Palermo 3-1 Milan: the home side more comfortable in their formation

April 25, 2010

Milan’s Scudetto hopes are officially over, whilst Palermo move up into a Champions League position. The scoreline was a fair reflection of the game, as Palermo’s front three terrorized Milan’s makeshift back four.

Palermo lined up in their customary 4-3-1-2 shape, with a traditional Italian front three – a central striker (Abel Hernandez), a seconda punta (Fabrizio Miccoli) and a trequartista (Javier Pastore). Fabio Liverani was the deepest of the three midfielders, with width coming from full-back.

Milan were suffering from an injury crisis, with seven players unavailable. Their starting XI featured four players who generally play at full-back – when the game started, it emerged that Massimo Oddo was to play at centre-back, and Marek Jankulovski was on the left of a midfield three. The system was a hybrid of a 4-3-1-2 and a 4-3-2-1 (Christmas Tree) formation, with Ronaldinho floating between the striker, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and the attacking midfielder, Clarence Seedorf.

The first thing to note was the obvious lack of width in attacking zones from either side, with two narrow formations resulting in a congested midfield. Palermo are used to this, but Milan have become accustomed to using the wide players in their 4-3-3 for creativity, and they had problems readjusting to the narrow system in operation for this game.

Another difference between the sides was the work rate of the forwards, and the intensity of the pressing. Huntelaar and Ronaldinho did no work defensively whatsoever, whereas Palermo’s front three were excellent at closing down across the pitch – Miccoli working the right side of Milan’s defence, and Abel the left side, with Pastore getting in Andrea Pirlo’s face and not letting him have time on the ball.

It was no coincidence that Palermo’s opening two goals both came after Milan’s defenders making mistakes under pressure. First Miccoli won the ball from Gianluca Zambrotta and forced a corner which resulted in Cesare Bovo heading in, then Abel Hernandez robbed Oddo on the edge of his own area, swapped passes with Miccoli and then scored. The mistakes came partly because Milan’s backline was so makeshift, of course – but they wouldn’t have happened at the other end because Huntelaar and Ronaldinho never put the Palermo defenders under pressure.

Milan picked up their game, and they generally played down the left. Jankulovski was playing as a central midfielder but naturally drifted to the left flank where he has spent most of his career, whilst Ronaldinho also moved to the left to receive the ball. Milan generally built up play on that side, with those two combining with Luca Antonini, before switching the ball across to Zambrotta on the right, who was always unmarked. Milan started to pass the ball better as Palermo pressed from the halfway line rather than all over the pitch (as in the opening twenty minutes) and Milan began to get dangerous crosses into the box.

A Christmas Tree formation can be very difficult for a four-man defence to cope with, but Palermo defended excellently. Their left-sided centre-back, Cesare Bovo – stuck to Huntelaar throughout, whilst Clarence Seedorf was tracked by Fabio Liverani. The tricky player to mark was Ronaldinho, but Simon Kjaer was happy to come high up the pitch to mark him, safe in the knowledge that Milan’s lack of wingers meant that the full-backs could play extremely narrow and cover for him.

Pirlo was having problems as the deepest midfield player, with Rino Gatusso charging up the pitch – and Javier Pastore constantly looked to run at Pirlo with the ball. Leonardo seemed to shift Gatusso into a slightly more defensive role to help Pirlo cope.

Milan got back into the game with a well-worked goal finished by Clarence Seedorf. Notice how Milan negate Palermo’s marking responsibilities that worked so well in the first half. Rather than placing himself up against Bovo, the left-sided centre-back, Huntelaar instead stands next to Kjaer, the right centre-back, meaning Ronaldinho is left free in front of the defence. Bovo is then the free man and has to come to meet Ronaldinho – which leaves space in the centre of the defence that Seedorf exploits, turning sharper than Liverani and finishing nearly. The only bright spot of a terrible Milan performance, but it demonstrates how the Christmas Tree can unlock opposition defences by playing two players ‘in the hole’.

Palermo sealed the victory with a brilliant Fabrizio Miccoli goal. Take nothing away from the quality of the finish, but look how much time the Palermo players have on the ball in the build-up to the goal. Liverani – an excellent passer – is given all the time he wants to pick a pass, and Thiago Silva lets Miccoli turn in a couple of yards’ space, where he can easily get a shot away. A tremendous goal from Miccoli, but awful, lazy defending from Milan that sums up their problems so well.

In all, this game came down to who was more comfortable in their playing system. Palermo were well-drilled and positionally-aware, Milan were slow and uncomfortable both offensively and defensively.

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