Rennes risks and Milan counters: Tactical analysis of Rennes 3-2 AC Milan

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan progressed into the last 16 of the Europa League despite suffering a 3-2 defeat to Rennes at an atmospheric Roazhon Park. A 5-3 aggregate scoreline over the two legs secured the Rossoneri a place in the next round, where they will face Slavia Prague.

The home side gave themselves early hope of a potential comeback by taking the lead in the 11th minute. However, a Luka Jovic header ten minutes later tipped the momentum back in the favour of the away team. In the second half, a Rafael Leão goal sandwiched in between two Rennes penalties making it 3-2 on the night by the 68th minute.

Milan managed to see out the remainder of the game, predominantly spent defending their own box but without the hosts causing too much threat. Here to provide some brief observations on what Stefano Pioli summed up as “a difficult match and a more difficult qualification than we thought”, is @Tactics_Tweets.

Rennes risks and Milan counters

With Milan heading into this second leg with a three-goal advantage, Rennes knew their game plan would need to involve some element of risk if they were to have any hopes of progressing in the competition. But Milan and Stefano Pioli also knew this, and therefore their gameplan could revolve around ways to exploit this fact.

These two contrasting, yet interlinked, strategies formed the narrative of the game. And within the first couple of minutes, they were visible for all to see.

Here, Rennes were playing out from the back, using a similar pattern to that of the first leg, with their right winger dropping to create an overload in build-up.

After progressing possession into the middle third of the pitch, the Rennes full-backs and midfielders joined their nominal attackers in getting forward – adhering to their coach’s instructions to take risks. See right-back, Guela Doué, specific position below.

However, in this sequence, Simon Kjær threw a spanner into the works by intercepting and turning over the ball…

…where it reached Leão, who as you can see below, had a lot of space to attack and only two opponents to contend with – these being the two Rennes centre-backs. With one defender also having to keep an eye on Jović…

…the Portuguese attacker relished his 1v1 opportunity, beating his man inside the box before poking a shot towards goal which was saved by Steve Mandanda.

However, this inevitable downside of Rennes’ risk-first approach did not deter them.

One tactic the hosts used when in possession was for their wide forwards (at least when they were without the ball), Amine Gouiri and Martin Terrier, to move infield to 1) create overload opportunities in central areas, alongside their three central midfielders and 2) create space out wide for their full-backs to occupy and advance into. See a visual example of this below.

In this passage of play, Rennes’ central overloads enabled them to gain territory in the Milan half but the final (attempted) pass in behind was not only cut out by Matteo Gabbia but also cleared long.

This immediately turned a Milan defensive moment into an attacking one and also exposed the two Rennes centre-backs again.

After winning his physical duel against his opponent, Leão was able to again attack the space in behind the depleted Rennes backline to bear down on goal.

But on this occasion, there was no shot, with Arthur Theate recovering well to execute a last-ditch tackle, much to his own, and home fans, delight.

As these early instances indicate, Pioli had clearly instructed Leão to stay higher up the pitch in defensive phases to offer a counterattacking threat. With Rennes regularly only keeping their two centre-backs behind the ball, Leão and Jović could benefit from 2v2 opportunities in attacking transitions.

The trade-off of this tactic was that Milan would therefore need to defend with eight players – in essence, two units of four. Yunus Musah had the task of orienting himself more as a left-sided midfielder out of possession.

In theory, there was rationale to this approach. Rennes were attacking with eight players, leaving two back, so Milan defended with eight players and left two forward. Whilst the visitors knew they had a lead to protect, they also knew the best way to defend this lead would be by scoring another – which Milan nearly managed to do with Leão’s early counterattacks.

However, in the 11th minute, Milan became unstuck and Rennes scored the early goal they, and their fans, were desperately hoping for. The lead-up to this goal actually started with another Milan attack, this time started by a throw-in, deep in the Milan half, that Rennes had over-committed players towards.

After winning an aerial duel, the visiting team attacked the exposed Rennes defensive organisation with Bennacer and Leão in a now familiar 2v2 opportunity.

However, Bennacer ended up losing possession, allowing Rennes to regain the ball…

…and initiate an attack of their own. Milan had begun to throw bodies forward in support of their initial attack (see white circles below) meaning a number of their players had to quickly retreat to get back into their defensive positions.

However, whilst the back four and three of their midfield unit managed to do this, one – namely Bennacer – had not. With Musah therefore needing to tuck infield more to provide central cover, Rennes were able to exploit an overload on their right-hand side (Milan left)…

…which gave Benjamin Bourigeaud time and space to receive and then drive the ball into the bottom corner to make it 1-0.

Whilst the outcome of this goal should be attributed more to Bourigeaud’s quality strike, Pioli may question the reaction and recovery of Bennacer in this action.

As the image below highlights, the Algerian was slow to get back to help his team – not helped by his initial despondency after losing the ball – and by the time he had reached the opposition half, it was too late with Musah unable to close down the distance to Bourigeaud (this second visual showcasing the difficulty of his task, something the standard TV camera angle does not give justice).

Some may argue it is harsh to apportion any blame to Bennacer for this goal but when you consider the distances the Rennes players, including Bourigeaud, covered to turn this defensive moment into an attacking one, there can be less sympathy.

After going a goal behind, Milan began to gain more control of the ball – their possession share in the opening fifteen minutes was 52% compared to 67% between 16-30 minutes. In settled possession, the visitors formed a similar structure to the first leg – 4-1-2-3, with Musah and Bennacer advanced and positioned in between the Rennes midfield and defensive lines.

Rennes made a slight tweak to their out-of-possession system compared to the previous game, forming a 4-5-1 / 4-1-4-1. When trying to engage the ball, their ball-side midfield 8 jumped to engage the Milan backline when in possession.

But an issue Rennes had without the ball was whose responsibility was Musah and Bennacer – as they positioned themself in between the opposition’s defensive units.

With the Rennes full-backs primarily concerned with the two Milan wide forwards (Leão and Pulisic), their centre-backs with Jović, and their midfield 8s jumping to try and win the ball/force turnovers, the sole midfield pivot, Baptiste Santamaria, was often left with large lateral distances to cover.

This problem for Rennes manifested itself in Milan’s equaliser. The build-up started with Milan in possession against an organised Rennes defensive set-up.

Play was worked over to Alessandro Florenzi on the right flank which caused the Rennes left winger to jump and engage. Out of shot, Pulisic and Bennacer made opposite movements which informed Florenzi’s decision to clip a pass forward…

…towards a free Bennacer. Pulisic had dropped short to offer a pass to feet which triggered the Rennes left-back to follow and this created space for the Algerian to move out into. Below you can now see the Rennes issue in visual form – whose responsibility was Bennacer?

But before the opposition had time to adjust, Milan worked the ball back infield to Reijnders before switching the play to the opposite flank.

In this action, Milan played ‘against the flow’ of the Rennes defensive shape which had just been dragged forward and then toward their left-hand side creating a weakness (space) on their right-hand side (Milan left flank).

Theo Hernández was on hand to exploit this weakness and he delivered a flat cross into the box which Jović managed to head in, after finding space within the disjointed Rennes back four.

With the game at 1-1, Milan appeared intent to keep it that way – at least for the remainder of the first half anyway. The Rossoneri altered their out-of-possession shape, with Leão dropping into the midfield line to make it a 4-5-1.

Whilst this change of system had an impact on minimising Milan’s attacking threat, it did at least provide an additional player in the defensive phases. Ensuring further protection and coverage against the number of players Rennes were continuing to commit forward in attack.

Less than ten minutes after the half-time restart, Rennes won and converted a penalty to make it 2-1. But crucially, like the first half, Milan hit back quickly to prevent any sustained momentum being built.

And the equalising goal had a familiar look about it. Rennes were in possession of the ball and were pushing players into the Milan half, including their full-backs.

But Milan forced a turnover and then sprung a counterattack. Rennes, as usual, only had two players left behind the ball and Leão running at them.

On this occasion, the Milan number 10 managed to punish the opposition, courtesy of a bit of good fortune, to make it 2-2.

Rennes reclaimed their lead in the 68th minute via another penalty but that was the last of the goalscoring, meaning Milan were the victors on aggregate.

Next up

With European progression secured, Milan now turn their attention back to domestic matters where they face the in-form Atalanta at San Siro.

Tags AC Milan Stade Rennes Tactical Analysis
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