Early duels, box occupation and second half rotations: Tactical analysis of Napoli 2-2 AC Milan

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan drew 2-2 with Napoli on matchday 10 of Serie A but will be left to rue leaving the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona with only one point having led 2-0 at half-time.

Oliver Giroud ended his eight game club goal drought in the 22nd minute with a header to put the Rossoneri into a 1-0 lead. On the half-hour mark, Giroud completed his brace with another headed goal to send his side into the interval two goals to the good.

Rudi Garcia made three substitutions at the break to change his side’s fortunes, and by the 50th minute Napoli were back in the game following a powerful Matteo Politano shot into the roof of the net. The home side then completed their comeback with a stunning Giacomo Raspadori freekick in the 63rd minute.

Both teams continued to create chances late into the game but the scoreline remained level, despite Napoli also going down to 10 men in the 89th minute for a second bookable offence by Natan.

In what was a cliché ‘game of two halves’, here’s @Tactics_Tweets observations of this entertaining draw.


Stefano Pioli was forced into one change from the side that lost to PSG in midweek, with Pierre Kalulu coming in for the suspended Malick Thiaw.

Milan continued to operate from a 4-3-3 system in possession, with both full-backs maintaining their width in build-up. In defensive phases, the Milan formation resembled more a 4-2-3-1 due to their man-marking approach in central midfield.

For Napoli, they played in their traditional 4-3-3 in attacking phases. When defending deep, the home side formed a 4-5-1 and this adjusted slightly when trying to engage Milan higher up the pitch with at least one of their three central midfielders, typically Elif Elmas, pushing ahead of the other two to close down Rade Krunić.

Early duels
In the opening fifteen minutes of the game, Napoli had 63% possession. Despite this initial dominance of the ball the home side’s only attempts on goal came courtesy of set-pieces in the 7th and 8th minute.

Part of what was aiding Milan’s early shut-out was their success in duels – defined as a challenge between two players to gain control of the ball, progress with the ball or change its direction.

During this opening period, Milan had a 55% duels win rate – their joint highest rate of all 15-minute splits across the game (equalling the 75-90-minute period) – compared to Napoli’s 45%.

These duels occurred all across the pitch. Specific examples include Davide Calabria defending deep against Khvicha Kvaratskhelia in the 6th minute where the Milan right-back’s tackle conceded a corner kick but prevented the winger’s take-on attempt.

Higher up the pitch, in the 16th minute, Rafael Leão forced a Napoli opponent backwards and from there Napoli went long which resulted in a Milan regain.

Being required to compete in duels (i.e. 1v1 situations) is one of the byproducts of Milan’s out of possession system. In defensive phases of play, Milan use man-marking in central midfield and then allow an underload (-1) in their forward line to maintain an overload (+1) coverage in their backline. To help visual this approach in practice, take a look at the three screenshots below.

In the first image, you can see the Napoli back four indicated in blue against Milan’s forward line of three in red (a 3v4 underload for Milan). Then, in central midfield, Milan (black circles) are each covering a designated Napoli midfielder (white circles).

One way Milan mitigate for their -1 underload in their forward line is by Giroud trying to split the two centre-backs by arching the angle of his press to the cut-off any passing lane to the far-side centre-back, as you can see above.

Then, if the opposition pass backwards to their goalkeeper, as Napoli have done below, Giroud can continue his forward press to force the goalkeeper into a quick decision all whilst trying to block any passing angle back to the defender who has just passed the ball.

To ensure the original far-side centre-back is not an easy pass for the goalkeeper either, one of the Milan wide forwards (Pulisic in this instance) will jump to cover – vacating the opposition’s full-back in the process.

As seen above, as Alex Meret had no available short passing options to either centre-back and as Milan had covered all central midfield access too, it forced the goalkeeper to go long (and without much accuracy). The outcome, Milan’s +1 coverage in their backline (4v3 overload) easily regained the ball (see below).

In the event that Meret had clipped a pass out wide to the vacated Napoli left-back (who Pulisic passed on to press the free centre-back), it would have likely resulted in Calabria jumping to cover. Milan’s solution to maintain coverage in their backline in these instances is then for the far-side full-back to drop deeper and cover the exposed backline – leaving the far-side winger freer on the opposition flank to the ball.

There was an example of this in reality in the 12th minute when some clever play by Stanislav Lobotka managed to undo Milan’s pressing-scheme. The sequence started with Milan likely content with their set-up – all Napoli midfielders covered, Leão on Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Giroud splitting the centre-backs – leaving only a risky pass into Lobotka.

With no immediate passing options available, Lobotka held onto the ball, albeit dropping deeper towards his own penalty area, and Milan pushed up to maintain the pressure. With Natan becoming a viable passing option, Pulisic jumped to press but the skilled Lobotka used this forward press…

…to access the free Mário Rui on the left wing. This was a trigger for Calabria to jump and as a result…

…the Milan backline became disjointed with Theo Hernández retreating to maintain their coverage…

…thus, allowing a weak-side with Politano now free in space on the Napoli right-hand side.

This attacking sequence failed to materialise in Napoli exploiting the Milan weak-side, as Kvaratskhelia’s attempted switch was overhit and went out of play.

It is these types of instances, where Milan’s out of possession approach can be exploited and/or exposed, with defenders getting isolated in 1v1 situations or the backline getting disjointed, that is a continued point of contention for Milan fans and media this season.

However, with that being said, for the remainder of the first half, despite the home side frequently entering the final third they failed to punish Milan. On the whole, Pioli’s side stuck to their defensive responsibilities with even Leão having moments of tracking back and winning the ball in the defensive third.

In fact, Napoli’s best chance of the half came in the 27th minute following a turnover which led to a Kvaratskhelia ball across the face of the goal and Politano somehow missing the target from close range at the far post.

But what really helped Milan the most in the opening forty-five minutes was taking the lead in the 22nd minute, as from that point the momentum of the game shifted.

Box occupation

Post the defeat to Juventus, Pioli bemoaned about his side’s lack of box occupation: “We played our game, but we had to fill the penalty box better in the first half.”

Here are some crossing examples from the Juventus game to demonstrate this point. Notice the number, or more accurately lack, of Milan players inside the penalty area compared to defenders.

Against a team such as Juventus, who defend low, with a back five and three central defenders often in central areas creating a numerical advantage, a lack of attacking players in the penalty box will impact the effectiveness of your crossing.

However, equally, another issue against Juventus – and something Pioli referenced in his press conference ahead of the Napoli game – was their quality in the final third: “We’re lacking that final ball, the finish and bodies in the box. We often go 1v1 out wide and we’re crossing more, so we need to get more players into the penalty area.”

Milan attempted 26 crosses against Juventus, their highest total of any league game this season, but only 5 successfully found a teammate, their lowest accuracy rate (19%) of the campaign too. Furthermore, Milan’s accuracy of passes into the opposition penalty area was low, with only 29% accurate. (Note – the passes into the penalty area metric will include crosses too).

Against Napoli, there was a marked improvement in Milan’s quality in the final third, highlighted by their increased accuracy in crosses (38%) and passes to the penalty area (61%), when compared to the Juventus game (19% and 29% respectively).

Going hand-in-hand with this was an increased number of Milan bodies inside the penalty box – who would also benefit from more space inside the opposition area due to Napoli playing a back four. This intent from Milan could be seen within the opening minute.

And this intent to get more players into the penalty area and an improvement in the final ball played a large part in Milan taking the lead in the 22nd minute…

…and then doubling it ten minutes later.

With Milan in the ascendancy after going ahead – having 60% possession in the final 15 minutes of the first half – they had more opportunities to attack, and therefore more opportunities to grant Pioli’s wish to ‘fill the penalty box better’, as per this example in the 35th minute.

But in the remainder of the first half, Mllan failed to find the quality required to make the most of their attacking moments and extend their lead further.

With their best opportunity coming in the 41st minute, when Hernández was found inside the penalty area and then cutback to Reijnders who fired high and wide squandering the chance.

Milan’s final shot of the first half came in stoppage time. Davide Calabria’s cross failed to beat the first Napoli defender but due to the amount of Milan players inside the box they were able to pounce upon the loose ball and Giroud attempt to complete a hat-trick with a scooped over-head shot which was easily saved by Alex Meret.

Part of Napoli’s issue in the first period, as well as being two goals behind, was a lack of pressure on the Milan backline.

With the two Milan centre-backs up against one Napoli forward, and two wide full-backs, Milan found it easy to retain possession at the back and progress it into forward areas where their five more advanced players (Pulisic, Musah, Giroud, Reijnders and Leão) were finding space between the lines and outnumbering the Napoli back four.

Milan particularly appeared to be targeting the Napol left side, exploiting the spaces behind and defensive vulnerabilities of Kvaratskhelia, with both goals coming from the Milan right wing.

Changes were needed at half-time, and that’s exactly what Rudi Garcia did.

Second half rotations
Napoli made three substitutions at the interval but it was not only personnel changes made it was also tweaks to their defensive set-up. Giovanni Simeone replaced Elmas to play closer to Raspadori and this enabled Napoli to engage Milan higher up the pitch using a 4-4-2.

The consequences of this higher engagement from Napoli caused disruption in Milan’s build-up in the opening periods of the second half, leading to their passing accuracy to nosedive and long pass share to spike.

But it was not only Rudi Garcia’s defensive adjustments that were beginning to have an impact upon the game, it was also his offensive ones. After witnessing how Milan’s out of possession system could be disrupted in the first-half, he seemed to encourage his players to increase the frequency of their positional rotations and off-ball movements.

By doing so, it would drag Milan’s players into different areas of the pitch and/or give them decisions to make as to whether to track their initial marking responsibility or pass onto a teammate.

And these instructions were evident in Napoli’s first goal to make it 2-1 in the 50th minute. Play started with Napoli having deep possession. See player’s from both sides starting positions to begin with.

Then, twenty seconds later, after some rotations in central midfield and off-ball movements elsewhere, Milan’s midfield had been disjointed and Di Lorenzo was making a blindside run in behind Leão.

After a pass out wide to Politano, Di Lorenzo makes an underlapping run into the space on the right wing which a disorientated Krunić, now with no Napoli midfielder to mark, tracks.

Despite Krunić and Hernández getting back to deal with the situation, Di Lorenzo managed to scoop a pass to a free Politano who then lifted the ball over the stooping (and not very commanding) Marco Pellegrino before rifling his shot into the back of the net.

Di Lorenzo looked to have been given specific instructions at half-time to test out Leão’s willingness and commitment to tracking back. There were examples in the 54th minute of Di Lorenzo overlapping before crossing into the box.

Then again in the 58th minute, when an underlapping run this time got Di Lorenzo into the penalty area…

…where his cross-come-shot was saved by Mike Maignan.

And again in the 59th minute, where another Di Lorenzo underlap helped create a 2v1 against Hernández.

On this occasion, the Napoli right-back’s cross was spilled by Maignan…

…and ended up at the feet of Kvaratskhelia who should have done better than his wayward shot.

All of this attacking pressure eventually told in the lead up to Napoli’s equaliser. This passage of play in the 61st minute started from a cleared Napoli corner kick and with Milan having to adjust in real-time into their defensive shape, Lobotka was able to find Zieliński who turned to bypass an out of position Luka Romero.

Napoli worked the ball out to their left wing where Kvaratskhelia was thwarted in his take-on attempt…

…and the ball ended up at the feet of the now wide Raspadori. Despite Milan managing to have nine players back to defend, their disorientation of Napoli’s constant rotations and player movements allowed Napoli…

…to play around them and find Raspadori infield in space, with Musah and Romero unsure who was doing what.

With time on the ball, Raspadori crossed into the box which Milan headed behind.

From the resulting corner kick, Milan conceded a freekick just outside of their area which a minute or so later, Raspadori expertly curled into the goal to make it 2-2.

With the game state changed again, Milan grew back into the game at 2-2, helped by Krunić dropping between the centre-backs to help with their build-up. Both team’s continued to create and miss opportunities, with two of the best coming late on. However, the game remained tied and both team’s had to settle for a point.

Up next, Udinese

Next up for Milan is Udinese at home this coming Saturday. The visitors have yet to win this season but are the draw specialists with seven draws from their opening ten games. But with the Rossoneri now winless in three across all competitions, three points will be expected, especially with Inter and Juventus facing testing trips away to Atalanta and Fiorentina respectively.

All stats referenced within the article were sourced from Wyscout.

Tags AC Milan Napoli-Milan Tactical Analysis


  1. .. But it was not only Rudi Garcia’s defensive adjustments that were beginning to have an impact upon the game, it was also his offensive ones..

    Mark the word “adjustment”.. Mr Pioli is famous for using the same rigid tactics in every match and hopes for a miracle when facing a team that has the antidote.
    Defeat is one thing, defeated by a big score is another. Forcing open play against a superior team only shows how poor Milan are in terms of tactics. And the substitutions are too long (on average over 70 minutes) only confirms this. But now I understand why Krunic continues to be played. He was considered the most capable of carrying out the tactics instructed. When the tactics don’t work properly, and all the players become restless, go awry and wonder what should they do, that doesn’t happen to Lord Krunic. Others would think it was blind loyalty, but it was actually love. That’s why Lord Krunic and Pioli will soon take their relationship to the next level. But sorry, invitations are limited….

    1. If Pioli had adjusted immediately after seeing Napoli changed tactics, we could have easily won the match. But hell no, he sticked with the same set up and hope for miracle to happen.

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