Zonal marking and effective high press: Tactical analysis of Milan’s draw vs. Man Utd

By Rohit Rajeev -

In a blast past from the past, two European heavyweights in AC Milan and Man Utd took on each other in the Europa League round of 16. The game ended 1-1 and the Rossoneri got the all-important away goal late on. 

Both teams were nursing injuries as Milan were without Bennacer, Calhanoglu, Hernandez, Ibrahimovic, Mandzukic, Rebic and Romagnoli for the game. In other words, they fielded quite a makeshift XI. Down below is a tactical analysis of the encounter.


Both teams lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation with Milan opting for a Double pivot of Meite and Kessie and Ole opting for Matic and Mctominay.


Milan made their intentions very clear right from minute one and that is pressing United high and trying to hit them on the counter. United, who used a patient build-up, were pressed by Milan using cover shadows aka cutting off passing lanes.

United would often have their centre-backs placed wide, with Dean Henderson pushing up. Either Matic or McTominay sat back and to form passing triangles and play out of the back.

With pace at the back to recover lose balls or to cover for counter-attacks, Tomori and Kjaer came off their defensive lines and helped with the press. often leading to Milan creating quick counters, though which weren’t converted due to poor shooting.


A very rare aspect was the zonal marking used by Milan to mark Fernandez, rather than have a player man-mark him. Pioli instructions were clear, if Bruno was in your zone then cut off the passes to him since Bruno always has this knack of finding spaces and creating havoc.


Milan, whenever they won the ball back from United, would aim to find Diaz who sat between the United lines, finding pockets of space and looking to farm it wide or play a vertical pass for Leao.


A big disadvantage of Milan’s 4-2-3-1 is that when the double pivot presses forward, it creates a gap between the pivot and the backline. Intelligent playmakers like Fernandes can easily find space between the lines. A similar mistake could be seen vs Red Star. It was this sequence of play that led to United’s goal.


Off the ball and deep into their territory, United had one of their double pivot (usually Mctominay) drop into the defence to create extra numbers.

On the ball, they played a hybrid 2-3-5 which also looked like an asymmetric 3-5-2. Greenwood would tuck in as a second striker behind Martial, making space for AWB to make overlapping runs.

United engaged in a horizontal press, trying to push Milan to the sidelines with AWB, Greenwood and Fernandes pressing Milan to their wings.


Later in the game, Milan introduced Tonali as a make-shift regista, and pushed Kessie up to trouble Mctominay and Matic, especially the former who was on a yellow card. To counter this, Ole brought in Fred to man-mark Tonali and upset his passing rhythm.


Milan were certainly the better team on the day and will go to the San Siro feeling they could have won this game, had Kessie’s goal not been wrongly ruled out and if Krunic as well as Saelemaekers had taken their chances.

An away goal means Milan have an advantage, but United have a very good record away from home while the Rossoneri haven’t been great at home. With both sides expecting players to return, it’s set up for a feisty second leg.

READ MORE: Pioli aims jab at Juve and Napoli as Milan want to ‘play every three-four days”

Tags AC Milan Europa League Man Utd
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