Beating the block and Mourinho’s ploy: Tactical analysis of Roma 1-2 AC Milan

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan made it three wins from three in Serie A on Friday evening, as they beat Roma 2-1 at the Stadio Olimpico.

Immediately following kick-off Roma’s game plan revealed itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the home side were content to allow Milan possession in their own half, choosing to sit off the opposition and only engage the ball when the conditions suited them, typically when play progressed near towards their own defensive third.

However, in the 6th minute, after nearly 180 seconds of continuous possession, Milan put a spanner in Jose Mourinho’s plan. Ruben Loftus-Cheek received the ball towards the right wing and inside the Roma half, and, not for the last time in this match, drove at the opposition defence.

The English midfielder then exchanged passes with Oliver Giroud, exploiting a gap in the Roma backline in the process, before getting brought down by Rui Patrício inside the box.

After a couple minutes of VAR deliberation, a penalty was awarded and Giroud stepped up to score his fourth goal of the league campaign in the 9th minute.

With Mourinho’s side sticking to Plan A, Milan continued to dominate possession for the remainder of the first half, having 69% of the ball (source: Wyscout).

And any Roma half-time tactical tweaks which may have been instructed quickly became redundant, when early in the 48th minute, Rafael Leão outwitted Zeki Çelik with an improvised right-footed overhead kick to make it 2-0.

Milan’s first real setback came in the 61st minute, when Fikayo Tomori received a second yellow card for a second tackle from behind on Andrea Belotti. But even with ten-men, the Rossoneri were rarely threatened.

However, with Giroud substituted, Milan lost their long ball outlet, which afforded Roma more possession regains and opportunities to sustain some (overdue) attacking pressure. But it was not until additional time that the Giallorossi began to create any meaningful danger. 

In the 92nd minute, Leonardo Spinazzola pulled one goal back, courtesy of a heavy deflection. The home side then went on to produce some further nervous moments for Stefano Pioli, but Milan remained resolute to secure a deserved 2-1 victory.

With the Rossoneri facing a different style of play against Roma, compared to their opening two games, here’s some of @Tactics_Tweets tactical observations from the game.


Pioli named the same team for the third consecutive game.

In possession, due to Roma predominantly sitting in a mid-block, there were some different challenges Milan faced, in particular in build up. Out of possession, Milan again needed to defend against an opponent using a wing-back system (like against Torino).

For Roma, as already highlighted, Mourinho used a 5-3-2 system. Without the ball – which is how the home side spent the majority of the game, at least up until the final thirty minutes – the Giallorossi were relatively passive, opting to sit in their aforementioned mid-block.

On the occasions Roma were in possession, their 5-3-2 eventually became a 3-5-2 when attacking inside the Milan half, with both wing-backs advancing higher up the pitch.

Roma’s Block

Against Bologna and Torino, Milan’s opponents each used elements of player-orientated marking schemes out of possession and were proactive in trying to regain the ball high up the pitch.

Against Roma under Mourinho, however, neither of these approaches were ever likely to be factors. Therefore, Milan had different challenges to overcome compared to their previous two Serie A matches.

In the opening minute, the pattern of the game was set. Roma would sit in a 5-3-2 mid-block, allowing Milan to have uncontested possession in their own third, before triggering engagement on the ball once play progressed towards, and into, their half. 

But this is not to suggest that Roma’s players did not have direct opponents to cover in specific scenarios. It is just that these tasks were amongst their wider remit of defensive responsibilities. 

In its most simplistic description, the home side’s mid-block intended to deny Milan from progressing possession through central areas of the pitch.

Each of their individual defensive lines (forward, midfield and backline) and units (lines and groups of players) worked collectively to remain compact and prevent the away side from executing line breaking passes (passes that go through a line of an opponents formation). 

The top end of the mid-block involved their two forwards (Belotti and Stephan El Shaarawy) trying to position themselves centrally, to deny Milan vertical passing angles into their situational midfield double pivot of Rade Krunić and the inverted Davide Calabria. See first screenshot below.

Backing up the two forwards was the Roma midfield three (Bryan Cristante, Leandro Paredes and Houssem Aouar, who was replaced after thirty minutes by Lorenzo Pellegrini).

These three midfielders’ responsibilities included; 1) pushing up towards Krunić and Calabria, in case any passes did find their way through, 2) shuffling across the pitch as a unit, before the ball-near outside midfielder engaged the Milan ‘full-backs’ when in possession, which as Calabria inverted generally meant Theo Hernández, and 3) prevent line breaking passing lanes into either of the two Milan midfield 8s (Loftus-Cheek and Tijjani Reijnders).

See second screenshot below for the Roma midfield three kicking into action. Also, note the right wing-back jumping out to Leão, and Loftus-Cheek and Tijjani Reijnders in space between-the-lines (behind Roma midfield and in front of their back line).

Due to the dynamic nature of football, the midfield three could not always perform all of their responsibilities simultaneously, so therefore their backline of five were called upon.

When Milan were able to access one of their midfield 8s, in behind the Roma midfield three, then the ball-near outside central defender would jump out to engage.

See third screenshot below where Diego Llorente has preemptively jumped out to Loftus-Cheek who was in space between-the-lines (yellow shaded area).

This left the other two central defenders with Giroud, and then their wing-backs covering the Milan wide forwards (Christian Pulisic and Leão), with the ball-far wing-back dropping into the backline as cover. See fourth screenshot below.

So in this opening 62 second sequence, Roma presented Milan with their game plan: beat our block.

Subsequently, Milan did after six minutes, but let’s look at how and other ways in which Milan tried and did overcome this.

(Also, for reference, the principles of Roma’s mid-block remained as the home side dropped lower towards their own goal, nearly always defending with their ten outfield players.)

Beating the block

As already established, Roma prioritised blocking central areas of the pitch especially at the top end of their mid-block. Therefore – and as already glimpsed above – in build up, Milan’s solution was to utilise the spaces in wider areas. 

This was achieved by having Hernández positioned in a more orthodox left-back slot and Malick Thiaw pulling wider right, into the spaces Calabria had vacated.

These two players’ positioning helped Milan bypass Roma’s first line of defence which consequently then helped draw out the Roma midfield and backline where Milan could exploit new spaces which appeared. 

And this is exactly what happened in the lead up to the opening goal. As seen below, the away side have the ball in front of Roma’s mid-block and Belotti has angled his engagement towards Tomori to deny any passing angle into Krunić, but Hernández’s positioning allows for a horizontal pass out wide…

…this pass triggered Cristante to jump up and engage – and pulled the whole Roma block over to that side of the pitch. Recognising an opportunity, Thiaw pushed forward to offer a passing angle and bypass Roma’s first line of defence.

From here, Thiaw carried forward, and then passed out to Loftus-Cheek who had pulled wider towards the right wing to receive the ball in space. Note how Diego Llorente had started to jump out of the Roma back line.

Loftus-Cheek then drove towards the Roma defence, linking with Giroud who dropped short towards the ball, thus dragging out Chris Smalling, and ran into the gap which had appeared in Roma back line. 

After receiving the ball inside the box, the attacking midfielder was fouled and Milan won a penalty which put them 1-0 up after nine minutes.

Granted the above sequence had some defensive mistakes from Roma (Llorente hesitation and lack of coverage in the backline), but Milan’s build up solutions helped manufacture these moments from happening.

And whilst using a goal as evidence in how a team overcame their opponents gameplan can be considered outcome bias, there were plenty of other examples throughout the game of Milan’s solutions in ‘beating’ the Roma block.

In addition to utilising the spaces in build up to bypass Roma’s top end of the block, the Milan players would also regularly interchange positions, in an attempt to disjoint the whole defensive structure and progress possession through the thirds.

In this sequence, starting in the 23rd minute, Milan had a goal kick which Roma allowed to be played out uncontested…

…Tomori then had possession higher in Milan’s own third. Calabria made a blindside movement backwards from his initial inverted starting position and simultaneously Thiaw advanced wide right…

…Thiaw then received a pass from Calabria which drew over the Roma ball-side midfielder. See how the whole Roma block has shuffled from one side of the pitch to the other in the visuals above and below. Also, see Loftus-Cheek and Reijnders positioning between the lines.

Below, Thiaw opted to recycle possession which Milan then worked back over to their left hand-side towards Hernández. This again drew out the ball-near Roma midfielder and shuffled over the whole block.

In the image above, you can also see Paredes (yellow) pointing out that Reijnders, who made a movement towards the left wing, needed picking up.

The action picks up below with Hernández finding Reijnders and Gianluca Mancini jumping out of the backline to engage…

…but the Dutch midfielder used the defenders momentum against him by bypassing him with one-touch. He then carried towards the disjoined Roma backline, however, after overrunning the ball, he ended up being tackled. 

In this next example, in the 29th minute, Milan have possession in the middle third, again, in front of the now familiar Roma block. Tomori has the ball and Thiaw has taken up his advanced, wider right positioning to help his side have a wider progression passing option…

…in an attempt to block this wide pass, El Shaarawy angled his engagement towards Tomori.

However, Calabria’s inversion infield helped pin (i.e. intentionally impact an opponent’s position / decision making) the Roma midfielder and created a passing lane into Loftus-Cheek in between the lines…

…he then passed out wide to Pulisic who was 1v1 against the wing-back (aided by Leão’s positional movement pinning the Roma left-sided central defender).

The American attacker beat his opponent before crossing into the box which the home side cleared.

In this final example, it shows the lead up to Milan’s second- and ultimately decisive – goal.

The image below shows Milan recycling possession after an attacking sequence. Tomori is on the ball, and Thiaw and Hernández are positioned outside of Roma’s forward line.

Perhaps suggesting that this positioning created a gap between the two Roma forwards is a stretch, but nevertheless Tomori is able to find a line breaking pass between the two and into Krunić…

…in the visual above, you can also see space between-the-lines which Reijnders has already recognised. The midfielder was temporarily being covered by Smalling (as Giroud is offside), but in reality, he is Mancini’s responsibility.

The sequence continues below with Krunić making a further line breaking pass into Reijnders who has taken advantage of the hesitation / confusion between Smalling and Mancini to receive the ball. (Leão’s inside positioning also likely impacted Mancini’s decision making).

Whether as a result of being late or just his natural aggressive tendency, Mancini fouled the Milan player and conceded a free-kick.

The away side played this short, then exchanged passes on their right wing, with Pulisic coming inside and Calabria overlapping outside, before the Italian crossed into the box which Leão inventively converted.


It’s fair to assess that Roma were pretty lackluster in this game, both in and out of possession.

When on the ball, the home side’s main plans in attack were direct balls into Belotti, switches of play and trying to expose Milan’s pressing scheme.

In essence, trying to bait the Milan full-back jump to their wing-back (who intentionally started deeper in build up) and then exploit that vacated space with a direct pass and forward run. 

After Milan went down to ten players, the home side started having more of the ball and increased their intensity without. See the Ball Possession % and Pressing Intensity timelines below (source: Wyscout).

However, even with this player advantage and more of the ball, Roma failed to create any high quality attempts on goals, at least up until additional time – see the Wyscout Expected Goals timeline.

But with that being said, this was still a challenge Milan needed to overcome. It was their first real test of the season in having to break down an opponent who were content in being the antagonists.

And regardless of Roma’s display, Milan showed the benefits and flexibility of their build up variations. Or, as Pioli put it himself post-match

“Today, we focused a little more on Calabria as an inverted full-back and this gave Theo more chances to read the space. With equal numbers, we controlled the game very well.”

And through this control, Milan were able to create opportunities for another recurring feature of their play this season – individual quality in the final third.

Up next, after the international break, the Milan derby versus Inter. Another tactical, and psychological, challenge awaits.

Tags AC Milan Roma Milan Tactical Analysis


  1. And some “online coaches” feel they are smarter, have more understanding of players and put more thought in club’s tactic than professional head coaches and their coaching staffs, who are doing analysis like this in daily basis. And I believe most of them (the “online coaches”) are not even willing to read long tactical analysis like this lol.

  2. After i saw several tactical analysis which shown Calabria’s inverted RB position during plays, i believe that Saelemaekers could fit inverted RB position.

    1. Agreed.

      The decision to give him the boot was one of the strangest and possibly most disrespectful of the summer.

      Apparently a player who played 32 games in the season we actually won the Scudetto and who helped get us to the semi-finals of the champions league, could not be relied on as cover if we want to, erm, win the Scudetto or go far in the champions league.

      The past must not inform the future.

    2. PS A fit, playing-anywhere-near-his-potential, Florenzi could also do a job.

      (And yes I’m having to check the squad to see who is still there).

  3. This really is great stuff. Thank you for the article, and what a fascinating analysis.

    I have to say as a former full back I really didn’t like the idea of inverted wing backs. Maybe it’s in part because I always loved being out wide with the pitch in front of me, running up and down the wing, and if I ever did venture into the centre I’d get disorientated – I hate having my back to an opponent and always found being central gives me too many passing options.

    My amateur problems aside….the inverted wing play was fascinating. I loved how Thiaw moved to RB to circumvent the Roma block. And then Calabria moved from inside to out which he did for the cross to Leao.

    I first saw this against Atalanta last season where it was used to great effect particularly with Theo. I thought it was strange we didn’t repeat it particularly when we played the low block teams.

    It’ll be interesting to see if we continue to utilise this tactic now, or change it up against. I think if Krunic isn’t playing we might see a more conservative approach D there probably isn’t any other midfielders who can sit like him, and offer a permanent reference point which is so essential with so much rotation..

    1. i expect to see it the rest of the season. Not specifically any one iteration. For example, Roma overloaded the middle which was easily countered by Thiaw taking tons of space on the right…

      City has had to switch things around a few times, but I don’t think the teams in serie a have faced it enough to stop it for a while. But when they do, there are counters. Especially long balls to the spaces between the lines which thiaw looks super accurate on. Theo also had a couple incredible long balls.

      If krunic is out for any length of time…honestly, I think thiaw would be the best option. He covers distance, pings the ball around, wins every dual. Just seem comfortable everywhere.

  4. Calabria is fitting the role pretty good, but he should learn to pass the ball from the first touch. Against Roma I felt he sometimes would take a bit too long to pass the ball.

    1. They all took a little too long on the ball for my liking but it seems to have been deliberate notwithstanding I’d have thought we needed to play quicker against a Mourinho team – we didn’t!

      There were those moments where we suddenly sped up e.g. by giving the ball out to Leao or quick exchange between RLC and Giroud. Not to sound too hyperbolic it was a bit like those great Brazilian teams – slow, slow, bang.

      I do think we’ll need to speed things up against the low block teams who we dropped points against last season. There a more direct, traditional approach might be warranted especially if we’re mostly playing in the other half.

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