Dynamic midfield pulls Spalletti’s plans apart: Tactical analysis of Milan’s win against Napoli

By Dharnish Iqbal -

Who on earth expected that? AC Milan waltzed into Naples in stuttering form to face possibly the best team in Europe and marched away with three points after a dominant performance.

It was the opening of the excellent trilogy we’ll get to see between the two Italian giants, and will leave Luciano Spalletti stroking his beard in thought about the next two games ahead.

This by the way was a Milan side coming off the back of no wins three games, but it seems as though against the odds in a stagnant season Stefano Pioli is still capable of doing what he has done so much with the Rossoneri and pulling a rabbit out of the hat when he seems out of tricks.

It’s worth mentioning that Victor Osimhen – Napoli’s stalwart forward and possibly Europe’s hottest property – was injured, but Napoli have won seven other games that he wasn’t present in this year, including the fixture at San Siro.

Dynamic midfield pays dividends

Where Milan destroyed Napoli was through an excellent midfield display. Sandro Tonali was monstrous and Brahim Diaz electrifyingly brilliant (it was his best performance in a Milan shirt), but together with Rade Krunic as a trio both offensively and defensively is where Milan won the game.

Napoli pressed high with their midfield and attack, with Zielinski often the highest presser next to Giovanni Simeone in a 4-4-2 structure, early on Milan used the method of simply launching it long to Giroud as a ball magnet and playing off him, a perfectly effective method utilised previously.

Where Milan really started to cause Napoli problems though was when Rade Krunic was used as the deepest midfielder, receiving from Milan’s defence forming a three at the back.

Napoli pressed with their front two (Kvaratskhelia-Simeone) and midfield (Zielinski-Lobotka-Anguissa), so Ismael Bennacer and Brahim Diaz became what Spalletti called after the game ‘half-forwards’.

Brahim and Bennacer would hover in the central spaces left vacant by Napoli’s midfield pushing up to try press leaving the hosts woefully exposed. 

Bypassing the press

A wide winger in Kvaratskhelia, Zielinski and a central midfielder in Lobotka all would go to press on whichever side Tonali was receiving the ball from Krunic, normally with Zielinski-Simeone pressing Kjaer-Tomori as the two Milan centre-backs, and Lobotka covering Tonali. Milan used this to their advantage to skilfully draw out Napoli and bypass the press.

In the build-up to the goal, Mario Rui at left-back joined in pushing so much as five Napoli players up in one zone, so when they didn’t retrieve the ball there was a lot of space created. Brahim silkily avoided the challenge and could then play Leao through on goal.

Krunic was the deepest midfielder building up from the back with the defence, Bennacer and Brahim Diaz could stay central in the half-spaces, occupying Napoli’s midfield.

Exploiting the left

Theo Hernandez would then also make use of Milan’s structure marauding forward to pin back Giovanni Di Lorenzo who might normally come out to challenge Leao. 

When Leao goes on one of his signature dribbles look at the space in the centre of the pitch for him, the ball is eventually shunted out wide to cross and for Brahim to score, but the goal was created because of Milan’s players runs with Krunic as the deep playmaker.

The other thing Milan’s midfield did so effectively was stop the ball getting to Napoli’s midfield three. Lobotka, Anguissa and Zielinski never got into the game because a pass was rarely ever on to them because at each juncture of the match Bennacer, Tonali and Krunic had gone man to man and matched them up.

They would interchange too, sometimes when one was wary of pushing up another would drop a little deeper in front of the back four and vice a versa.

There was no Osimhen or Napoli so there was no ‘pump it long or in the channels’ so Osimhen could come up with a piece of magic, it meant Napoli were limited to going wide where Milan would drop off into a compact 4-4-2 shape happy for their defenders to deal with crosses into the box.

As the game wore on Spalletti encouraged both of his full-backs to push up as a solution with Mario Rui seeing more of the game in the attacking third. This did leave Napoli open to Milan’s devastating quick counter-attacks led by Leao, and they were able to capitalise.

It was a baffling performance, considering what has happened to Milan this season and the direction their season is going in, but ahead of two clashes with Napoli, it is a massive shot in the arm and confidence-booster to a team that might yet whittle it’s way to a Champions League semi-final.

Tags AC Milan Napoli-Milan


  1. wonder if Saladmaker could play as a CAM? With Brahim probably being the best RW we have – maybe Saladonna could do well in the CAM role – just a thought…..

  2. Good analysis Oli!

    The tactics worked great. Especially having our most technically gifted midfielder (Bennacer) playing furthest forward.

    There is an element of it being one of those day’s that everything worked and everyone performed to their best, if not beyond themselves (Alexis).

    Who knows which Milan turns up in the CL?

    I just hope we haven’t played our hand too early!

    1. I believe we haven’t. On a norms, we play good football when we face teams that not so physical and don’t defend deep.

      I have always knew we were going to play well against Napoli because they attack alot. This give room for us to exploit the open spaces.

      The presence of Oshimen will be a problem for us because he is skillful, very strong and has great speed and less I forget, his height and jump power are just things to be worried about.

      I hope Kjaer will be able to keep him at bay.

  3. First time I see this much coordination and communication between players under pioli. Also brahim always played better when used at the right side of the pitch. Also its so critical for us to have space for leao for something to happen.

  4. We better build the capacity of Krunic playing deep in midfield and Diaz on the right.

    Bennacer can be molded into an ACM, he has good vertical passing and he is very bold in his passing and tackles.

    This can guarantee us number 2 slot, and maybe a CL final.
    Our biggest undoing is the ACM, that’s why we suffer against teams that defend deep. We need a gifted ball handler and passer to unlock rigid defences.

  5. Things to note and I hope Pioli sees this.
    1) Krunic is Kessies replacement
    2)Bennacer should be the ACM or CAM or 10
    3) Brahim is a winger
    4)Saelmakers should be introduced in the last 30minutes
    5) Tomori and Kalulu should not play together as CB, we need either Kjaer or Thiaw
    6) Leao is a LW, never take him out of his natural habitat
    7) Milan can actually win the UCL
    8) Milan performs great as underdogs.

  6. Funny how everybody still wants an AM… lol. Just play a midfield 3 and allow Benna the freedom to roam forward so he is a CM who can move into AM positions when the game needs. It’s easy. It’s a pretty traditional 3 man mid setup like everybody has been wanting Pioli to do for over a year. He finally does it and we pretend it’s genius?? The fans have wanted this for so long its a shame we haven’t been building our 3 man mid up sooner.

    1. I’m not sure what game people keep insisting they saw, saying we played a 4-3-3. We played a 4-2-3-1. A number of major sources I’ve checked confirm this: The Athletic, ESPN, Lega Serie A, Fox Sports. I think maybe it’s a case of Bennacer sometimes dropping down, more than moving up, and somehow people thing it’s a 4-3-3. I get that formations are fluid, and a 4-2-3-1 is easily a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 or whatever mid-game, but people need to stop saying we played a 4-3-3, because we still used a player as a trequartista, even in the defensive phase.

      1. Also, using one of our CM’s as an AM is not a novelty. Krunic has played this role many times. So this time Pioli swapped Krunic with Bennacer. That doesn’t make it a completely different formation. It could mean more solidity overall however.

        1. It was a hybrid my man. Benna was not a true trequartista but not a true cm either. And honestly is doesn’t matter, and that’s the point… these 3 give us solidarity and should be on the field together.

    1. Yeah, and playing him where he likes it so he is in a good mood. We won the Serie A because of Leao, if we had a different attacker that couldn’t create goals from thin air we would be 3rd or 4th, and people keep ignoring that fact…

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