Zonal pressing and combating a five-man midfield: Tactical analysis of Milan’s win over Cagliari

By Rohit Rajeev -

AC Milan got their second win of the season in their first home game of the new campaign on Sunday night, beating Cagliari 4-1.

Ironically, the same fixture was a somewhat dull and frustrating experience only three months ago in the last home game of last season as the Sardinian side dealt what at the time looked like a huge blow to the team’s Champions League hopes.

This time around though it was a very lively encounter as Milan put four past their opponents in one half with a much more confident looking display. Here are a few tactical points from the game…

Narrow shape and pressing

One of the key aspects of Pioli’s instructions while Milan were not in possession was to press the players on the pitch and reduce their options, in turn unsettling them and forcing them into making mistakes. Milan seemed to use a mix of zonal as well man-marking when they off the ball and would even gamble on pushing in tight to Cagliari players at the risk of being spun.

A very important aspect when trying to press the opponents is to keep a deep narrow block which is compact and with very less space between the defensive lines. Sacchi used to profess about not leaving more space than 15-20 metres. While he was an elite coach managing elite players, Milan were compact on their own accord and narrow, not extending to the wide areas of the pitch as can be seen in from the post-match stats.

Zonal pressing in effect.
Milan’s compactness without the ball, staying very narrow. (Via Serie A website)

Diaz between the lines

While Diaz was not always the fastest players in terms of sprint speed, he made it up with his tactical awareness, i.e. the ability to see pockets of space and take advantage of the momentary disorganisation of the opponents.

A key sign of this came into play when Theo Hernandez took out Cagliari’s entire midfield and found Diaz for the third goal.

Milan’s build-up play

Cagliari, to gain superiority in the middle of the park, had a five-man midfield with their three at the back formation. They used it to form a narrow midfield block not allowing Milan to build up through their centre.

Milan conveniently used Theo or Calabria to build attacks or to advanced the ball through the wings and then cut back to Kjaer or Tomori to use the middle of the pitch, thus shifting the defensive arrangement they had to face.

Cagliari goal

Cagliari had a five-man midfield to stretch and to prevent Milan’s narrow press from overpowering their attack, so they smartly tried to switch play all game. One such chance was when Joao Pedro switched from their right flank to the left joining Dalbert, and Milan were scrambling to cope with the switch.

They afforded him far too much time to clip in a cross and ultimately it was a well-placed (albeit slightly fortuitous) header that beat Maignan.


Milan once again seemed to be a very underrated team but unlike their opponents a very strong advantage they have this season is their stability. Players are ageing better and growing in experience and with coaching, as well as the medical staff knowing their players well.

The cohesiveness and co-ordination stood out in the first half, as Milan were very intense in the press which they executed perfectly before launching into dangerous overloading attacks at will. Psychologically, recovering from conceding an equaliser was also a big step.

READ MORE: AC Milan 4-1 Cagliari – Five things we learned – Plenty of positives, but one concern remains

Tags AC Milan Milan Cagliari
Serie A Standings

Live football scores . Current table, fixtures & results.