Pre and post-red card difficulties: Tactical analysis of AC Milan 4-2 Slavia Praha

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan beat a ten-man Slavia Praha 4-2 in the first leg of the Europa League Round of 16 at San Siro. The Czech side received a red card in the 26th minute with the scoreline 0-0, but by half time it was 3-1 to the Rossoneri.

Despite taking a two-goal advantage over to Prague next week for the return leg, the overriding sentiment amongst Stefano Pioli and a number of his players was that of disappointment with Milan’s performance.

Speaking after full-time, Slavia Head Coach Jindrich Trpisovsky said, in his view: “In the first 25 minutes it was a good match, we did even better than Milan. Then after the red card the match changed.”

Here to provide his observations on the game, both pre and post-red card, is @Tactics_Tweets.

Pre-red card difficulties

In the opening twenty-five minutes, from a statistical perspective, Milan had the greater share of possession. However, as the xG graph below demonstrates, this ball dominance did not translate into shots for the hosts.

These stats only prove to show outcomes of specific game events though, they do not tell the full story. In actuality, Slavia were dropping off, allowing their opponents to have possession – or to be more exact, allowing the Milan centre-backs to have relatively comfortable possession in front of them.

Simon Kjær attempted 109 passes over the course of the game, the most of any Milan player and the highest the Danish defender has attempted in 2023/24 (he usually averages 58 pass attempts per 90). And to accentuate this point further, Kjær’s first-half defensive partner, Matteo Gabbia, was fourth highest on the pass attempt list, despite only playing forty minutes in total.

But dropping off into their own half and affording the opposition centre-backs the ball was only part of Slavia’s out-of-possession plan. The rest of the team worked out of a 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1 defensive system.

The away team’s back four had a +1 against the Milan forward line of three. Their full-backs stayed tight to Christian Pulisic and Rafael Leão and this left their two centre-backs to cover Giroud. Their two deepest central midfielders, Lukáš Masopust and Oscar Dorley, stayed in close proximity to the two most advanced opposition midfielders, most typically Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tijjani Reijnders.

The Slavia wingers covered and tracked the Milan full-backs and then Mojmir Chytil and Lukáš Provod shared responsibility between sitting on Yacine Adli and engaging the Milan centre-back in possession upon certain triggers e.g. close proximity or progression into the Slavia half etc.

And these defensive tactics resulted in – 1) the majority of Milan possession being at the feet of their two centre-backs and 2) restrictive access to all other Milan players – and these were the reasons why Milan struggled with chance creation prior to the red card.

Here’s an example in practice from the 13th minute. The home team had just progressed possession to the top of their own half from a goal kick. As you can see below, the Slavia players are each performing their respective responsibilities previously described.

Milan initially began to work the ball up their right-side but with all advanced players having an opponent closely following them, the hosts recycled possession back towards their free centre-backs.

Gabbia then made an attempt to progress up the left flank but the angle of his pass into the dropping Theo Hernández gave the French left-back no other option than to carry backwards.

From here, Milan were forced all the way back to Mike Maignan. So after over thirty seconds of continuous possession, the home side were right back to where they started – where the cycle repeated itself.

Milan were allowed to progress the ball up and through their own half without much opposition. Gabbia then found himself in lots of space to play forward, either via a carry or a pass.

In this instance, Theo Hernández – who in the previous action had carried the ball infield before passing backwards – used his situational central starting position to his advantage to try and penetrate through, and in behind, the Slavia back four. Whereas you can see below, this decision and off-ball movement had created separation from his marker, David Doudera (right winger).

But, as Slavia’s defensive gameplan had gambled upon, if you’re going to concede possession to any opponents, ensure it’s the ones who can hurt you the least. And this is exactly what happened, as Gabbia didn’t attempt the riskier (but higher reward) pass to Theo Hernández, instead opting for a safe ball into Leão which he actually put out of play.

And this was the recurring pattern of Milan’s possession in the opening periods of the game. Here’s another example from the 17th minute. A Milan centre-back, Kjær to be precise, in possession with all ten Slavia outfield players in front of him.

The off-ball movements of the Milan players – Adli pulling wider to find space and receive the ball, then Pulisic and Reijnders making opposite movements – created the potential opportunity to put a ball over the top of the Slavia backline for Reijnders to penetrate in behind.

Adli also opted against this type of pass, instead choosing to retain possession and pass back to Kjær. From here, Milan exchanged passes and executed further rotations on their right side before Florenzi did attempt a pass over the top for a Pulisic run in behind but it was intercepted and Slavia conceded a throw-in.

From the restart, Milan initially worked the ball over to their left side but despite having space ahead to advance into, Gabbia decided to play it safe (or be patient, depending on your outlook) and pass laterally to Kjær – whilst teammates continued with their off-ball movement (see Theo Hernández and Reijnders below).

Seeing the opportunity to penetrate, Kjær was brave enough to attempt the pass but was unable to execute it with Slavia intercepting and clearing the danger.

So in these two examples, we’ve seen different decisions but still no success. One centre-back is not confident enough in his technical capability to execute a penetrative pass and the other is happy to accept the challenge, though unsuccessful in his attempt. For reference, both centre-backs showcased examples in either category.

But difficulties in possession were not the only difficulty Milan faced before the sending-off. When Slavia had the ball they were frequently able to play through their opponents and reach the final third but lacked the quality in their final action (passes, crosses and shots).

Out of possession, Milan formed their usual defensive system. This consisted of a back four, three midfielders with player-oriented responsibilities and the three forwards split between the opposition back four.

The issue the home team encountered though was the visitors performing lots of positional interchanges and off-ball rotations which regularly created, and then found, the free player. And there was a perfect illustration of this in the 14th minute.

A Slavia throw-in on their left side was circulated over to their right-back. In central midfield, the away team’s double pivot was beginning their off-ball rotation to disrupt the Milan midfielders’ marking scheme.

The Czech side recirculated the ball back along their backline and out towards their left where, as you can see below, the Slavia double pivot had now switched horizontal lines and both Doudera (right winger) and Provod (second striker) had dropped towards the ball to support their side’s build-up. The latter’s dropping movement had also initially dragged Florenzi upfield.

But Slavia opted against progression up their left side and instead worked the ball back over to their right flank where they were able to break the first line of the Milan defence, with a pass into Doudera who was in his new situational position.

Out of shot, what you cannot see below was Theo Hernández (who typically would be the player responsible for the right winger) decided not to fully follow. This was because the Slavia right-back, Tomáš Vlček, was simultaneously making an opposite movement upfield to give the Milan left-back a decision to make, as to which opponent to cover.

This meant that Doudera was able to receive and turn before he found a free Provod. How? Well, after Florenzi retreated, likely to provide cover in the backline and in concern of the advancing opposition left-back (El Hadji Diouf), Provod became free and instead Pulisic picked up the responsibility to mark him. But the American did not react quickly enough which enabled the pass to be made.

Provod then proceeded to carry forward before completing the large distanced one-two pass combination with Doudera who had continued his (untracked) forward run to exploit the space created in the Milan defensive shape. However, despite the opportunity favouring a left-footed shot, Doudera repositioned himself to shoot with his right but only managed to slice his effort safely wide of the Milan near post.

So this was the story behind Milan’s difficulties pre-red card. And the actual lead-up to this sending-off was a familiar scene. It started halfway through the 24th minute where Milan had possession with Kjær who passed out wide to a dropping Florenzi. Elsewhere, the Slavia players were each executing their defensive roles.

After receiving the ball, Florenzi initiated possession over towards the Milan left-side where he followed his pass – alongside some other simultaneous minor Milan midfield rotations – and the ball ended up with Gabbia who began to carry forward but then played it safe to Theo Hernández out wide.

Milan continued to retain possession for the next 30 seconds or so but had made little progress in regards to territorial gain. The ball was still with their centre-backs and in front of Slavia.

There was an opportunity for Gabbia to play a pass over the top for a Loftus-Cheek off-ball depth run but the centre-back kept it simple and gave it to his partner Kjær.

Milan maintained possession for another thirty seconds or so, and in the process had dragged a number of their opponents deeper which created an opportunity for Gabbia to receive and then carry forward into acres of space ahead of him.

Which the centre-back accepted but after reaching the final third, passed out wide to Leão who, whilst the more creative option, had few options ahead of him so opted to pass backwards to Adli.

The French playmaker did well to lose his marker and then played a pass into the feet of Pulisic which tempted Diouf into his rash tackle, when there was no need, and ended up with the Slavia left-back receiving his marching orders and ultimately, the gaming changing from this point forward.

Whilst Milan seemingly gained immediate benefits from their player advantage, taking the lead less than ten minutes later and going into the half-time break 3-1 up, in the second half a number of their early difficulties re-established themselves.

Before then, however, Slavia will likely be disappointed with the goals they did concede. The first, a result of their centre-back dropping too deep, allowing Giroud an onside close-range header. The visitors did equalise minutes later though, courtesy of an impressive volley from the edge of the area from a corner kick – which was won after a slip by Gabbia.

Milan went back ahead in the 44th minute when Reijnders managed to direct the ball through a number of opponents from a short corner kick. And then in stoppage time, Loftus-Cheek headed in from another corner kick to provide the two-goal interval advantage.

Post-red card difficulties

At half-time, Pioli made two substitutions. Davide Calabria came on for the cautioned Florenzi and Fikayo Tomori replaced Gabbia, perhaps for both minutes for the English defender and a higher technical quality in possession. But these personnel changes did nothing to alter the pattern of the game.

In the second half, even with an additional outfield player, Milan found it difficult to break through their opponents. It is worth caveating, that with a two-goal lead, the Rossoneri did not need to force their attacking play and may have been instructed to be more conservative in possession to avoid giving Slavia opportunities to get back into the game.

However, when considering Pioli’s post-match comments of “I expected a second half with more pace”, this theory holds less substance. So how did the ten men of Slavia continue to be so difficult to play against?

Well, the visitors continued to sit off their opponents. Their back four still covered the three Milan forwards (Ondřej Zmrzlý dropped to left-back). And the Slavia wingers (Provod moved to left wing) were still tasked with covering and tracking the Milan full-backs.

The differences came with the two Slavia central midfielders and single forward (Chytil) who worked hard to cover four (five at times) Milan players. This included Milan’s two centre-backs and three midfielders, although the spare Slavia centre-back assisted with this by jumping out to cover any free advanced opposition midfielder.

The priority remained to limit access to the more dangerous players (midfielders) with the trade-off being forcing (allowing) possession towards the Milan centre-backs. And it was Slavia’s effectiveness in their defensive phase that ensured that despite Milan’s increased ball possession (71% in the second half), it still did not generate either high quantity or quality chances. Here’s an example of this effective out-of-possession approach in practice.

In the 58th minute, the Slavia back four and wingers were each player-orientated and this left central midfielders Masopust and Dorley, and forward Chytil, to cover Milan’s remaining players. In this sequence, Reijnders’ position between the lines attracted both Dorley and a centre-back to double up on him.

But in an example of the readjustments Slavia were prepared to make, once it was clear Adli was going to receive a pass unmarked, Dorley sprinted to engage – leaving Reijnders to his teammate behind. Adli was still able to receive the ball and attempt a forward pass…

…however, as he was under immediate pressure and he knew all his advanced targets were closely marked, (plus poor execution) it resulted in his long ball forward being unsuccessful and the ball going out of play.

In the opening twenty minutes of the second half, Slavia were not only proving to be effective without the ball but on the occasions they had it, they also caused Milan difficulties out of possession. The away team continued to execute off-ball rotations and from one such passage of play, Slavia won a free kick in the Milan half. From the resulting take, they pulled a goal back in the 65th minute.

With the goal deficit reduced to one, the Milan ball share increased further (jumping from 64% between 45-60 minutes to 74%+ during 61-90+) but the difficulties in possession persisted. And as much as Milan lacked off-ball movement, tempo and risk in their play (to name but a few), Slavia’s part in this shutout should also be credited.

As per this example from the 67th minute which started from the kick-off after the game went to 3-2. The Milan back four had the ball in front of all opposition players and played a pass out wide to Calabria who had space ahead of him.

However, Calabria was quickly engaged by Provod (left winger) and then his forward pass to Pulisic suffered the same fate with the USMNT international closely tracked by new left-back Zmrzlý. With immediate progression restricted, Milan played back infield where they had free players (i.e. centre-backs) – but importantly for Slavia, these were the opponents who they preferred to have the ball (lesser of all the possible evils).

The action picks up below ten seconds later with Tomori playing a lateral pass to Kjær, who then switched play diagonally towards…

…Pulisic (who was still closely marked). But in an illustration of Slavia’s work-rate, Provod immediately sprinted to support his full-back. The trade-off of this was that it enabled Calabria to be free momentarily and the right-back responded by making an underlapping run which was found inside the box…

…but the away team needed not to fear as Dorley had covered and blocked Calabria’s cross. Even if the cross had been successful, however, note below how Slavia had got all nine outfield players back into their penalty area to defend the situation.

And this work-rate continued throughout the second half. In this example from the 81st minute, the majority of the Slavia players (green circles) were in their player-oriented roles. This left their central midfielders and forward (yellow circles) to cover four Milan players (black circles).

In the 67th minute, the hosts had brought on Luka Jović to provide an additional centre-forward presence. But (with the benefit of hindsight) the outcome of this substitution was that it only served to help the visitors, as it meant their centre-backs now picked up one Milan forward each and Masopust, Dorley and substitute Ivan Schranz had one less player to cover between them.

When comparing the above visual to the one below, you can see how the three Slavia players (still highlighted by yellow circles) adjusted themselves to deal with the immediate ball threat.

Again, in the image underneath, the three Slavia players were demonstrating how they constantly coordinated with each other to restrict the opposition in possession – preferring to allow the Milan centre-backs the ball and deny access to the higher-quality players (Adli and Ismaël Bennacer in this instance).

In this passage of play, the Milan centre-backs eventually did help find a pass through the lines and into Leão…

…but the Portuguese attacker’s attempt at a first-time pass into a Milan centre-forward was easily intercepted and subsequently cleared by a Slavia centre-back.

And whilst the game appeared to be heading towards a 3-2 finish, in the 85th minute Milan made it 4-2. The lead-up to the goal actually came from a Slavia goal kick. The away team had pushed up their players to compete for the aerial duel and then the second ball but after the hosts regained possession, they were able to attack a disorganised, and stretched, opposition defensive set-up.

A few moments later, a piece of Leão individual (1v1) brilliance and a Pulisic toe did the damage to send the Rossoneri into the second leg with a two-goal advantage.

Aggregate lead is good

Pioli reviewed that his team “…are not through to the next round yet, even if the aggregate lead is good.” And whilst results at this stage of the season are of most importance, it is these types of performances – including their difficulties in and out of possession – that make the Milan faithful question how sustainable these victories are.

Up next, Empoli at home in Serie A tomorrow before a trip to the Czech Republic for the return leg.

Tags AC Milan Slavia Praha Tactical Analysis

1 Comment

  1. Interesting analysis. Slavia players had aggressive work rate to cover Milan players. Credit must be given to slavia players. Milan players were too timid when in possession. Milan players, especially the center backs lacked belief in their passing ability during the build up phases of play

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