Pioli prioritises defence and ‘low block’ the only winner: Tactical analysis of Juventus 0-0 AC Milan

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan and Juventus played out an uninspiring goalless draw at the Allianz Stadium this past weekend, keeping the gap between the two clubs at five points.

It was a game of low quality and attacking intent, with Juventus coming closest to scoring but being denied by saves from late stand-in goalkeeper Marco Sportiello and a goal line clearance from Malick Thiaw.

Milan only generated 9 shots on goal in this fixture, their fourth lowest total of the season, to date. Their lowest number, perhaps unsurprisingly, was in the reverse fixture against Juventus back in October when they only managed 5.

But a lack of shots was not Milan’s only issue in this match, they also failed to register any on target – the first time that’s happened this campaign. 

For context, Juventus have conceded the second fewest goals in Serie A this season, and have the lowest xG Against too (30.92). The Old Lady have also kept four clean sheets in their last six Serie A outings, three of which ended 0-0. Therefore, the Old Lady’s notorious mean defence should be acknowledged alongside Milan’s failures in the final third.

Post-match, Stefano Pioli shared that he considered “not losing is a positive result”. That mindset, perhaps explains the Rossoneri’s more defensively minded gameplan against Juve. With the Milan head coach explaining how he wanted his side to “wait more for them to do something”.

Here to provide some brief observations on these defensive tactics, is @Tactics_Tweet.

Pioli prioritises defence

Throughout the 2023/24 season, Milan’s typical approach in defensive phases has lent more towards being proactive without the ball. This stylistic aspect of Milan’s game can be demonstrated using the current Serie A PPDA table.

Passes per defensive action (PPDA) is a proxy of pressing intensity, with lower figures indicating more intensity when trying to win the ball back and higher figures indicating a more passive approach. To date, Milan sits 5th lowest for this metric in the league, highlighting their proactive preference out of possession.

As already alluded to, against Juventus, however, Pioli opted to prioritise defensive solidity over their usual front-footedness. This change in approach was evident in the statistics, with Milan’s PPDA in the game 14.4 – a drop compared to their usual 10.81 average. 

Generally, out of possession, Milan use elements of man-marking (player-oriented focus) in central midfield and an aggressive pressing-scheme that is prepared to accept the risks of their backline being left in 1v1 matchups.

Therefore, it could be assumed that due to Pioli’s change in strategic approach for this match these defensive tendencies may have been completely abandoned. Intriguingly though, a number remained, minus the high pressing. Let’s take a look at some examples in practice starting with this scenario in the 10th minute.

One clear difference in Milan’s defensive gameplan was their team’s deeper starting position. The away side were content to allow Juventus uncontested possession in their own half, preferring to sit lower in the middle of the pitch to protect spaces in their (Milan’s) territory. 

But as can be seen in the visual below, Milan’s out of possession shape (best visualised as a 4-3-3) still had elements of man-marking in central midfield – see positions of Yacine Adli, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tijjani Reijnders and their proximity to the three opposition central midfielders.

Plus, you will notice above how Musah’s preparedness to jump out of the back four to engage Filip Kostić (left wing-back), left the rest of the Milan backline in 1v1 matchups. In this specific action, Juventus attempted a ball into the channel for Kenan Yıldız to chase but Matteo Gabbia dealt with the danger.

In the 20th minute, there’s a scene that better showcases Milan’s default 4-3-3 set-up and the subtle adjustments in their defensive tactics. In this instance, Manuel Locatelli had dropped deeper, in front of the opposition block, to get on the ball.

Commonly, in other Milan games this season, you would have expected Loftus-Cheek (the player designated to mark Locatelli) would have jumped up to engage. However, as visible above, the English midfielder stayed connected to his midfield unit, as the clear instruction was to not compromise their defensive structure. 

But whilst this was a slightly different tactic, Milan’s usual tendencies remained once play entered their own half. Below, you can see how with no central progression opportunities available, Juventus worked the ball out to the left wing, where Musah and Gabbia aggressively pushed up and out to engage (and not afraid to compromise the backline), where they won the ball and forced their opponents backwards, allowing Milan to reset and get back into shape.

If ever there was an image that best depicted Milan’s more passive approach without the ball in the Juventus half, it is the below. From a goal kick, the home side were simply allowed to play out, with four Milan players turning their back to play to retreat and get into their deeper defensive positions.

Once there, the side’s 4-3-3 shape can again be witnessed. Loftus-Cheek priortisied defensive solidity and remained deep despite Locatelli being positioned elsewhere, but Adli and Reijnders were able to perform their player-oriented roles.

After attempting to work the ball from side-to-side, Milan remained organised and connected, and in an illustration of perhaps why Juventus wanted Locatelli to drop deep to get on the ball, Gleison Bremer’s progressive pass attempt was put out of play to concede a throw-in.

In the first half, Milan’s mix of their usual defensive tendencies, coupled with a more passive line of engagement, played its part in limiting Juventus’ attacking threat. It put the onus on the home team to make things happen – which they evidently were unsuccessful at – and even once progression was made, the visitors had a gameplan to deal with these situations.

There was a good example of this in actuality, in the 41st minute. Play started with Juventus having comfortable possession in their own half, in front of Milan’s 4-3-3. But with a progression opportunity down their left wing, courtesy of Kostić’s deeper position, Musah knew his job was to push out and engage, passing on the high and wide Yıldız for Gabbia to pick up.

After preventing this initial attacking attempt, Juventus recycled possession and circulated along their backline, before trying once again to progress down their left via Kostić. Milan had reset back into their default 4-3-3 at this point, and as the distance was now too far for Musah, the closer Adli passed on the responsibility of Rabiot to Gabbia to go and engage the Serbian.

As a result, Juventus were forced into passing laterally, where Bremer threatened to pass vertically into the feet of a dropping Andrea Cambiaso, but perhaps as he was being closely tracked by Reijnders, changed his mind and came back out towards the left wing. Note, Adli retreating to mark Rabiot.

As Milan could anticipate this pass out wide, they were primed and ready to execute their low pressing-scheme, with Musah jumping up to engage, and Gabbia pushing out to pick up Yıldız.

Juventus instead passed infield though, to the dropping Dušan Vlahović (closely followed by Malick Thiaw) who attempted to play the ball around the corner to forward running Rabiot (intending the exploit the new spaces in the Milan backline), but this pass was cut out by Adli who tracked his designated opponents run to clear the danger.

In the second half, Milan continued to defend in this manner, and apart from an early double save from Sportiello in the 50th minute, were largely effective in limiting Juventus’ attacking threat. That was at least until Federico Chiesa came onto the field, who used his qualities to create threatening opportunities late on.

The best chance of the game came in the 86th minute, when a Chiesa cross found the head of Weston McKennie who directed towards goal. Sportiello spilled this headed shot and it ended up dropping to the feet of Rabiot inside the six yard box. The French international looked destined to score, but for the chest of the covering Thiaw who blocked the ball on the goal line.

Juventus’ shutout cannot solely be attributed to Milan’s defensive gameplan, much like their opponents, they lacked quality in the final third, particularly in regards to variety in chance creation and crossing quality.

‘Low block’ the only winner

However, another key factor in this goalless draw was the low block. Both teams primarily defended in their own third with all ten outfield players, making space and opportunity to create a premium.

This tactic does not absolve either side for their distinct lack of quality in the final third, but it does at least add further context as to why this game ended up being such a drab affair with little in the way of chances.

Here’s an example of Milan in their low block, firstly in the 2nd minute and then secondly in the 84th minute. And there were plenty examples to choose from in between.

Juventus also defended, and probably more so than their opponents, with all ten outfield players in their low block. And whilst this did impact Milan’s volume and quality of shots, other aspects included 1) Juventus regularly doubling up on Leão out wide and 2) poor quality and decision making in the final third.

Instead of putting Milan fans through numerous examples of this – there was plenty to choose from – here’s one damning instance from the 32nd minute. Leão was in a 1v2 situation out wide, with no support ahead to combine with nor offer a decoy run, so his only option was to pass back to Alessandro Florenzi. Instead of choosing to cross into an occupied box, the fullback decided to shoot – but fired high and wide.

To end on a slightly brighter note, the 2-2 draw between Napoli and Roma a day later has now mathematically guaranteed Milan a place in the Champions League next season. Who is in the managerial hot seat by this time, remains to be seen.

Tags AC Milan Juventus-Milan
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