Cesena 2-0 Milan: familiar problems for Milan

September 12, 2010

The starting line-ups

Newly-promoted Cesena have four points from two tough opening games against Roma and Milan after this deserved victory.

The home side were unchanged from the opening, playing a disciplined 4-5-1 system that became 4-3-3 when they had the ball.

Milan gave a debut to Zlatan Ibrahimovic upfront, in a 4-3-3 formation largely similar to the one Leonardo favoured last season. Andrea Pirlo played deep, with Massimo Ambrosini and Rino Gatusso either side.

The game started at a surprisingly high pace for a Serie A contest, which was the first sign that this might not be a match to suit Milan’s ageing stars. It quickly panned out into a fairly standard 4-3-3 v 4-3-3 battle – full-backs against wingers, central midfielders doing battle, and one spare man at the back on either side.

The two players with most time on the ball were the two deep midfielders. Andrea Pirlo was able to dictate play but wasn’t at his best, while Giuseppe Colucci had an excellent game in front of his back four, preventing Milan players  finding any space in that position, and distributing the ball effectively and calmly to the flanks.

Wide players key

The main difference between the two sides was in wide areas – Cesena’s widemen were disciplined and hard-working, getting level with their own central midfielders and tracking the runs of the Milan full-backs well. Ronaldinho and Pato stayed high up the pitch, not looking to press.

Ronaldinho looked to drift inside into central positions, so was even less effective defensively than Pato – at least Pato was pinning back Yuto Nagamoto to a certain extent, but Ronaldinho was watched by Colucci or the spare centre-back, and the excellent Luca Ceccarelli bombed forward to great effect, as he did against Roma.

Milan lack mobility

Three men upfront doing nothing when they lose the ball is always going to be an issue, but Milan’s problem here is amplified because of the lack of pace and mobility amongst the seven players behind them. Those seven men were being asked to do the job of nine or ten, and they simply didn’t have the capacity to. Ambrosini and Gatusso were playing as box-to-box midfielders, getting well in advance of Pirlo into attacking positions, but at 33 and 32 respectively they no longer have the energy to match their reputations. Pirlo has never been a particularly mobile player, and certainly not a good tackler, and he was often exposed deep in midfield.

The nature of Milan dominating possession, and the fact the midfielders’ ‘zones’ extended forward because of the lack of defensive awareness from the forwards, meant that Cesena had too much space to break into behind the Milan midfield. Their transitions from defence to attack were so easy, and with the pace and direct running of their wide players they were always a threat on the counter-attack.

Predictable goals

The first goal came because Ronaldinho didn’t even try and track one of Ceccarelli’s runs. Ezequiel Schelotto drifted inside to take Luca Antonini into the centre, whilst Emanuele Giaccherini floated a ball out towards the unmarked Ceccarelli. The right-back took the ball on the chest before volleying a cross towards Erjon Bogdani, who made a dart across the centre-backs to the near post, flicking the ball into the far corner. It was an excellent goal – and not one Milan would have scored, because their full-backs would have been tracked by Cesena’s wingers.

The second came soon after, from the type of simple counter-attack Milan were always vulnerable to. Gattuso and Ambrosini were in the box, Pirlo couldn’t win the ball, and then Bogdani and Giaccherini utterly outpaced Milan’s defenders. The ball went from Cesena’s box to Milan’s goal in just six touches.

Milan were not out of the game. Their best chances came from Pato, who was by far the brightest of their three attacking players. Quick left-to-right passes were their best bet – Ibrahimovic drifted towards that side, and his partnership with Pato was promising. There were an incredible number of tight offside decisions that didn’t go Milan’s way (and this was even before Pippo Inzaghi came on) but Cesena used their spare man very well, constantly getting last-ditch tackles and blocks in.

Second half

Milan improved in the second half when Ignazio Abate came on for Thiago Silva and Daniele Bonera moved into the centre of defence – Milan needed more buccaneering full-backs, and Bonera is not a great attacking right-back. The pattern of the game continued into the second half, though Cesena started to tire and were less dangerous on the counter.

Robinho replaced Ronaldinho and was a much more willing runner, whilst Inzaghi’s introduction for Gattuso meant Milan went 4-2-4. But Cesena kept their starting tactics, only swapping Bogdani for Dominique Malonga, another striker, in the final ten minutes. Pato should have grabbed a goal and Ibrahimovic missed a penalty – Milan didn’t take their chances, but credit should go to Cesena for a great defensive display.


It was plain that Milan were open to being attacked in two distinct ways – firstly by Cesena getting their full-backs forward, who would always be unmarked, and secondly by hitting Milan on the counter-attack and exploiting their lack of pace at the back. Tactical flaws are rarely exposed as plainly at this, and a goal apiece came from either approach.

But rather than focusing on Milan’s failings, Massimo Ficcadenti’s side should be applauded for their organisation, their work rate and their technical quality. Having signed no fewer than 19 players over the summer, Cesena are equipped with some excellent footballers, particularly in the centre of midfield. Colucci and Stephen Appiah broke the play up and played intelligent passes, while Marco Parolo acted as a link between midfield and attack.

But their star performers were the wingers, who were very aware defensively and had the pace and energy to construct quick attacks. If they continue to play like this, Cesena’s ambitions might extend beyond mere survival.

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