Roma’s dismarking finds new defensive weaknesses: Tactical analysis of Roma 2-1 AC Milan

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan crashed out of the Europa League after losing 2-1 (3-1 on aggregate) to Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in the second leg of their quarter-final tie.

The hosts experienced the perfect start to the game, scoring two goals within the opening 25 minutes to extend their aggregate lead to 3-0. The Rossoneri appeared to be given a potential lifeline though when Zeki Çelik was dismissed, reducing Roma to ten-men with an hour of regular time remaining. 

However, despite the player advantage, the vast majority of the ball from that point (65% possession in the second half), and 19 attempts on goal, the Rossoneri never threatened to stage a comeback. A Matteo Gabbia header, from a short corner kick, in the 86th minute reduced the deficit but it was a mere, and minor, consolation.

Daniele De Rossi’s side deservedly progressed in the competition, leaving Stefano Pioli, and the club, to take stock and face discussions on the future. Here to provide some observations on this disastrous second leg result and performance is @Tactics_Tweets.

Roma’s dismarking finds new defensive weaknesses

In the first leg of this tie, Roma regularly manufactured and exploited weaknesses in Milan’s defensive set-up. Speaking after the 1-0 defeat at San Siro, Pioli bemoaned his side’s lack of aggression and compactness without the ball, specifically in the first half.

However, there were also (correlated and separate) tactical issues at hand too. Namely:

  1. Rafael Leão pressed the opposition right centre-back, leaving Çelik (right-back) as an easy build-up exit.
  2. The Milan centre-backs too often prioritised staying 2v1 against Romelu Lukaku meaning Paulo Dybala was often left unattended to overload midfield areas.
  3. If a Milan centre-back did jump out to cover Dybala, however, then Roma would go direct into Lukaku, against a depleted Milan backline.

Upon the evidence presented immediately from kick-off, the Milan head coach looked like he didn’t want his side repeating the same mistakes. His players sprung into a player-orientated (think man-marking) pressing scheme, ensuring there were no free Roma players (bar the opposition goalkeeper) in their build-up phase.

With no safe short passing options nor a free outfield teammate available, the Roma left-back, Leonardo Spinazzola, opted to go direct towards Lukaku. 

As already mentioned, Roma were more than happy to utilise this route if available / needed in the first leg. But in the visual above, some of Milan’s proposed solutions to this threat can be gleaned.

Ismaël Bennacer, who initially jumped to press Edoardo Bove, dropped off once he recognised the Roma central midfielder was no longer the primary threat. Instead, he retreated to pick up Dybala. This decision not only helped ensure the Argentine attacker was marked, but it also allowed Fikayo Tomori to provide cover for his central defensive partner Gabbia who was 1v1 against Lukaku.

As we’ll come onto, in Milan’s pressing scheme (when Bennacer needed to press ahead), Tomori was responsible for jumping up to mark Dybala. Elsewhere in the backline, Davide Calabria was going to stay in close proximity to Lorenzo Pellegrini and Theo Hernández was going to do the same with Stephan El Shaarawy.

Just to prove the above press was not simply early bluster from Milan, here’s another example of this out of possession approach a few minutes later.

The passage of play started with the Roma goalkeeper initiating his side’s build-up after a long forward ball from the visitors. Each of the Milan players were in close (enough) proximity to their designated opponent, and for reference, Giroud and Leão had situationally swapped roles at this moment.

As the Roma right-back began to progress the ball forward, Bove dropped lower towards his own goal. The impact of this was that it stressed Bennacer’s defensive responsibility.

The Algerian initially opted (or had to) hold a deeper position near Dybala, as he waited for Tomori to step out and pick up. This meant that he had a large distance to recover to close down Bove, who subsequently received an inside pass from Çelik.

After Bove received, with momentary time and space, he was able to play forward into Dybala. But as Tomori was now in position, his tight marking forced the Roma attacker backwards and this theme continued with the ball eventually returning to the feet of Mile Svilar.

The Roma goalkeeper then sent the ball long where Milan were able to regain possession in their backline. Note, after Tomori recognised that Dybala was no longer the primary threat, in this attack, he began to drop back to support Gabbia who had been left momentarily 1v1 with Lukaku.

In this simple twenty second sequence there was a demonstration of both the upsides (disrupting Roma’s build-up to force turnovers) and hints of some potential downsides in Milan’s out of possession gameplan. But this was only the 4th minute, and as the game progressed, other defensive issues began to present themselves for Milan.

Before getting onto those, one other observation to highlight is the positioning of Christian Pulisic and Yunus Musah. Milan defended out of a 4-4-2 shape and, as seen above, Musah was operating on the right-side of midfield whereas Pulisic played higher, alongside Giroud in the forward line. 

In the first leg, Pulisic played in his usual wide right role and, as a result, in defensive phases he was tasked with tracking Leonardo Spinazzola. See various examples below.

As Spinazzola provides the majority of Roma’s attacking threat on the left wing, with Pellegrini coming infield, some perceived reasons for Pioli’s tactical tweak was that he wanted to keep Pulisic higher up the pitch for transitional moments and generally reduce one of his key attackers’ workload without the ball.

Therefore, Musah’s energetic profile better suited this role. Plus, it allowed for Pulisic to operate more infield during attacking phases – even though the two USMNT internationals occasionally interchanged positions. Below is Milan’s typical in possession 3-2-5 structure which tried to break down Roma’s 4-4-2 mid-to-low block.

Theo Hernández initially started deeper, alongside his two centre-backs, to provide a base of three (which overloaded Roma’s forward line of two). Calabria moved infield alongside Bennacer to help occupy central midfield areas.

Musah primarily offered width on the right wing, with Leão doing the same on the left, and this enabled Pulisic to join Loftus-Cheek in between Roma’s defensive and midfield lines, whilst Giroud occupied the two opposition centre-backs (completing a forward line of five overloading the oppositions back four).

With Milan coming into this game a goal down on aggregate, the impetus was already going to be on them to score in order to have any chance of staging a comeback. But their task was made doubly difficult after eleven minutes when Roma took a 1-0 lead. And as already already alluded to, the hosts had been threatening this with new issues they were causing Milan out of possession.

As Pioli opted for a player-orientated approach without the ball, certain players, like Bennacer and Tomori, had dual roles to help deal with the known weaknesses in the system. But a common tactic to exploit player-oriented marking / pressing schemes is with lots of player rotations and movements, and this is exactly what Roma did.

In this screenshot, taken from the 9th minute, Roma had a freekick and as you can see Milan’s player-oriented approach had resulted in their players taking up different positions – albeit, the team’s overall 4-4-2 structure had roughly remained in-tact. 

But with Paredes dropping deeper, Mancini pulling wider, Spinazzola advancing, Pellegrini moving infield, and Dybala and Bove trying to stress-test Bennacer (and Tomori’s) defensive responsibilities, already the signs were visible of some of the issues the Milan players would face in this match.

In the lead up to the opening goal, Roma had a final third attack which ended with a clearance from Leão – whether the Portuguese attacker could have chosen a different option here can be debated. Regardless, the ball ended up in Roma’s own third with their goalkeeper and a number of their players in different positions.

Below, you can see how the Milan players had to readjust. Notice Bennacer caught between his two roles and Calabria signaling to a teammate behind him that cover was needed as he was positioned to jump out to Paredes in the left-back slot, if needed.

After Mancini received the ball, he passed straight back to his goalkeeper. With Bennacer having slight hesitation on which of his roles to perform, Bove was able to receive a forward pass and then play a third-man combination to find an unmarked Mancini, who was free as a result of Pulisic having previously pressed the initial pass back to Svilar.

Other observations to note in the visual above are Tomori jumping out of the backline to mark the dropping Dybala, Pellegrini’s forward run, now on the blindside of Loftus-Cheek, and Calabria stuck between his original (Pellegrini) and new (at this time, Paredes but with Pulisic out of the game, it could be argued it’s now Mancini) defensive responsibility.

The action picks up below with Mancini having progressed the ball into the Milan half, completely unopposed before passing out wide to an unmarked Spinazzola. See how Musah had dropped into the back four, to fill in the right-back slot.

With a number of the Milan players now no longer near their initial designated opponents, there was clear confusion as to how to adjust. In the image above, Calabria is pointing at Mancini to signal that somebody (presumably Loftus-Cheek) needs to stay with him.

Next, Musah jumped to engage the ball (and his original opponent) Spinazzola, and this left Gabbia to cover Pellegrini which created a gap in (the already) disjoined Milan backline. The still running forward Mancini attacked this space, running off the back of Loftus-Cheek, where he received Spinazzola’s lofted pass.

Milan actually managed to initially clear this first attack but Roma kept the play alive. After winning some duels, the ball fell to Mancini who found an unmarked Pellegrini on the edge of the area, who had time and space to shoot on goal.

The Roma captain’s effort hit the post with the rebound falling inside the box. The first player to react – the one who started the attack in the first place – Mancini. With the centre-back directing the ball into the back of the net.

Ten minutes later, it was 2-0. And again, the lead up came from Roma outdoing Milan’s player-oriented marking scheme.

In this passage of play, Milan actually forced a turnover and due to the ball traveling back towards the Roma goal (a pressing trigger), Giroud and Pulisic decided to push up higher to engage. But the problem was, there was no support behind. Consequently, the duo were easily bypassed and this had a knock-on effect for the rest of the team.

Pellegrini, who was in possession, was unattended with his usual marker, Calabria, screaming at a teammate (again, possibly Loftus-Cheek) to pick up. Bennacer was caught between getting close to Bove and checking where Dybala was, and in essence ended up doing neither job. Tomori was jumping out to get near to the Argentine danger and this left Gabbia (out of shot) isolated with Lukaku. 

With no pressure on the ball, Pellegrini played a ball in behind for Lukaku to chase and the Belgium striker easily outmuscled Gabbia to get inside the Milan box. 

After a tame, outstretched, attempted clearance from Gabbia, the ball fell to the feet of Dybala. In the Milan retreat, their players marking responsibilities lost priority and as a result, Dybala had time and space to pick out the far corner out and make it 2-0.

This scoreline, and 3-0 aggregate lead, all but finished the tie. Although, as already highlighted, after Çelik was sent off in the 31st minute, Milan may have considered they had a glimmer of hope. But for the remainder of the game, Roma’s ten men, first defended admirably in a 4-4-1 and then later in a 5-3-1 to see out the game, only conceding from a set-piece late on. 

In addition to performing effectively as a team, and in units, individuals also shone for the home side. Notably, substitute Tammy Abraham often managed to occupy multiple Milan defenders single-handedly. Much to the frustration of Mike Maignan who in the 59th minute reminded teammate Tomori of the advantage their side had against the Roma striker, with the English striker often occupying and gaining advantages (e.g. holding up the ball and winning fouls etc) against the Milan backline. 

Milan’s crosses and long shots

So why did Milan fail to threaten the Roma goal with an extra player and so much possession? Well, of the away side’s 19 shots, 12 were from outside the area – highlighting how effective Roma were at defending their own box.

But Milan also rushed a number of promising opportunities they had towards the end of the opening forty-five minutes, shooting when an extra pass may have been more beneficial. Loftus-Cheek’s long range effort in the 48th minute and then Musah’s ten seconds later were perfect examples of this.

Also, Milan’s substitutions, one of which included bringing on Luka Jović towards the end of the first half, naturally lent Pioli’s side to begin crossing more – as they had less attacking midfielders to pass to. The visitors attempted 33 crosses in this fixture, much higher than any other game this season, with their next highest total being 25.

But in addition to Roma defending low, protecting their box well, and having dominant headers of the ball (Smalling and Mancini), Milan’s poor quality of crossing, and the predictability of this tactic, made it easier for the hosts to defend. 

In the end, Milan crashed out of Europe with a whimper. And with reports now intentisfying that the club will almost certainly be changing head coach in the summer if not before, it feels as if Pioli’s tenure at club will also end in a similar fashion.

Tags AC Milan Roma Milan


  1. It seems that Lukaku give Pioli a trauma. He is to cautious with Lukaku. Yes he is a danger, but Milan’s defence give space when Lukaku get double teamed.

    Then the conversation back to we need the pure CDM.

  2. It’s not that we lost to Roma it’s the way we lost that has caused damage at the most important part of this season , and this is on Pioli as he saw this coming and had time to make modifications.
    For me, the main issue is the midfield as what Pioli is asking of the double pivot is impossible to be upheld.
    All this for the sake of the CF’s who are not contributing either in the attacking phase,pressing or man marking, so the best option is a solid old school 4-3-3 where you can have Reijnders, Adli, Benna/Musah and a front line of Leao, Okafor/Pulisic & Chuck.
    This way the midfield will not get overloaded and We won’t get thrashed again. Plus the attack won’t be so predictable as Jovic & Giroud are making our game so easy for defenders. It’s just my opinion but the first step is to steady the ship with quick sorties our players are suited for.

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