Stuck in build-up, numerical and territorial advantages: Tactical analysis of Lazio 0-1 AC Milan

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan scored a late winner to secure a 1-0 win against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico, in a match that descended into chaos with the home team ending up with only eight players on the pitch.

As Stefano Pioli summed-up post match, it was a game ‘with few chances’. But after Lazio went down to ten men in the 57th minute, Milan were able to sustain more pressure in the final third.

And in the 88th minute, the numerical advantage eventually told when substitute Noah Okafor scored the game’s only goal.

Here to provide some observations on the narrow victory is @Tactics_Tweets.

Stuck in build-up

In the first half, when each team had an equal number of players on the pitch, Milan still had the greater share of possession (59%). However, the overriding memories of the opening forty-five minutes, and there weren’t many to speak of, was that the ball seemed to be predominantly trapped in the Milan half, specially in their build-up phase.

Without the ball, Lazio formed their usual 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 defensive shape. Maurizio Sarri’s side are content to allow their opponents possession, preferring to sit off in a compact mid-block and await their triggers to engage.

When these moments arise, the pressure on the ball most often comes from their midfield 8s (Mattéo Guendouzi or Luis Alberto), with the ball-sided player jumping out of the midfield line whilst their centre-forward drops onto the opposition midfield pivot.

Completing the synchronised chain reaction of Lazio defensive actions, when a midfield 8 jumps (vacating space in behind) Matías Vecino shuffles across to cover.

Or, if the ball goes wide, then a full-back is ready to jump out of the backline (which is already pushed up as a unit to start with) to immediately close down.

Due to the fluid nature of football there are of course exceptions to this, but blocking central progression and restricting spaces between their defensive lines are key principles of Lazio out of possession.

So, with all that being said, how did Milan plan to unlock this mid-block? Well, it started with their in possession structure consisting of a 4-1 base (back four and Yacine Adli ahead), Ismaël Bennacer and Ruben Loftus-Cheek operating between the Lazio midfield and defensive lines, and then their three forwards in their usual positions.

Here’s some screenshots from the opening minutes which help visualise the above descriptions for both teams. We’ll start deep into the first sixty seconds where Milan had deep possession – something which anybody who watched the game will be all too familiar with. Below you can see Milan’s 4-1 base and Lazio in their aforementioned defensive set-up.

With central progression restricted, Milan attempted to work the ball upfield via their right flank to Alessandro Florenzi. In the visual below you can also see how Luis Alberto, the Lazio ball-side midfield 8 on this occasion, had jumped to engage Simon Kjær and as a result Vecino shifted across to cover in behind.

Florenzi still attempted to exploit the space Luis Alberto had vacated with a pass inside to the initially free Bennacer but Vecino timed his coverage to perfection and it forced the Algerian backwards.

After recycling possession backwards, both teams quickly rearranged back into their respective default structures and then Milan attempted to work the ball up their left wing but a sloppy pass from Rafael Leão resulted in a turnover.

The visitors soon regained the ball, however. But as you can see below, Pioli (yellow circle) wanted his side to restart their build-up as opposed to play forward immediately.

Perhaps as Milan had just suffered a ball loss or, more likely, he didn’t think his side were set in the right conditions to attempt progression – both from an offensive (players not in designated zones to exploit Lazio) and defensive (unorganised in the event of a turnover) perspective.

So what was the purpose of Milan’s deep build-up tactics and what were the ‘right conditions’ for them to attempt progression through Lazio? Twenty seconds later, the visitors provided the answers.

The passage of play picks up with Milan still circulating the ball along their backline in front of the Lazio mid-block and no, or only risky, access into Adli available.

But with the away players all in their ‘designated zones’ on the pitch, and therefore in position to exploit the weaknesses in the Lazio pressing scheme, the first set of conditions were ticked. And as soon as Luis Alberto made the first jump to close down Kjær, the decision to attempt progression was made.

As mentioned, Lazio execute a chain reaction of synchronised defensive actions when attempting to press their opponents. So once Luis Alberto pushed up and as Valentín Castellanos was also advanced, not covering the Milan pivot, Adli recognised his opportunity to receive the ball.

And the French midfielder already knew his next action as the subsequent jump from Lazio was from their left winger, Mattia Zaccagni, and this therefore meant Florenzi would initially be in more space on the right wing.

Florenzi followed suit by knowing where the impending Lazio pressure would come from i.e. the left-back, Luca Pellegrini. As per the previous actions, Milan’s plan was to immediately exploit the new space which Lazio vacated e.g. their disjointed back four, and as a result, the right-back played a first-time ball down the line where Bennacer had moved out to receive.

Florenzi then supported the attack with an underlapping run which Bennacer found and this attracted the attention of the nearest centre-back, Alessio Romagnoli.

Continuing the theme of attracting and then bypassing an opponent, Milan attempted a third-man combination to get Christian Pulisic in behind but Olivier Giroud overhit his pass – much to his own despair.

But whilst this may have been Milan’s ultimate objective, this early attack was one of the few times the away team actually managed to execute it. The reasons for this can certainly be attributed to, as Pioli put it after full-time, Milan having “little rhythm” and lacking speed in their play, but credit is also due to Lazio.

In this example from the 9th minute, Milan, again, had deep possession. In this instance, Lazio had squeezed in on Adli to deny any temptation to progress centrally.

As Milan exchanged passes between their centre-backs and Mike Maignan, to patiently await for openings ahead, Lazio began to creep forward, to decrease the distances and therefore more able put pressure on their opponents.

But demonstrating the workrate of the Lazio players, in particular their midfield unit, after Felipe Anderson preempted a pass to Matteo Gabbia, Maignan spotted an opportunity to clip a pass out wide to the free Theo Hernández.

But Anderson immediately sprinted back into position and his pressure helped force a throw-in, ending Milan’s attack and allowing his teammates to all get back into their defensive organisation.

And this was the story of the first half. Milan having the majority of the ball but not being able to go anywhere with it. This example from the 23rd minute shows a familiar scene. Both team’s in their respective structures, Milan allowed possession deep and access to Adli being blocked off.

But once triggers were met, on this occasion a slow paced lateral pass, Lazio were willing to engage. Here, Mattéo Guendouzi, the ball-sided midfield 8, jumped to close down Gabbia and was frustrated teammate Anderson had not followed suit.

But the priority was to not allow forward progression, so despite the perceived lack of a coordinated press, Milan were forced back infield where Lazio readjusted their engagement. This included Castellanos pressing and Luis Alberto tucking in to cover Adli.

With Milan’s next action being predictable, Guendouzi immediately jumped to re-engage and then Milan attempted progression up their left-hand side.

But Lazio anticipated the move, and forced their opponents backwards again, with Anderson and Guendouzi preventing any infield passing angles.

After going all the way back to Maignan, the away side began to work play up their right-hand side but Lazio’s press from their mid-block was again on hand to unsettle their opponents.

And this is exactly what happened, with Florenzi being rushed into an accurate forward pass which went out of play instead of reaching the feet of the dropping Pulisic, who would have been immediately under pressure from behind anyway.

The outcome of all of this was a half with very few attempts on goal, from either side.

Numerical and territorial advantages

Whilst the second half began in a similar vein, in the 57th minute, the game changed when Lazio went down to ten men with Luca Pellegrini being sent off.

What happened next, well, Milan’s numerical advantage had its own self explanatory benefits but Lazio understandably also lowered their defensive block which was now a 4-4-1. These two factors combined leading to the away team gaining territory, something they did not have in the first half, and therefore the visitors were able to sustain more pressure in the final third.

Milan nearly capitalised upon their numerical and territorial advantage shortly after the red card. In the 65th minute the Rossoneri were easily able to progress into their opponents half where they combined to play through their opponents, using similar principles of attracting pressure and then playing through into the vacated space. This ended up with Giroud having a shot inside the box but it was easily saved by Ivan Provedel.

Milan continued to try and use their player advantage and brought on Noah Okafor to play closer to Giroud and occupy the Lazio backline – providing both a central threat and creating space elsewhere, namely out wide.

And in the 88th minute, Milan eventually got their winning goal. A Theo Hernández carry, and outmuscling of Guendouzi, got the away team into the final third where Leão was found out wide.

From here, the Portuguese attacker reached the byline and cut the ball back into the box, where Okafor eventually got the ball past Provedel at the second attempt.

The game ended 1-0 but not before Lazio received a further two reds. It may not have been convincing, nor entertaining, but the Rossoneri did at least close the gap to Juventus to one-point, albeit having played a match more.

European sandwich

Up next for Milan, Slavia Praha visit San Siro for the first leg of their Europa League round of 16 match-up. The Rossoneri will travel to the Czech Republic a week later to complete their European tie. And sandwiched in between is Empoli at home in Serie A next Sunday.


Tags AC Milan Lazio Milan Tactical Analysis


  1. Credit must be given to lazio for caging the game with their midblock. We only broke them down on a few occasions.

    Lazio played a similar tactics against us in San siro, and we found it difficult to break them down

  2. With a half decent strong attacker that uses both feet and partially skilled Milan would easily have won this match. Giroud limits this teams attacking prowess to a great extent with his lack of goals in pure attacking situations. A team with a striker that’s only potent with scoring goals with head and minimal footwork and can’t take on defenders in 1v1 or 1v2 is a big setback for any aspiring team. Team selection and injuries has played a big role in Milan standings this season but you can’t take the fact out that Pioli is a sound tactician and if Giroud as Milan main attacker has been firing all season, the gap with inter Milan wouldn’t be much.

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