Defensive dilemma and the set piece sword: Three takeaways from the Juventus friendly

By Oliver Fisher -

The AC Milan squad got more useful minutes in their legs in the early hours of Friday morning (European time) as they drew 2-2 with Juventus in Carson, California.

Milan were twice ahead in the game, with both goals coming in the first half as Malick Thiaw’s header from a free-kick made it 1-0 and Olivier Giroud’s close range finish after an assist from the German restored the advantage.

They were ultimately unable to hang onto the lead both times though. Danilo equalised for Juventus not long after Thiaw’s opener, stabbing home a corner that the Rossoneri failed to clear, and then it was Daniele Rugani whose header deflected in off Giroud to make it 2-2.

The final 35 minutes saw both teams make mass changes and in the end the tie was settled with a penalty shootout that Juventus won 4-3, but what did we learn from the third preseason friendly?

1. Live and die by the sword

The good news is that Milan seem to have figured out a way to make themselves more of a threat from set pieces. After Fikayo Tomori’s header from Christian Pulisic’s corner against Real Madrid, the positive signs continued.

The indications are that Milan are not only relying on exploiting the quality deliveries of Pulisic, Tijjani Reijnders, Theo Hernandez and others but they are also setting up in better positions too.

There is some innovation involved, with a front and a back group seen from corners to try and cause confusion with flick-ons and exploit opponents like Juventus who play a rigid zone system. The height of players like Thiaw and Ruben Loftus-Cheek helps too.

However, at the other end things still look quite worrying, continuing a pattern from last season where the Rossoneri really struggled to effectively defend set pieces time and time again.

For Juve’s first goal, a flick-in from McKennie caused all kinds of issues and should have been converted by Gatti – who Loftus-Cheek failed to pick up – but eventually his defensive partner Danilo stabbed home at what was by then the third attempt.

It took just over two minutes of the second half for Juventus to get themselves level for the second time, when Chiesa’s low free-kick was met by Rugani’s stooping header, which deflected off Giroud and past Maignan.

It’s the same old issues we are seeing: failure to pick up runners, confusion about the mix between zone and man-to-man marking and general flat-footedness when it comes to reacting to loose balls and rebounds.

2. Taking the Reijns

This is a crucial period for Tijjani Reijnders who is learning more about his new team-mates during the USA tour and also about Stefano Pioli’s instructions from a tactical point of view.

The Milan boss deemed him ready to start from the first minute against the Bianconeri last night and he certainly impressed in the bursts we saw.

When he picked up possession and was awarded the time to surge into space, it could really be seen how and why he is considered such a fantastic progressor of the ball.

He also played a couple of enterprising through balls to Giroud that he was just a few yards behind – maybe with Noah Okafor those would be assists.

The Dutchman reflected positively on his performance in his post-match interview, while the Dutchman got a positive score in our player ratings and his highlights can be seen below.

We also once again learned a bit more about the composition of the midfield. Rade Krunic between Loftus-Cheek to the right and Reijnders to the left could very well be how the Diavolo start in that first game against Bologna in just under a month.

In possession, the Englishman could be seen pushing up to join the forward line in what looked like more of a 4-1-1-4, with Krunic sat in front of the defence, Reijnders as a go-between and Loftus-Cheek pinning the Juventus rearguard back.

The imminent arrival of Yunus Musah from Valencia could see a further tactical evolution from Pioli as he seems to want three mobile, physical midfielders capable of engaging in the press all over.

However, based on what we have seen so far, there is a clear attempt to limit Krunic’s responsibilities as the deeper-lying player as he is not blessed with excellent distribution, moving the ball to the wings quickly and looking to find the two mezzala players pushing forward to support.

3. Defensive depth called into question

To some this may sound like an over-dramatic point to conclude on, but a quick scan down the social media timelines during the game highlighted that a lot of Milanisti felt the team are still nowhere near the levels we know they can be defensively.

That Scudetto-winning defensive quartet of Calabria-Kalulu-Tomori-Theo kept nine clean sheets in the final 11 games of the season and were arguably the most vital component of the ability to hold off Inter.

Those certainties vanished last season as Milan’s defence went from lockdown to leaky, with Pioli even switching to a three-man back line at one point to try and stop the bleeding, at the expense of some attacking freedom.

That means there are some question marks that must be emphatically answered this season if Milan are to mount a serious title push, because letting in 43 goals (the most of any top four side) compared to 31 the previous season turned wins into draws and even defeats.

The centre-back position no longer looks as promising as it did. Tomori is showing himself to still be inconsistent and prone to lapses in concentration, with his starting partner Thiaw undoubtedly talented but still raw and having gotten a bit of a run-around from Chiesa.

Pierre Kalulu hasn’t been seen yet but was up and down in 2022-23, Matteo Gabbia has gone on loan without being replaced and Simon Kjaer – who missed the Juve game due to workload management – simply isn’t reliable from a physical point of view.

At right-back, Alessandro Florenzi has missed big portions of the last two seasons and has had three surgeries (two on his knee) since arriving. Davide Calabria went off last night with thigh discomfort, leaving Alexis Saelemaekers to fill in at right-back again.

Then there is the deputy left-back issue, which seems no closer to being fixed despite Fode Ballo-Toure being entirely excluded and a number of targets being linked.

There is still over a month left in the transfer window to fine tune the squad and while the focus might be more on a No.6 or a young centre-forward to rotate with Olivier Giroud, Pioli might just be looking at the back four and asking for some depth.

The most obvious solution at present is to sign a central defender to increase the depth there, and allow Kalulu to play right-back as often as is needed.

Tags AC Milan Juventus-Milan


  1. Kalulu is a very conservative RB, if he has to cut inside and/or assume midfield duties he looks very uncomfortable.
    This might be mitigated by the 4-3-3 but otherwise he is not a good fit for Pioli’s football.

    Ideally we get a strong FB able to play on both sides and a CB, more realistically a RB and LB who each don’t break the bank.

  2. I think we need someone to replace Krunic as a starter. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good lad and always gives his all, but he’s at best a super-sub and nowhere near the level of a starting XI for Milan.
    Looking closely at the last 2 friendlies, seems obvious that’s we’re suffering from it than gaining anything. It’s the priority number 1 because a rock in that position (like kessie) makes defences look stronger and gives confidence. And I think that’s why we’re having troubles with our defense even though it’s almost the same as the one that won the scudetto

    1. We need to get rid of Adli and CDK, CDK doesn’t even fit into the 4-3-3 (unless he plays ST, but not likely with 0 goals last season) very much and Adli isn’t in the plans.
      They are binding two squad positions and 30-40m in capital without really providing anything. That’s room for a very nice DM.

  3. Reinjders is basically Krunic with better passing but less tackling and reading. It’s a give and take. The two were tussling for the deep lying playmaking role early on until they figure out they weren’t playing pivots lol. Overall it feels we’re missing steel in the midfield
    This was Thiaw’s first gm so he’s rusty. He’ll come good.

      1. Far better? In all aspects ? I don’t know if I can judge that based on 1 and a half performances. He’s definitely not better at reading the game and positioning as yet as Krunic is, but that can be learnt over time.

  4. Krunic is there to teach people how to play their positions. He understands Pioli the most.

    He will be sold in few years, after Pioli tactics stabilized or changed. Or Pioli ever get sacked.

  5. It is obvious that playing more attacking football will open space for opponents to score more. 2 goals we conceded by defence mistakes.
    4 3 3 give us more solid defence against tough opponents.
    Against low opponents we can play with Pulisic as CAM and more attacking style.

    Last year we should remember how games finished against Inter, Lazio, and some others where we conceded so much…

    So step by step Milan must upgrade its game. With Pulisic, Chukwueze, Okafor we have stronger attack to score much more than with Rebic, Origi, De Ketelaere last year.
    And the defence must be created stronger over the course of years. It is impossible to have everything in 1 year mercato.

    1. …..sooo basically we have an issue with defending not necessarily the attack. So why aren’t we addressing that aspect? That’s the part that weird to me

      PS we had the 3rd or 4th best attack last year. Sounds counterintuitive if u reads the comments here but it’s true. It really wasny an attack issue. We’re not alone in the low block problem, all teams had it.

      1. Well the issue was we were basically relying on 1 player to create everything. Also a complete inability to breakdown teams that sat back and played a deep line. Now we have more depth and more creative players. But I do agree, the attack is all set and we should be focusing on bringing in at least 1 more defender.

  6. Musah will help a lot with the defense. I know people say he’s really a box to box midfielder, but that’s only because he’s never been given the responsibility of a deep lying midfielder at either Valencia or the USMNT. Due to an injury to the usual USMNT defensive mid (Tyler Adams), Musah played defensive mid for the first time ever in June during the Nations Leagur matches. Check out the Youtube video “Yunus Musah vs Mexico Nations League”. He did a fantastic job of playing defensive mid, shutting down Mexico’s offense, intercepting passes, taking balls off Mexican players, and then quickly passing to team mates to start the offense.
    He won’t be that useful with the set piece defense because he’s short, but he’ll be a fantastic shield for the back line and relieve a lot of the pressure there.
    The current problem with the midfielders is that Krunic sucks at defense, period, and both RLC and Reijnders are primarily offense minded midfielders who are not great at defense.
    Musah is great at defense, with the speed, technique, and physicality needed to do the job.

    1. Reijnders looks good , had some really nice passes that if Giroud wasn’t so slow could have been goals. Musah will indeed help. The defense could use another CB. Does anyone know why Kalulu isn’t playing? Is he injured?

  7. Very agree. Our defense are looked slow.
    Some talk that Tomori is fast, but looked when he played in the early minutes against Juve. Thiaw are strong, yes, but not fast enough either.

    I think Simic is better, and Kalulu also better.

    And I think, this why we need defense like Singo, who can pull back and cover with quickly. And then use Kalulu with Thiaw at CB.

    Also change Krunic with Musah, and Giroud must have young and fast partner in front (beside Leao), and that is Okafor.

  8. Yeah, been saying it. We need another CB. Tall and fast. Basically another Thiaw, but maybe a little further along in development/experience and left-footed. Should have made more of an effort for Nd!cka perhaps. This could be the one “miss” for Furlani and Moncada this window. Perhaps there is still a bargain to be found out there.

  9. We need to address the need of a new RB asap. Calabria can no longer be starter. He and Florenzi are injuries thrones at best. They look like they will get injured every single challenge from the opponents. We need to push harder to sign Singo.
    Also, Pioli should consider to use Okafor more often than Giroud. Giroud is so slow, doesn’t have good skills to hold up the ball to a build up. He will easily get isolated and harmless again defensive teams. Furthermore, he missed so many chances from the through ball because of his lack pacing. Pioli needs to be brave and try to use young, and faster forwards. This is a young attacking teams, and we can’t rely on a 36 year old forward as a main starter.

  10. This game was very worrying from a defensive point of view. No compactness, and the midfield was all over the place. Still a lot to do for Pioli.

    Reijnders looked good, but RLC and Pulisic are mysterious signings for me. I do not see how they improve our squad. Can’t wait to see Chuku on the right.

  11. How to solve this CB problem ? Offer CDK + few cash for scalvini in atalanta. You got future italian CB while can get rid your deadwood in bench ,Atalanta show interest on CDK too

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