Monza’s marking, Pioli changes the press: Tactical analysis of Monza 4-2 AC Milan

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan suffered a dramatic 4-2 defeat at the hands of Monza in Serie A Matchday 25, missing out on the chance to leapfrog Juventus into second place.

The Rossoneri trailed by two goals at halt-time but managed to level the scores, even with one less player, by the 88th minute. However, the drama did not stop there, with the hosts scoring twice in stoppage time to secure the win.

After what Stefano Pioli described as a ‘bad performance’ on a ‘really bad evening’, here’s @Tactics_Tweets‘ observations on the game.

Monza’s marking

In the opening forty-five minutes, Milan had 58% possession but generated minimal threat in terms of creating quality chances. The visitors’ nine shots did better their hosts five attempts, but on the whole Monza’s out of possession set-up was effective in limiting their opponents attacking prowess.

When on the ball, Milan formed their usual 4-2-3-1 arrangement, with their back four and double pivot (Ismaël Bennacer and Yacine Adli) at the base, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek advanced higher in midfield, supporting the forward line in central areas (so the shape often appeared as a 4-2-4).

Monza’s defensive system aimed to deny 1) Milan access to their most threatening players and 2) restrict those players time and space on the ball when they did receive it. A way in which the home team achieved this was a number of their players having player-oriented roles. The player who appeared to have the strictest man-marking responsibility was Roberto Gagliardini who stayed in close proximity to Loftus-Cheek at all times.

In addition to this, both Matteo Pessina – who pushed up to engage Adli – and Andrea Carboni – who positioned himself near Bennacer – had similar tasks, but they also ensured they maintained the team’s overall shape when their direct opponent was not in possession.

The Monza wingers covered, and tracked, the Milan full-back on their side, and this enabled their own full-backs to stay with Milan’s wide forwards (Samuel Chukwueze and Noah Okafor). Centre-forward Milan Đurić predominantly sat in between, and in front, of the Milan two centre-backs and this underload (1v2) allowed Monza to have an overload (2v1) against Luka Jović with their two centre-backs.

Monza’s defensive gameplan involved allowing Milan relatively unopposed possession in their own half, instead prioritising dropping into their overall shape and near their designated opponents.

As the following game examples will highlight, part of Monza’s success was denying Milan available forward passing options and even when they were made, being in immediate proximity to engage the ball and/or track forward runners to avoid being overloaded.

But we will also see how Milan played their own part in failing to turn their possession dominance into goal scoring opportunities with a lack of player rotations and movements, and a real lack of quality in their final passes.

Let’s start with the 9th minute, where Milan had possession with Adli in their build up phase. Here you can see both teams in possession and out of possession set-ups, including the Monza player’s with the designated player-orientated responsibilities.

With all progressive passing options covered (see Andrea Colpani tracking Theo Hernández’s forward run too), Adli held onto the ball…

…before eventually attempting a lateral pass which was intercepted by Dany Mota to initiate a Monza counterattack. This wasn’t the French midfielder’s last ball loss either.

After a stunted opening fifteen minutes of Milan possession, the away side soon realised that their centre-backs were the free players in their team. Whilst Đurić sat ahead of the pair, he rarely engaged when either carried the ball forwards, meaning he was easily bypassed and Monza’s marking system in behind – in theory – could then be compromised, as somebody would be forced to leave an opponent to engage the advancing centre-back.

However, Monza appeared to be quite content in allowing the Milan centre-backs to have the ball – likely as they were deemed the lesser threat. Rather Thiaw and Gabbia have the ball in the final third as opposed to a midfielder or attacker. And this (perceived) rationale and tactic regularly paid dividends for Monza with both Milan centre-backs lacking quality in their play once they arrived into the final third.

This example in the 17th minute shows Gabbia being able to carry the ball into the Monza half, with Pessina potentially being forced into a decision as to whether to allow Adli space out wide in order to go and engage. Below you can also see the rest of the Monza team’s marking responsibilities.

In this sequence, Milan actually ended up recycling possession before working the ball to their right-hand side where Thiaw was found free and able to progress. However, his attempted cross into the box was easily cleared.

Here’s another example from the 22nd minute where Thiaw is again the free player for Milan and the German defender pushed higher to penetrate through the Monza defensive shape to enter the final third.

But after receiving the ball, Thiaw could not execute the through ball, and instead conceded possession.

And this continued to be an issue for Milan throughout the first half, like here in the 26th minute. Thiaw had again been able to carry unopposed towards the final third. In this instance, Alessandro Florenzi had situationally occupied a position on the Monza last line and as such, Thiaw tried to find him – especially as Mota had passed on his markee (Florenzi) to Gagliardini.

However, Thiaw overhit his pass in behind, allowing Monza to regain possession.

These examples are not intended to single out Thiaw individually, as Gabbia was also guilty of losing possession once he entered the final third. This passage of play from the 28th minute, involved Gabbia progressing the ball into the Monza half via a carry.

Milan then attempted a third-man combination to find the still unmarked Gabbia but in a demonstration of the centre-backs lack of attacking credentials, he gave the ball away.

But it’s important to remember that Thiaw and Gabbia are centre-backs by trade and therefore a reliance on them for attacking contributions – as opposed to trying to utilise player rotations and movements to disorientate the opponents marking scheme and create options, something Milan didn’t do often enough – is going to have its limitations.

Less sympathy, however, can be provided to Adli whose first half performance warranted his half-time substitution. As already highlighted within some of the previous examples, Adli was guilty of multiple ball losses against Monza – another factor in why Milan’s attack failed to spark into life.

Here’s one example from the 15th minute, when – whilst not the easiest pass – the Milan playmaker under-hit his attempted ball in behind for Theo Hernández, allowing possession to be easily intercepted.

Whilst the above action was not costly, Adli did have a consequential ball loss in the 51st minute. Milan were 1-0 down at this point in the game and were trying to probe for an equalizer before the half-time break. Adli attempted a pass into the box but it was again easily regained by Monza and from here, the home team sprung a counterattack with a long pass into the channel…

…equally as damaging for Milan (as Adli’s ball loss) was Bennacer’s missed interception and then Thiaw, compounding a five-minute spell to forget, dived in and missed the ball (and player), enabling Colpani to progress…

…and pass to oncoming Mota who cut back onto his right-foot, once inside the box, to expertly curl the ball into the far top corner.

Issues in possession were not Milan’s only problems in the first half, however. The away team also struggled with Monza’s deep build up play in the opening fifteen minutes. So much so that Pioli had to change his tactics.

Pioli changes the press

After the match, Palladino commented on his side’s “change of formation”, in reference to their use of a back four. In the opening stages of the game, this Monza back four regularly found build up exits against the Milan pressing scheme.

The home team were able to find, and exit via, their ‘free player’, as their four defenders (+ goalkeeper) helped overload the Milan front three. Like here in the 7th minute, where Okafor, as instructed, pressed out-to-in on the Milan weak side but was easily bypassed with a clipped pass over his head into the now free right-back.

The outcome of this play, Monza carried into the final third and got a cross into the opposition box.

And Monza’s ability to manipulate the top-end of the Milan block / pressing scheme to find a free player continued to cause Milan issues.

This sequence from the 8th minute shows the three Milan forwards outnumbered by the Monza back four. Plus, how Milan themselves had a player-oriented focus in central midfield out of possession. As seen below, Loftus-Cheek and Adli covered the Monza double pivot and in behind them (and out of shot), Bennacer picked up Carboni who played off Đurić.

In this passage of play from the 12th minute, Monza had deep possession and circulated the ball along their backline, attracting the three Milan forwards in the process.

After working the ball back towards their goalkeeper, Jović got baited into pressing so Monza easily executed a third-man combination to bypass him and find Armando Izzo free.

With space ahead to progress into, Izzo carried the ball upfield before passing to the feet of Colpani who dropped short to receive. The Monza attacker then immediately switched play to the left flank for Mota to attack.

Whilst Monza did not punish Milan on any of these, or other, occasions in the opening fifteen minutes of the game, the hosts were getting joy in bypassing the Milan press and block and gaining territory.

Therefore, Pioli made some adjustments to his side’s out of possession system and these revealed themselves in the 16th minute.

Below you can see how Loftus-Cheek pushed up alongside Jović so both were able to engage the Monza centre-backs. This enabled the wide forwards, Okafor and Chukwueze, to stay with the opposition full-backs. And then filling in for Loftus-Cheek was Bennacer who now pushed higher to cover Gagliardini – leaving Carboni to one of his centre-backs in behind.

This more proactive approach out of possession soon resulted in some upsides for Milan with them beginning to force Monza into multiple turnovers. Here’s an instance from the 22nd minute where Milan were in their new set-up…

…once the goalkeeper passed the ball to his centre-back, Loftus-Cheek was triggered to go and engage. Pablo Marí opted to pass back to his goalkeeper which Loftus-Cheek followed (blocking off the return pass in the process) and this helped force Michele Di Gregorio into going long but the ball was won by Bennacer.

And Milan continued to force turnovers from this point onwards. This sequence from the 29th minute shows Chukwueze quickly engaging the opposition left-back, forcing a direct pass forward…

…which was quickly intercepted by Florenzi, supporting the press by staying close to Mota who dropped short. This turnover ended up at the feet of Loftus-Cheek who then found a free Adli infield but, yes, you’ve guessed it, the French midfielder gave the ball away, ending the counter-attacking opportunity.

The impact Pioli’s out of possession tweak had can also be demonstrated in the data. The below graphic shows the increase of Milan’s PPDA – Passes Per Defensive Action is a metric that counts the average number of passes a team allows the opposition to make before attempting to win the ball back with a defensive action; a lower figure indicates a team that is more active without the ball.

A byproduct of Milan’s increased intensity out of possession was that it forced (the home team also appeared happy to do so) Monza to be more direct from that point onwards. This increase in long pass share naturally lends itself to an increased probability of turnovers which Milan benefitted from, as it led to more possession. In the final fifteen minutes of the first half, Milan averaged 73% of the ball.

However, as already showcased, Milan were ineffective with the ball. And in the closing stages of the first half they were made to pay.

Midway mistakes

Despite Raffaele Palladino’s gameplan being effective in the first period, Monza (like their opponents) offered little in the way of chance creation. Their best moments came in the form of attacking transitions but even these failed to result in any real danger.

It can therefore be argued that whilst underwhelmed, Pioli would have been content with his team’s first half performance, especially in the knowledge that he had superior attacking talent sitting on his bench, if needed. However, any potential feelings of positivity were completely evaporated with a flurry of Milan mistakes around the midway point.

The opening goal involved three Malick Thiaw errors in the space of ten seconds. Shortly after this, and as previously detailed, the second goal involved an Adli ball loss and two missed interceptions from Bennacer and Thiaw. And then, five minutes into the second half, a moment of madness from Jović made Milan’s already uphill battle even tougher by going down to ten men.

By the 55th minute, Milan had Tijjani Reijnders, Rafael Leão, Christian Pulisic and Olivier Giroud all on the pitch, with the latter two playing important roles in Milan’s (initial) comeback.

The (almost) comeback

Monza boss, Palladino, bemoaned his side’s game management after the interval: “I honestly didn’t like the management in the second half”, but in truth Milan performed admirably with ten players.

One aspect of play the away side maintained from their first half performance, even with having a player less, was their proactiveness without the ball. From a 4-4-1 arrangement, Milan harried Monza out of possession when in position to do so.

Here’s an example from the 60th minute which led to a turnover and counterattack. Milan are in their defensive formation and Monza in their 4-2-4 attacking shape.

Milan sensed the opportunity to lock their opponents onto one side of the pitch after Loftus-Cheek jumped to force the Monza centre-back into passing out wide. From here, Milan squeezed over onto that side of the pitch…

…and shortly after, Reijnders regained possession to initiate a Milan counterattack.

Around the 65th minute-mark, Palladino had seen enough and changed his side’s shape to a 4-3-3 with Warren Bondo coming on to operate in a double pivot alongside Gagliardini and Pessina now advanced ahead to create a 3v2 overload against Milan’s two central midfielders.

Pessina’s positioning between the lines caused a Milan centre-back to jump out of the backline to engage and this left them exposed with multiple potential 1v1 matchups in behind.

This sequence from the 68th minute concluded with Pessina receiving unmarked between the lines to link play around the edge of the area, before Monza crossed into the box where Milan managed to clear.

With Monza beginning to claim full control of the game from this point, Pioli threw the dice once more in the final ten minutes by bringing on Yunus Musah to play as a hybrid defender and midfielder.

The USMNT player provided the physical attributes to perform this role and he frequently ran between the midfield unit and last line to cover spaces and engage unmarked opponents – in essence, covering two positions. Musah’s presence on the pitch also provided Milan with a ball carrier in attack, and this skillset came in useful in the lead up to Pulisic’s excellent equalizer in the 88th minute.

However, perhaps showing too much ambition after leveling – or as Pioli put it post-match: “once you’re tied you don’t have to double the lead and you have to leave the one-on-one” – Milan got caught out trying to press their opponents, leaving their midfield and backline exposed, and ultimately punished, albeit by a quality long-range strike from Bondo.

The fourth, and final nail in the Milan coffin, was a Monza counterattack against a depleted, and already defeated, opposition defence.

A disappointing setback

Pioli’s rotations with his starting line-up, whether enforced or not, undoubtedly had a major impact upon Milan’s performance and the final result. The difference in attacking quality in the first half compared to the second half (even with ten players) was stark. Although, undoubtedly there was a touch of gamestate at play too e.g. Monza protecting a lead and Milan chasing one.

But nevertheless, Milan’s second string proved they can not yet be relied upon to maintain the levels of the starters, especially when the team have to contend with such disastrous individual errors.

Next up for Milan, a trip to France to conclude their Europa League play-off against Rennes. And then on Sunday, the in-form Atalanta visit San Siro.


Tags AC Milan Monza Milan Tactical Analysis


  1. Hard to analyze this game when basically 2 idiotic moments from 2 players ruined everything. But Musah did do a good job when he came in. If used correctly he can be a big asset, especially when down a man because he can do the running of two men and never get tired.

  2. I notice that there are never very many comments on the analysis posts.

    You know why? Because the PioliOut crowd is a lazy fan base that has tunnel vision and can’t see past that. Lacks the intelligence to really analyze the game and understand what went wrong

    Monza, even with a man advantage and 2-0 up kept playing the ball back to their goalie for 30 minutes in the second half.

    Once Milan came back two goals and started pressing for the third (RIGHTLY SO), legs were getting tired, spaces were opening up and with a man advantage Monza finally score more IN STOPPAGES.

    Because under Pioli eve with a man down, Milan keeps fighting and has come back from two goal deficits before.

    Unfortunately it didn’t happen this game.

      1. “Milan has NO identity under Pioli” – my favorite comment…

        It’s easy to weed out people who understand what they are watching and people who only look at the final score and hold Pioli solely responsible for all our downfalls…

  3. Doesn’t really seem like you guys read it at all…

    We got the upper hand due to Palladinos tweak and the starters came in. Thankfully this time Puli and Giroud pulled through and we didn’t rely on leao.

    I would not call the first half tactics at all… having tactics, if you have tactics your payers won’t get nullified where your center backs have to start going forward. That was a natural reaction by any center back to do do something because your attack is clueless.

    Just look at the distance between the attack and midfield/backline.

    Tactics my ass, if you blame the bench for not knowing the tactics then you are putting the blame on Pioli…

    Just stop it with the excuses man, sometimes you just need to admit and accept the facts.

    He is relying heavily on his starters, runs them to the ground, injuries occur and we have a crisis. Thankfully this season we have had Puli carrying on the other side(good signing btw). So it doesn’t look like he is dependent on Theao combo. But you saw the first half and you now have the tactical analysis of the game.

    I would hardly call the games up until now convincing, as we looked very weak when Puli had a bad game which is understandable. He is overworked, heck same goes for reijnders poor guy played every single minute up until his suspension. He got a bit of rest thanks to that, he might have gotten that on purpose to get some rest.

    I can go on, but I think you get the memo.

    Sounding like a broken record for people who can’t comprehend to see facts.

    1. You use the word facts quite often for someone who doesn’t actually know the difference between facts and opinion.
      Milan were in complete control of the Monza game until Thiaw lost his mind and started fouling everybody for no reason. Monza had created nothing up until that point. Guess what, the other team has tactics too. SO you adjust as the game goes on.
      “I would hardly call the games up until now convincing,” Did you not see the 3-0 win over Rennes or the shutout of Napoli?
      You may not like the tactics, but to say there are none is just dishonest or you have no clue what you are watching.

      And now blaming Pioli for running the starters into the ground… I’m willing to bet you are just like the other people on here killing Pioli for using the bench players when they lost.
      You can hate Pioli all you want but if you are going to criticize him try to do it in a more intelligent way.

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