Responsibility and flexibility: Why a 4-3-3 represents the next logical evolution for Pioli

By Rohit Rajeev -

Despite the fact that AC Milan are top of the table and could capture their first Scudetto in 11 years, there are still rumours about a potential formation change being imminent.

Throughout his tenure as Milan’s head coach we have seen Stefano Pioli switch systems multiple times to the extent that he is now regarded as quite a fluid manager from a tactical point of view. For example, he has used a 4-2-3-1 for the vast majority of the last two seasons but it functions totally different in possession and when not on the ball, and then in the recent win over Napoli the shape was more of a 4-3-3.

There are some calls for a change to the latter to become permanent when looking at the strengths of the current squad and the personnel potentially incoming, so Rohit Rajeev has analysed whether it would indeed be a natural evolution…

The foundations of the 4-2-3-1

To understand how Milan got such a clear identity, one needs to delve into the situation Pioli arrived in after Marco Giampaolo was sacked and he was appointed as the head coach of Milan. He joined a team that was vastly an unknown quantity not just to him but among themselves.

He stuck with the formation used by the previous coaches at first, the 4-3-3 formation,  but as we all know it all culminated with the rout at Bergamo with Atalanta trashing Milan 5-0 and forced a huge out cry for tactical changes.

During the game in Bergamo a few points became amply clear to Pioli:

➤ Theo Hernandez has enormous potential to play as a pseudo left winger and can even score goals (he was Milan’s top scorer until February).

➤ Kessie is best utilised as a defensive midfielder who can make a few runs, but he is not the best with his creativity or on the ball skills.

➤ Romagnoli is not the best defender when dealing with pacy wingers or strikers, and with midfielders expected to make runs to support the forwards in a 4-3-3 and with attacking it creates a ‘corridor of uncertainty’ on the left

➤ Bennacer is not an apt player to play as a holding midfielder in a single pivot.

These factors and the 5-0 defeat played on Pioli’s mind and it made him want to change the formation to make sure he keeps up the pressing but also provide help for the attackers in the wide areas.

Food for thought

After analysing Hansi Flick’s Bayern Munich side, Pioli decided to switch to a 4-2-3-1 and this utilised his team’s strengths the best:

➤ With a double pivot it gave extra security to Pioli to guard against counter attacks which is one of the 4-2-3-1’s main strength.

➤ Kessie being given a role of a defensive midfielder on the left side covered the aforementioned corridor and it allowed the defence to keep its structure, giving permission for Theo to sprint forward and offering Romagnoli extra cover.

➤ Kessie’s change of role also helped Bennacer to have more freedom having been liberated from having to shoulder the entire responsibility of screening the defence, and it helped him to make runs into the attacking third.

➤ Theo Hernandez got to join the attack and underlap/overlap the left sided winger.

➤ With Zlatan Ibrahimovic having been signed, it gave Pioli a striker to play off and a target man to aim crosses at and even hold up play for Theo and the wingers to make runs off.

The current situation

Fast forward to the present moment, and Milan are seemingly going to lose Kessie and Romagnoli on free transfers after they lost Hakan Calhanoglu as well. Milan have already secured Yacine Adli from Bordeaux who is a hybrid of the No.8 (box to box) and No.10 (playmaker) roles.

There have been talks of Milan switching to a 4-3-3 and the average positioning map against Napoli seems to suggest that there is already some instruction to occupy that shape.

The three-man midfield against Napoli.

Here is why a 4-3-3 would be a natural evolution for Milan:

➤ A three-man midfield would give Milan superiority in the middle of the park. When Milan played with a 4-2-3-1 it needed the natural No.10 – so Brahim Diaz or Calhanoglu – to sit back with the double pivot whenever they lost the ball to make sure the team did not get numerically beaten in the midfield, as they seemed to be against teams that play a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3.

➤ It gives Milan more control in midfield and helps them play more fluid football with more options through the centre of the park, which is useful for quick vertical counters.

➤ It takes away a chunk of responsibility of creativity and the need to connect defence and attack from the playmaker.

➤ With no Kessie – who did not display the best of his abilities as a mezzala – Milan could upgrade with the signing of Renato Sanches or another attacking midfielder as they will have extra midfield players who can make runs into the box and hence extra attacking options which can be difficult to defend for the opposition.

➤ This team is into year three of their project with Pioli and Maldini. They have created a good environment of trust and they know each other’s movements very well. Along with this the players and manager are in total harmony with each other. It helps for more options tactically and more seamless transitions.

➤ With Theo more mature and selecting his moment to attack carefully and not bomb at every opportunity, there is less opportunity for opposition to counter.

➤ With Romagnoli being seemingly replaced by Tomori – who is one of the fastest and most aggressive centre-backs in Serie A – once again that corridor of uncertainty is closed.

➤ Bennacer, who like Theo has matured, has shown how he can cover lots of ground and contribute to attack with runs like the one he made against Napoli (when Koulibaly fouled him and it should have been a penalty).

➤ With a vibrant midfielder like Tonali who also covers a lot of ground and can run at top speeds of 35km/h, he can act as the deepest-lying midfielder in the single pivot and single handedly screen the defence. We know he is good at recovering loose balls when Milan play a high line, and can ping passes over the top to the wingers to launch quick counters.

➤ It gives Milan more passing combinations and more options to create passing triangles and/or diamonds to go past opponents.

Napoli and Fiorentina creating passing diamonds to beat Milan’s press.


Of course this is based on tactical theory and there are a lot of games to come this season, plus an entire summer market which can dictate the game plan for next season.

One thing is for sure, Pioli has given a thought to the system and the fact Milan did try it out in a big game, which makes us wonder if signings like Renato Sanches and Adli, plus the return of Tommaso Pobega, signals a change is in the offing.

Tags AC Milan


    1. Do you remember our shit players? The 4-3-3 could work if Leao and the new RW play a little higher and don’t track back, as they probably will, to make up for the loss of the AMC as a “creator”. They won’t need to be as deep because we’ll have an extra midfielder for defense. The article is spot on when asserting that we get outnumbered by the 3-5-2. Except for our games with Inter, who would push up because they were actually trying to play, we struggle against smaller teams using that tactic as they tend to outnumber us in the middle. Finally, this whole tactical thing is not an emergency, as despite all these “issues” we’re still no. 1.

  1. It’s more about movement of players than formation of one is coached at a somewhat high level. After all a 4-2-3-1 is also a 433 if the hole and the pivots make certain movements

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