Reading spaces, tempo and final third creation: Tactical analysis of Cagliari 1-3 AC Milan

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan came from a goal behind to secure a 3-1 victory at Cagliari in this midweek round of Serie A fixtures. This made it two wins in a row, and their fifth of the season, to put the Rosseneri back level on points with Inter at the top of the Serie A table.

The home side took the lead in the 29th minute when their livewire forward, Zito Luvumbo, capitalised on some static Milan defending from a throw-in to smash the ball into the roof of the net.

Ten minutes later, however, the visitors equalised through Noah Okafor’s first goal for the club. Milan took advantage of a misjudged interception from Mateusz Wieteska in the Cagliari backline to feed Christian Pulisic on the left wing.

The American attacker then beat his opponent (he had 9/10 successful dribbles in the match according to Wyscout) and put a low cross into the box which was first spilled by Boris Radunović and then swept in by the quick feet of Milan’s Swiss forward.

By half-time, Milan were ahead, after Fikayo Tomori bundled the ball into the back of the net from what appeared to be a rehearsed corner kick routine. After the interval, on the stroke of the hour-mark, Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s strike from distance nestled into the side netting to put the three points beyond any real doubt.

Milan had 68% possession (source Wyscout) against Cagliari, their highest share of the ball in any of their league games so far this season. With the hosts affording Milan the majority of play and territory, @Tactics_Tweets has taken a look at what Milan did with all of this possession, with a particular focus placed on the first-half.


Stefano Pioli made five changes to the side that beat Hellas Verona on the weekend and reverted to a back four system when out of possession. But, as mentioned, Milan spent the majority of time at the Unipol Domus on the ball.

In the opening forty-five minutes, Cagliari primarily opted to sit in a 5-4-1 mid and, more often, low block. When trying to engage the ball, the wide midfielders would jump to form more of a 5-2-3 formation.

In addition to wanting to defensively congest spaces and protect their half and penalty area, Claudio Ranieri’s gameplan also aimed to draw Milan higher up the pitch to create opportunities to counter-attack into which offered their biggest cause of threat.

Due to this plan, Milan, therefore, didn’t have to work too hard, sometimes at all, to progress possession into the opposition half. When in the middle third of the pitch, in front of the hosts defensive formation, Milan tried to use a base of five players (the back four and Yacine Adli), forming various shapes of 2-3, 3-2, 4-1 and other iterations.

This base aimed to probe for openings and circulate play in an attempt to bait Cagliari players out of position and create spaces ahead that could be exploited by their five more advanced players (front three, plus, Tijjani Reijnders and Loftus-Cheek).

Here’s an example to showcase the split between Milan’s five build-up players and five more advanced attacking players.

As play reached the final third, Theo Hernández had the most license to release from the base and get further forward to combine with Milan’s forward line.

In the second half, Cagliari switched to a more active 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 out of possession system and aimed to be more proactive on-the-ball too. Whilst both of these factors contributed to Milan having less possession and creating less chances, there was also an element of game state involved.

As Milan were leading, they were more content to keep safe possession. There was less urgency and desire to risk losing the ball through progression attempts so were happy to try and see out the game.

‘Reading the spaces’

The specific positioning of Milan’s full-backs when in possession, like moving infield or staying wider, has been a recurring theme for Milan ever since pre-season. After the Roma victory, Pioli commented that:

“We want to build with Mike (Maignan) plus 5 players. Then whether it’s 4+1, 3+2 or 2+3…by now the boys know how to read the spaces and know how the opponents line up. These are mechanisms that we are trying to find.

Today (against Roma), we focused a little more on (Davide) Calabria as an inverted full-back and this gave Theo (Hernández) more chances to read the space.”

The concept of Milan building with five players and these players ‘reading the spaces’ to determine what shape arrangement to form is becoming frequent occurrence. Milan, therefore, do not appear consigned to a single build-up structure during games.

Whilst there have been repeated patterns within and across all fixtures, Milan’s build-up phase appears principle-based with shapes emerging depending on the opposition set-up and specific in-game situations.

And although this did not have a major impact on the game against Cagliari, due the opposition tending to defend deeper, there was still evidence of it happening that is worth highlighting.

But before showcasing this in practice, let’s first cover the perceived theory behind all of this.

The general aims of this build-up approach are multi-faceted. From an offensive point of view, it can generally be attributed to attempting to disjoint the opposition’s out of possession set-up, by forcing the opponent into choices and then exploiting opportunities (and spaces) that present themselves as a result of these decisions.

By having this inclination to adjust their build-up structures, Milan can therefore aim to have multiple ways of disjointing – and therefore hopefully bypassing – the opposition, to progress the ball up the field.

From a defensive perspective, in addition to the known advantages of having a full-back inside the pitch and behind the ball (e.g. provides additional coverage against counter-attacks and can afford better opportunities to counterpress in transitional moments), another aspect to consider is this base unit having the flexibility to position players in closer proximity together when in possession.

Whilst this may seem more of an offensive upside, having their players positioned in closer proximity together during build-up phases can allow for shorter distanced, and therefore in theory safer, passing options. And this can form part of a side’s defensive gameplan, as it allows teams to manage tempo and maintain control of the ball, opposition and therefore game.

For reference, this was a tactic Milan seemed to use in the second half when leading 3-1. Having more controlled spells of possession, with minimal intent to seek progressive options forward to score further. Instead, priortising maintaining control of the ball and thus limiting Cagliari’s opportunities and time with it.

With all that now said, let’s turn the attention back to Milan’s five build-up players ‘reading the spaces’ against Cagliari’s out of possession set-up…

Immediately from kick-off, Milan’s 4-3-3 began to split into their build-up (white) and attacking (yellow) units. After some ball-circulation at the back…

…both Milan full-backs moved infield to form a 2-3 shape which caused the Cagliari midfield line to narrow. This opened up a passing lane into Loftus-Cheek who timed his now very familiar movement out wide…

…to receive the ball in space, on the outside of the Cagliari block, where he had the opportunity to drive at the opposition backline.

Whilst this action helped Milan progress the ball into the Cagliari half, and initially threatened to bypass five opposition players, the visitors slowed down their attack and instead opted to recycle possession backwards to maintain control.

In the 16th minute, due to the in-game situation, Milan’s took a different approach. The ball-side Cagliari midfielders had rather passively engaged the Milan players in possession.

In this instance, Milan were initially forming a 4-1 build-up base in an attempt to stretch the opposition midfield line, and a pass was made out wide to Alessandro Florenzi.

With the Cagliari midfield shifting across the pitch as a result, but their right-sided player (Luvumbo) staying higher as play got re-circulated, Luvumbo became disconnected from his right-sided central midfielder (Ibrahim Sulemana).

Hernández ‘read the space’ and moved infield to create a potential passing lane between the two.

Hernández’s new infield position also had the dual benefit of giving Sulemana a choice to make. Did he push across to close down the distance to Hernández or stay more connected with his central midfielder partner?

Sulemana opted for the former and this opened up a passing between the two Cagliari central midfielders into Tijjani Reijnders.

However, despite receiving this line breaking pass between the lines and on the half turn, Reijnders took a heavy second touch and overran the ball which enabled the Cagliari defender to intercept.

There were also examples of this in the second-half against Cagliari’s tweaked 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 out of possession system.

In the 54th minute, Milan had the ball between their two central defenders in front of the Cagliari mid-block. Florenzi had moved infield which caused the left-sided opposition midfielder to narrow his defensive position.

As already seen, this helped open up a passing lane into the wide areas which Loftus-Cheek had again roamed out too, with the aforementioned left-sided midfielder then needing to retreat to help cover. 

However, despite this initially appearing as a threatening opportunity, Loftus-Cheek’s pass into Reijnders between the lines lacked care and as a result, the Dutch midfielder was forced to poke the ball past the jumping defender which enabled a covering opponent to sweep up and end the attack.

Due Cagliari’s deeper-set out of possession approach, Milan’s requirement for build-up – and therefore lots of different adjustments – in this fixture was limited. However, this stylistic tendency continues to present itself and is worth keeping a continued eye on in future games.


As already highlighted, Milan didn’t have to work too hard, sometimes at all, to progress possession into the opposition half, particularly in the opening forty-five minutes.

Cagliari rarely tried to engage Milan too high up the pitch, which led to some odd passages of play where the away side could easily progress possession up the field with the hosts retreating back into shape with no real interest in trying to win or even pressure the player on the ball.

To help illustrate just how passive the home side were on occasions, here’s an example from the end of the 22nd minute.

A Cagliari clearance and then advancement up the pitch ended up with them putting a cross into the box which eventually landed in the hands of Marco Sportiello. With all Cagliari players facing and running back towards their own goal to get into their defensive shape, Milan easily rolled the ball out to their backline.

16 seconds later, following not one Cagliari player even threatening to motion to engage, Milan easily (but slowly) progressed the ball into the middle third of the pitch, in front of the now formed opposition 5-4-1 mid-block.

Cagliari’s prerogative to do this was linked to their gameplan, of defending deep and wanting to draw Milan out to create counter-attacking opportunities.

But with Milan struggling to breakdown the opposition when in a settled defensive shape, it appeared a missed opportunity to not try and capitalise on the specific moments Cagliari were retreating from a counter-attack and therefore in an unsettled structure.

In the opening thirty-minutes, there were numerous instances of Milan opting for a slow tempo in these type of situations, and in general possession. And this only seemed to benefit Cagliari.

However, after going a goal down, Milan did finally attempt to increase the tempo in one of these situations and were rewarded. The preceding action to the below sequence involved a Cagliari counter-attack which led to a long distance shot.

Sportiello has possession of the ball and is comfortably able to roll the ball out to Malick Thiaw with the majority of Cagliari players facing and running back towards their own goal.

Recognising the opportunity to exploit the unsettled Cagliari defensive shape, after receiving the ball, Adli quickens the tempo and fires a pass towards Reijnders.

See Ranieri at the bottom of the image, arms aloft, perhaps anticipating the pending danger.

Wieteska decided to jump out of the Cagliari backline to engage Reijnders but misjudged his interception and gets bypassed. The Dutch midfielder then carries the ball forward before passing out wide to Pulisic for a 1v1 opportunity which he duly won…

…before entering the penalty area and putting in a low cross which the Cagliari goalkeeper fumbled enabling Okafor to equalise.

But playing at an occasional slow tempo was not the only issue Milan were culpable of when in possession.

Final third creation
In addition to affording Milan the majority of possession, the home side also conceded territorial advantage. This therefore allowed Milan numerous spells of possession in and around the final third.

Now, beating a low blow is an issue all elite sides will face throughout the season – and partial credit needs to be attributed to Cagliari. But based on this ninty-minute evidence, Milan have plenty of room for improvement in this phase of play.

Whilst Milan’s shot count reached 14, their xG of 1.88 was largely generated by their two first-half goals (source Wyscout). This helps demonstrate their low quality chance creation despite their possession and territorial superiority.

One of the tactics Milan frequently attempted to use in the final third were balls over the top of the Cagliari backline, mainly via Adli and Florenzi, for depth runners.

The home side did afford limited space in behind, as their last-line pushed up to maintain compactness with the midfield. And perhaps this was also an attempt to entice these types of passes, based on Ranieri’s post-match quotes of: “…while in our half of the pitch they (Milan) don’t dribble at all and go vertically.”

But whatever the reasons, it had differing success for Milan with the room for error minimal due to the amount of target space available.

Here’s an example of the tactic working (albeit from a middle third starting position, but the intent is to create in the final third). Adli’s pass over the top…

…was met by Reijnders who then looped the ball back into the centre of the area for Okafor who headed over.

And here’s a example of it not working, with Adli ambitiously attempting another ball over the opposition backline…

…but due to the difficult level (and poor execution), it gets intercepted and Cagliari regain possession.

Another limitation of Milan’s final third play included a lack of presence in between the lines. And to compound matters, on the occasions when players were found in pockets of space, their was a lack of execution and/or ability to receive on the half-turn.

Ultimately, however, the main issue for Milan on the day boiled down to a general overall lack of quality, both in execution and decision making. Although, thankfully for them, they have players who can still execute in individual moments to make the difference, like Loftus-Cheek’s highly technical ball-strike.

Tougher tests ahead

Milan did not need to be at their best to beat Cagliari. The number of personnel changes, packed fixture schedule and opposition playstyle will have all likely had an impact on their performance.

And ultimately, the Rosseneri left with three points, which due Inter’s defeat to Sassuolo, put Milan joint top of Serie A.

However, with fixtures against Lazio, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli all within the next month, being at or nearer their best will likely be a higher requirement.

Tags AC Milan Cagliari-Milan Tactical Analysis
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