A year after Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s first start of his second spell at Milan, the Rossoneri went to Cagliari and won 2-0 again with the Swede having a big hand.
He scored a decisive brace with a goal coming in each half, and kept his side three points clear atop the Serie A table. Here is a post-match analysis of the game…
Milan lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation albeit with a slew of injuries depleting Milan’s bench strength. Diogo Dalot came in in place of Theo Hernandez and Brahim Diaz retained his place in the XI after Hakan Calhanoglu contracted COVID-19.
For Cagliari, they started with a 4-3-2-1 moving away from their back 3 formation under Rolando Maran. Di Francesco went with his favoured 4-3-2-1/4-3-3 formation with Nainggolan acting as an anchor plus playmaker and Joao Pedro and Gaston Pereiro acting as inside forwards
Early pressing tactics
Cagliari’s basic game plan was to press in a 4-3-3 structure when Milan try building out from the back. Taking a look at the last few matches it is evident that Milan’s deep-lying playmaker is Tonali. The Italian sits back, forms a passing triangle with Kjaer and Romagnoli and creates passing lanes to either launch attacks or quickly pass back to Kjaer to switch play.
Di Francesco had Simeone cover Tonali, Gaston Perreiro covered Kessie and Joao Pedro covered Calabria. The idea was to induce Milan into a pressing trap whereby they let Dalot get the ball and then Marin, Perreiro and Nainggolan would shift to their right and press Milan against the byline and suffocate them for space.
Milan used various tactics to escape this press such as passing back to Kjaer and switching play out to the wings and feed the Rossoneri forwards against the isolated Cagliari defenders, while midfielders are still engaged in pressing. Another tactic Milan used is Kessie pushing up and engaging Nainggolan while Tonali got closer to Dalot and acted as an outlet to pass.
Cagliari’s high defensive line
To maintain their high press, Cagliari keep a high defensive line…
Milan tried taking advantage of this with a few long balls from Kjaer and Calabria. One of them resulted in a scuffed pass to Ibra from Samu Castillejo. The other was a goal for Zlatan, as seen below.
Zlatan ibrahimovic's 2nd goal pic.twitter.com/7Ri3C3pmUp
— 👍19 (@semo33xx) January 18, 2021
Brahim dropping deep and Dalot’s line-splitting passes
With Cagliari pressing Milan through the centre, Brahim was getting isolated. To make up for this, Diaz would drop into the double pivot and collect the ball and spinning his marker usually Cagliari midfielder Duncan and weave into space to play a pass for Ibra or pass it wide to Castillejo.
Often in games some individual brilliance always helps. With Milan playing out from the back, Romagnoli spreads the play to Dalot. The Portuguese defender, who uses Ibrahimovic as a point of reference in attack especially for hold-up play, makes a line splitting pass which carved through two lines of Cagliari players and resulted in Calabria hitting the frame of the goal.
Space between the lines and Joao Pedro’s role
A certain flaw of Milan’s double pivot when combined with a pressing tactic is that it creates space between the last defensive line and the midfield line. Joao Pedro was tasked to find the space between the lines and slot himself and make chances for Cagliari.
Cagliari’s best chance came in the same fashion with Tonali and Kessie occupied in keeping Cagliari pinned to their right wing, but the home side switched play quite easily and Donnarumma was forced into a save.
Cagliari’s chance creation
Cagliari’s basic idea was to press Milan win the ball back and use a series of inward and outward movement from their inside forwards, midfielders and full-backs to either cross the ball in or work the ball into the box.
They tried to create overloads and trap Dalot on the left flank. Cagliari tried a series of early balls into the box as service to Simeone as well. Most of their overlapping underlapping runs came via their right flank with Gaston Pereiro peeling away to allow Marin to run into the box. Another chance creation method as discussed earlier was Joao Pedro’s ability to find space between the lines.
While Milan were pushed they were rarely allowed to play through the centre, meaning Pioli’s men often used Dalot as the outlet to build play up hence a lot of Milan’s touches and points of chance creation were from left flank. Milan, especially Ibrahimovic, targeted Diego Godin as he is not the quickest on the field and given how Cagliari play a high line he was the weak spot.
However major of Milan’s chances in the final third came through the central areas.
For Cagliari, as explained earlier regarding Gaston Pereiro, they tried to exploit Dalot and overloaded him on the flanks. You can see below how 42% of chances came via their right flank.
With Milan missing four starters it was always going to be difficult for Milan to play the brand of attacking football they used to post-lockdown. However, the ability to close games down seems to have risen, and this is a significant aspect given how in the previous seasons the Rossoneri were prone to conceding after scoring.
As for the penalties, Milan often ask too much from the opposition defenders and they just can’t handle the slick movements of our players.