Careless defending and a season-high in shots: Tactical analysis of Sassuolo 3-3 AC Milan

By Nick Smoothy -

AC Milan twice overcame a two-goal deficit to draw 3-3 with Sassuolo at the Mapei Stadium. The hosts were 2-0 up inside the opening ten minutes, and then took a 3-1 lead early in the second half. Substitute Noah Okafor’s goal in the 84th minute ended up rescuing a point for the Rossoneri.

Despite Stefano Pioli urging his players to “not think about Thursday”, where his side will face Roma in the second leg of their Europa League quarter final, the Milan head coach made seven changes to his starting line-up.

However, with his side needing to turn around the result, five substitutions were made in total, with a number of the originally rested players ending up playing minutes in this match.

Pioli blamed ‘carelessness’ and ‘three lapses of concentration’ for the goals conceded, but also commented on how his side created more than enough to score “5-6 goals”. In fact, Milan had 21 shot attempts in this fixture, their highest total in any game across all competitions this season. 

Here to provide his observations on the defensive and offensive aspects of this six-goal thriller is @Tactics_Tweets.

Careless defending

Ten minutes after kick off, Milan were two goals behind, and quite frankly, they only had themselves to blame.

The opener came after Milan lost possession from a throw in, deep in their own half. Following this regain, the home side switched play to their right wing where they were easily able to work a cross into the box.

To compound this passage of lackluster, individual and collective, defending, two Sassuolo players each had uncontested touches inside the area. The second of which was struck into the bottom corner by Andrea Pinamonti to make it 1-0.

Six minutes later, the home team went long from a goal kick, and despite Milan winning first contact, they immediately conceded possession of the ball.

From here – and in another example of poor defensive play – Kristian Thorstvedt found time and space (against a slow-to-react Simon Kjær) to drop short, receive and then slide a through ball (inside Alessandro Florenzi’s poor defensive position) to get Armand Lauriente in behind the opposition backline where he scored following a fortuitous rebound.

Aspects of careless defending were also evident in Sassuolo’s third goal in the 53rd minute. After the home team recycled possession back to Andrea Consigli, the hosts goalkeeper launched a long ball forwards. Thorstvedt won the resulting aerial duel against Kjær, which can happen, but then…

…the Norwegian player proceeded to win the secondary physical duel against Kjær (who was substituted shortly after this, apparently due to injury, which perhaps explains his error-prone performance), before attempting a shot on goal. Malick Thiaw was in close proximity to block Thorstvedt’s attempt though, and cleared.

The dropping ball landed at the feet of Yacine Adli but the French midfielder was immediately dispossessed. Ruan Tressoldi jumped forward to tackle and then initiate a counterattack. 

Once in the final third, Tressoldi passed infield to Grégoire Defrel who, after two off-ball runs from teammates to drag Milan defenders away, found a free Lauriente inside the box to shoot and make it 3-1.

In the remainder of the game, Sassuolo only managed a further two attempts on goal. However, that statistic does not include the home team’s wasted 4v2 counterattack in the 58th minute – following a Theo Hernández ball loss from an attempted backheel pass.

To make matters worse for Sassuolo, Milan scored twenty seconds after this failed action. The visitors countered themselves before a Rafael Leão cross was palmed directly into the path of Luka Jović to side-foot into an empty net and make it 3-2.

It’s always easy in post-match analysis to find fault, especially when working backwards from goals conceded. However, sometimes you cannot hide behind “carelessness” and “lapses of concentration” as Pioli put it, or “very sloppy” and “avoidable goals” as Ruben Loftus-Cheek assessed.

For each of Sassuolo’s goals, Milan players were guilty of conceding possession, losing individual duels, not marking tight enough inside the box and a general lack of anticipation and reaction to the potential danger. 

Fortunately for Milan though, they were able to recover and score three legitimate goals to snatch a point. In addition to this, the Rossoneri also scored two offside goals and generated 21 shots on goal in total – their highest volume in a single game in 2023/24.

So now let’s take a closer look at Milan’s attacking play in this fixture.

Shots, shots and shots

With the ball, Pioli said after the draw that he wanted his side to “play between the lines” and “also try to play deep”, in order to “look for positions that can guarantee us (Milan) advantages on paper”. 

Here are some attacking instances in practice, which give an indication as to what ‘advantages’ Pioli and Milan deemed they could gain against Sassuolo.

In the second minute, there was an example of Milan ‘playing deep’ in their build-up phase. This plan involved different player arrangements, including Adli dropping into the backline between the two centre backs who split.

Their full-backs had different roles for the team, with Alessandro Florenzi moving into central midfield and Theo Hernández staying deep. Then ahead of this base, were the three forwards and an advanced Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Yunus Musah.

Out of possession, Sassuolo were primarily content to drop off into a 4-4-2 mid-block, and allow Milan possession in front of them. However, as can be seen below, Milan’s deep build-up had caused the oppositions defensive shape to form more of a 4-2-4 arrangement with their wingers drawn higher up the pitch due to the amount of players Milan had back.

From this sequence, we can identify one advantage Milan were looking to gain – entice the Sassuolo forward line and wide players up the pitch, to then bypass them and attack the remaining two central midfielders and back four behind.

On this occasion, after receiving the ball wide and deep, baiting Cristian Volpato (right winger) forward in the process, Theo Hernández attempted a one-two passing combination with Musah before attacking the space ahead. But he was halted in his tracks when Volpato made a professional foul to drag the Milan left-back to the ground.

In the 8th minute, a goal down, Milan stuck to their plan. Again, Adli dropped out of central midfield, with Florenzi now solely occupying this area, to get on the ball in front of the Sassuolo defensive block and dictate his side’s play.

Milan initially threatened to progress up their left wing, with Leão and Musah making opposite movements, but instead of playing into the channel, Theo Hernández opted to pass back infield where the ball again ended up with Adli.

In a perfect illustration of the upsides and downsides created from Adli and Florenzi’s roles, the French midfielder used his superior vision and passing ability to thread a ball between the lines into Florenzi. One perceived rationale of Adli performing this role is because Pioli wants his midfielder to have more touches of the ball (plus, more time and space) to make forward passes.

However, a downside of positioning a full-back in central midfield is an understandable drop in technical ability. And this was demonstrated in Florenzi miscontrolling Adli’s pass after trying to receive on the half-turn.

But, in a slice of good fortune, the Sassuolo midfielder somehow failed to regain the ball and it allowed Florenzi to collect and carry towards the opposition back four before passing out wide to Musah.

The USMNT was dispossessed with the loose ball falling to Theo Hernández who shot across the face of goal.

Another advantage Milan looked to gain against Sassuolo was trying to exploit the oppositions backline of four with their forward line of five. With the visitors, on paper, having an overload in attack (in actuality, with the central midfielders dropping it was not always the case) opportunities could be created – like these two in the 14th and 17th minute.

In this first example, the Sassuolo back four were 1) dragged towards Leão (Milan’s main attacking threat) and 2) narrowed as a result of Milan’s box presence (see huddle of three players). As a result, a trademark Leão inswinging far post cross found a free Chukwueze who ended shooting when perhaps a cutback would have been more fruitful. 

A few minutes later, Chukwueze had another attempt, and this time did find the back of the net. Although, this was ruled out due to an offside.

The passage of play started with a deeper Adli finding time and space on the ball, and seeing a forward pass to Musah in behind the Sassuolo backline on the left wing. For reference, Milan attempted a number of these types of balls, perhaps as an identified weakness, or possibly a byproduct of lacking central line breaking passes, with Florenzi being the only option.

Anyway, back to the action. After receiving the ball in the final third, Milan worked the ball to Leão who executed a near identical in-swinging far post cross where Chukwueze was again free. The Nigerian headed in but had stepped forward into an offside position at the time of the cross, resulting in the effort being disallowed.

After pulling one goal back in the 20th minute, following a counterattack and Leão beating two opponents, there was an absence of shots for both teams for just under twenty minutes. Milan finished the half with a flurry of attempts, with the majority coming from set-pieces and in transition.

In total, fourteen of Milan’s 21 shots came in the opening forty-five minutes. Meaning only seven came after the break. One of which came in the 50th minute where the Rossoneri gained an advantage (sprinkled with some good fortune) from playing deep and bypassing a number of Sassuolo players.

Action started with a Milan goal kick being played short. Adli’s movement helped create Thiaw a vertical passing lane through the opposition’s two forwards.

The ball was intended for Florenzi but he failed to get a foot on the ball. Fortunately for him, the initial pass had enough pace on it for it to go through the Sassuolo central midfield pairing and reach a dropping Luka Jović who immediately…

…laid the ball into the path of Loftus-Cheek. From the halfway line, the English midfielder activated one of his biggest strengths, ball carrying, to progress possession into the final third. However, despite Milan having a player free on the outside, Loftus-Cheek opted for a shot which was easily blocked by the nearby opponents.

Of Milan’s remaining shots on goal, two were converted (one from a counterattack and the other a corner kick), and the others – once Milan’s usual starters were on the pitch – came from crosses and cutbacks after combinations out wide. Both Pulisic (78th) and Giroud (86th) will be disappointed not to have converted their chances.

When interrogating Milan’s 21 shots in full:

➤ 5 came from turnovers / regains which led to counterattacks, 2 of which resulted in Milan’s first and second goals.
➤ 7 shots came directly or indirectly from set-pieces, the last of which led to Okafor’s 3-3 equaliser.
That leaves 9 attempts created from open play, albeit, a number of Milan’s set pieces were won following passages of attacking open play so worth a contributing nod too.

Pioli was not wrong in his assessment that his side “could have scored 5-6 goals” in this match. But whether this attacking output is sustainable, remains to be seen based on the wider context.

Sassuolo were content to concede possession and attack in transition. This gameplan, as well as the game state factor of Sassuolo leading the scoreline for the best part of 80 minutes, therefore contributed to Milan’s overall ball dominance (65%). Naturally, therefore, when a side has so much of the ball, they will have more opportunities to create attacking situations.

It is also worth considering that this season Sassuolo have conceded the third most goals in Serie A (62), have the fourth highest xG against (55.3) and on average allow 12.37 shots per 90 (5th highest in the league). And whilst in this match Milan may have had more shots than in any previous one of their games this campaign, the home team have given up more on three separate occasions.

Therefore, with tougher challenges awaiting ahead, Milan’s attacking quality may not always be able to bail them out of any continued careless defending, like shown against Sassuolo.

Important week ahead

Next up for Milan is their return leg against Roma in the Europa League on Thursday evening. The Rossoneri trail the tie by one goal, so will need another comeback to progress into the semi-final of the competition. 

After that, it’s the derby against Inter in Serie A on Monday, where the Nerazzurri could secure the Scudetto with a victory.

Tags AC Milan Sassuolo-Milan


  1. We have one of the worst away defenses in the league, and we’re not good away in Europe either. It’s going to be very difficult against Roma on Thursday.

  2. This was a training for the next game with Roma. No teams that played mid-week won (Roma, Atalanta, Fiorentina)

    Any conversation about chances given/taken missed the point.

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