Real Madrid 2-0 Milan: Early goals seal victory

October 20, 2010

The starting line-ups

An enjoyable contest between the two most successful sides in the history of the European Cup ended in a comfortable won for Real.

Real set out in a fairly standard 4-2-3-1 system. Cristiano Ronaldo played higher up the pitch on the left than Angel di Maria on the right, whilst Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira alternated position, with Alonso generally further forward.

Milan’s system was a 4-3-1-2, not dissimilar to the system they played on the way to the 2003 Champions League final. Amazing, considering that was eight seasons ago, the midfield trio were exactly the same, with Alessandro Nesta another survivor. Ronaldinho played between the lines and the two forwards drifted to the flanks.

That was a ploy to try and subdue the two Real full-backs, but it didn’t work as Marcelo and Alvaro Arbeloa both scampered forward into space to provide an obvious outlet on the flanks when Real’s central midfielders had the ball. In turn, this allowed Ronaldo and Di Maria to focus on pegging back the Milan full-backs, and the home side were dominating the space.

Real push up pitch

A key part of this was positional bravery from Real players, particularly the full-backs and the holding midfielders. Jose Mourinho could have instructed his full-backs to remain goalside of the two Milan strikers when they moved to the flanks, and equally could have insisted that one of the two defensive midfielders was goalside of Ronaldinho.

But early on, Ronaldinho was left free and the full-backs both pushed on, sometimes leaving Real with a perilous-looking situation at the back, but with a situation where they were able to dominate the ball. Khedira cut off the passing angle to Ronaldinho if he found himself ahead of the Brazilian.

Ronaldo threat

Milan predictably used Rino Gattuso to try and stop Ronaldo – Gattuso constantly came out to the right-hand side in front of Gianluca Zambrotta and doubled up on the winger, but all too often Ronaldo’s trickery and raw pace meant he got the better of both. He was the obvious early threat – Mesut Ozil had a relatively quiet game, generally up against two Milan central midfielders (three when Gattuso was not out on the flank) and Di Maria was wasteful when he got the ball.

Real’s early pressure was rewarded with two quickfire goals that put them in command. First, Ronaldo slammed a free-kick through the wall and into the net, and then his pace got him free on the left, resulting in a pull-back for Ozil which took a cruel deflection off Daniele Bonera, and looped into the net.

Real comfortable

Here, Real were in the ideal position – not merely in terms of having a two-goal lead so early on, but also because Milan were forced to move higher up the pitch and leave space in behind – as seen against Cesena, Milan are particularly vulnerable in two ways – on the counter-attack, and from opposition full-backs getting forward. Real sat deeper – Di Maria played almost as a third central midfielders at times and picked up Seedorf, but Milan were unable to impose themselves on the game.

Max Allegri’s side found it difficult to get their full-backs forward into threatening positions – Gianluca Zambrotta was kept at bay by Ronaldo, whilst on the other side Luca Antonini was more attack-minded but always wanted to come inside onto his right foot. The three forward players did very little, and Andrea Pirlo was not at his best, summed up by an uncharacteristically low passing completion ratio of 75% – on the other side, Khedira finished with 94%, and Alonso with 87%.

Pressing

Another key difference was the attitude of both sides when they didn’t have the ball. Real didn’t press vigorously, but they occupied players and made it difficult for Milan to play forward passes. On the other hand, Milan’s front six were so poor at putting Real’s defenders and midfielders under any real pressure – Marcelo and Arbeloa had all the time they liked to pick out passes; Marcelo was the more attack-minded but Arbeloa had a good game by simply providing an easy outlet on the right. The two Real central midfielders distributed it between each other easily with no pressure, and Real were comfortable.

Real were far better without the ball - compare the number of interceptions the two sides made in the central midfield area

The only surprise was that Real didn’t wrap up the game with a third on the counter-attack. They certainly had chances – Di Maria and Higuain missed easy chances, and the home side had 23 shots on goal in the 90 minutes. Poor finishing, combined with a good display from Marco Amelia (who was not responsible for either of the goals) kept them at bay.

Conclusion

A 4-3-1-2 will always have problems with dealing with a 4-2-3-1, most notably in the full-back areas – the 4-3-1-2 finds its full-backs pinned back, the 4-2-3-1 can allow theirs to get forward and become additional midfielders. The benefit the 4-3-1-2 has is an extra midfielder and the benefit of two strikers, but the lack of natural width from midfield only emphasises the problem at full-back.

The key was not so much what the sides did with the ball, but what they did without it. Real pressed well, Milan focused on keeping their shape, and Real simply used width to pass around them. They also had Ronaldo, who was the best attacking player on the pitch by a long way.

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Real Madrid 2-0 Milan: Early goals seal victory

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