to block a pass into Loftus-Cheek, but consequently allow Florenzi space ahead to carry into?

Doué opted for the latter, allowing Florenzi to carry forward, forcing the Rennes block towards that side of the pitch – which Milan helped exacerbate with movements such as Yunus Musah’s who helped occupy and narrow the positioning of the Rennes right centre-back – that created the opportunity to switch play…

…and get Leão in another 1v1 against his opponent. Although, on this occasion, no direct-to-goal attacking moment was generated but Milan did win a corner kick.

In addition to these left-side attacks, Milan also provided a threat down their right wing, and it was this flank which helped create their opening goal. But before breaking down that play, let’s start with a passage from the 10th minute.

Florenzi had the ball deep and whilst Rennes often allowed the Milan centre-backs unopposed possession, their ball-sided winger would often jump to engage the host’s full-backs. But the issue with this was that it gave the ball-side Rennes full-back behind a decision to make – push out to cover the widest Milan player or stay connected to the back four unit and help cover the Milan forward line overload (5v4), including players in between the lines and in the half-spaces.

The Rennes full-backs were clearly instructed to do the former – get out quickly to the widest player (as we’ve seen in some of the provided examples already) – and the knock-on effect of this was it created gaps in between the away side’s backline e.g. between the full-back and centre-back, that could be exploited with penetrative runs (and opposite movements – Pulisic dropping short towards the ball and Loftus-Cheek moving forward away from it).

All of the above descriptions can be seen in the visual below, and this resulted in Florenzi clipping a pass into the channel, and final third, for Loftus-Cheek to run onto.

Rennes’ solution to defend this (known) weakness was for the ball-sided central midfielder to track these runs. But it was difficult to recover this distance as the Milan players had a head start, due to their initial positional superiority.

This is demonstrated in the conclusion of this sequence, where after collecting the ball, Loftus-Cheek was able to get to the byline and cut-back to the near post zone which both Giroud and Musah attacked, with the latter’s shot getting blocked and winning a corner kick.

With a number of Milan’s right-wing attacking tendencies now established, let’s move on to the build-up that led to the hosts taking the lead.

We’ll start early in the 31st minute, with a typical scene – Rennes two forwards trying to prevent passes into Reijnders, the Rennes left winger jumping to engage Florenzi, and Loftus-Cheek and Pulisic making opposite movements which created a gap in the Rennes backline.

Despite Pulisic receiving the ball on the right wing, Milan opted to recycle possession but thirty seconds later, play was worked back over to their right-hand side. Loftus-Cheek and Pulisic again made opposite movements, this time the midfielder dropping short and Pulisic staying high and wide.

If you look closely enough below, both Loftus-Cheek and Rennes’ Santamaria (left central midfielder) are scanning to their left-hand side to assess the situation – the former using his American teammate as a reference for where he should position himself and the latter checking where he needed to position himself defensively.

After Florenzi received the ball from Kjær, Loftus-Cheek and Pulisic quickly made opposite movements again and this triggered readjustments from Rennes – Santamaria dropped to track Loftus-Cheek and left-back (Adrien Truffert) initially pushed out to close down Pulisic BUT as Florenzi intelligently delayed his pass, Truffert decided to retreat and hold his position.

This delay allowed Pulisic to be left unmarked on the right wing and then receive the pass, with Loftus-Cheek now pinning Truffert, meaning left-winger, Doué, was tasked with getting out to the USMNT international.

Pulisic then carried infield, which dragged Doué with him, and simultaneously Florenzi made an overlapping run into the now vacated right wing to create an overload scenario. Pulisic passed inside to Reijnders who immediately knew his next decision, a first-time ball to Florenzi…

…who then had space to cross into the box where Milan had suitably overloaded the Rennes backline.

The outcome, Loftus-Cheek, who carried on moving infield as play developed on the right wing, finding space in between the Rennes backline to connect and expertly direct the ball into the far corner to make it 1-0.

These right-wing attacking tactics also contributed to Milan’s second goal shortly after the interval.

The home side had deep possession, and formed their 4-1-2-3 structure – albeit with Florenzi and Kjær having momentarily interchanged positions. Seeing an opportunity to penetrate in between the Rennes backline, Loftus-Cheek made an opposite movement – this time with Giroud – to offer Florenzi a long passing option forward.

The right-back executed this pass to perfection and Loftus-Cheek controlled, before passing to Pulisic who was attacking the outside of the Rennes backline. Pulisic cross was diverted behind for a corner kick, but it was this take that resulted in Loftus-Cheek grabbing his second of the game.

As demonstrated, Milan’s in-possession superiorities not only helped them control the majority of the ball, but also contributed to chance creation and their opening two goals.

But Milan’s superiority was not only limited to what they did with the ball, they also proved themselves to be superior without it too.

Superior out of possession

In the limited possession Rennes did have, the majority was spent playing out from the back with either deep possession or goal kicks. Milan set up to be aggressive out of possession and disrupt the visitor’s build-up play using a hybrid player-orientated pressing scheme.

Here’s an example from the 11th minute. The set-up involved Loftus-Cheek pushing up alongside Giroud to cover the two Rennes centre-backs, leaving the opposition full-backs to Pulisic and Leão. Then the away side’s double pivot was picked up by Musah and Reijnders.

But Rennes dropped an additional player deeper in build-up, in an attempt to create an overload and help the team play out from the back. The player in question was the right winger, Bourigeaud. Milan’s solution for this was for Theo Hernández to jump out of the backline.

Whilst this did leave Milan 3v3 at the back as a result, in the opening periods, the home side forced multiple turnovers using this tactic.

However, as the game progressed, Rennes began to find more joy using this tactic, as per here in the 19th minute. With Giroud focused on angling his approach to the opposition goalkeeper to cut out the pass to the right centre-back, a passing lane was opened for Bourigeaud’s dropping movement.

This enabled a third-man combination to find the free centre-back (making Giroud’s attempts futile anyway). On this occasion, Theo Hernández was late to track Bourigeaud and then he needed to leave the right winger and press ahead to engage the centre-back in possession – but his initial lateness made him easy to bypass.

From here, whilst Rennes failed to directly exploit the 3v3 opportunity in their forward line, they did maintain possession and eventually built through the thirds and entered the Milan penalty area.

And Rennes continued to find success in playing out in this way, with Milan becoming more concerned with the weaknesses it left in their backline. This sequence from the 37th minute started with Milan in their initial starting set-up and Bourigeaud unmarked after dropping deep.

With Musah repositioning himself to deny any direct pass from their goalkeeper into Bourigeaud, his direct opponent Azor Matusiwa instead received the pass and then he found the previous free Bourigeaud. By this time, Theo Hernández had jumped out of the backline…

…and again whilst Rennes did not directly exploit their 3v3 in their forward line, after some ball retention they worked possession back towards their goalkeeper who then went to exploit the space Theo Hernández had vacated with a long pass towards Doué’s forward run, on the blindside of Leão.

In the above instance, the Rennes right-back outmuscled the Portuguese attacker and this led to an attack from the visiting team which whilst did not lead to a goal, perhaps helped Pioli decide to make a tweak to his side’s pressing-scheme at half-time.

After the break, this tweaked Milan pressing-scheme was immediately evident. Now, Leão and Giroud covered the Rennes centre-backs (Pulisic remained with the left-back), and Loftus-Cheek dropped to pick up one of the opposition central midfielders, alongside Reijnders.

All of this enabled Musah to become an in-between player and he picked up Bourigeaud when he dropped deeper. This meant that the free player in the Rennes build-up became their right-back, but when passes were, and looked like they would be, directed to him, Theo Hernández jumped to engage.

Whilst this still left a 3v3 at the back, Milan did at least ensure the weakness in their pressing-scheme was out wide (Rennes right-back free), decreased the distances and angles Theo Hernández had to recover to get back into position, and reduced the defensive responsibility of Leão.

And in the 52nd minute, Pioli’s tweak was even further justified when it helped lead to the third goal.

Rennes had possession with their goalkeeper. But with their centre-backs covered by Leão and Giroud, their double pivot closely marked by Loftus-Cheek and Reijnders, and the dropping Bourigeaud being closely tracked by Musah…

…Steve Mandanda opted to clip a pass to the free right-back, Doué. But with Theo Hernández preempting this pass, and the nature of the aerial pass affording him more time to close down the distance, the French full-back intercepted the ball…

…which fell to Leão (now further forward in transition). The Milan number 10 backheeled to Theo Hernández who carried on his forward run to exploit the unsettled Rennes defensive shape.

And from here, the now viral goal likely watched by millions, where Theo Hernández cut-back and Leão skillfully side-footed the ball, first-time, into the far corner to make it 3-0.

An accumulation of actions and events that Pioli’s half-time tweak helped manifest. Cynics may call it luck, whilst others may say you create your own luck in this world.

Up next: Monza

With an established lead going into the second leg, Milan can now fully divert all focus back to domestic matters this Sunday with a trip to Monza.

Tags AC Milan Stade Rennes Tactical Analysis


  1. I still think we have the squad for a 3-5-2 and I think Leao could play and become a great striker…


      1. Nothing wrong with a 352, bit I have to wonder about Jimenez (and RM loanee essentially and inexperienced kid) starting ahead of Puli and even Chuk.

        They there is Giroud (Whom I love).

        Look at inter. Lautauro and Thurman are super mobile and good with their feet. When Arnoutovic comes in generally things grind to a halt.

        Look at Juve. Vlahovic, Chiesa and Yildiz all super mobile and good with their feet. When Milik comes in …

        Now look at Chiesa. Great talent. Loves the wing. Not doing as well this year as many hoped. Consider Leao … loves the wing …

        Thinking of the midfield of Inter which is world class. Calanoglu, Mikitayaran, Barella. Or Juve with Rabiot, Locatelli and McKennie.

        We line up much more like Juve. That is to say … Not world class (yet)

        Seems wes need a substantial roster overhaul.

        If we stick to 4231 we seem to need a 9 and a 6. The continuity we gain only two major additions seems to play to our favor. Moreso if these two needs can be filled from players with Serie A experience.

        Why do we need to switch? (Honest question b/c I love watching a 352 so seems odd be analyzing it the other way!)

  2. These articles are my favorite each week. How much time? How many rewinds does it take you to put them together?!

    Thanks for the obvious effort. I learn a lot!

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