Milan 2-2 Real Madrid: Real lead, mistakes put them behind, Leon grabs a late equaliser
A pulsating game that finished all square, with both sides disappointed to have given up the victory.
Milan recalled Ronaldinho in place of Robinho, and moved back to a 4-3-3 rather than the 4-3-1-2 they used in the first half against Juventus. Only Alessandro Nesta remained from that back four, with Gianluca Zambrotta, Ignazio Abate and Thiago Silva coming into the side.
Real Madrid played what appears to be their strongest line-up at present. No major surprises – 4-2-3-1, Cristiano Ronaldo on the left, Angel di Maria on the right.
Real were by far the better side in the first half – dominating possession and territory, whilst creating more goalscoring chances. There is so much creativity in their side that they don’t have a particularly set way of building up play – direct balls to Ronaldo are common, and he caused Ignazio Abate problems (Abate was lucky not to be sent-off) but the creativity of Xabi Alonso, Angel Di Maria and Mesut Oezil are also potential sources of creativity.
Real full-backs forward
As has become standard when discussing Milan, the best way to attack them is to get your full-backs forward – the carrileros are slow to come out to meet them, and the Milan wide forwards have no interest in tracking back.
This was Real’s most promising source of attack in the first half. Marcelo, a player in fantastic form, scampered up and down the left flank and dribbled directly at the Milan defence. He and Sergio Ramos took it in turns to move forward, and a Ramos cross produced the best chance(s) of the opening period of the game, when Andrea Pirlo cleared Gonzalo Higuain’s header off the line, then got a block on the subsequent rebound too.
Pirlo v Alonso
That was actually Andrea Pirlo’s most notable contribution of the first half, since in open play he was dealt with very well by Real. The key to why the away side dominated the majority of the game lies in the frequency they could get their deep-lying playmaker on the ball. Pirlo and Alonso are both superb technical players – World Cup-winning registas who get their side playing from the centre of the pitch.
The difference was that Alonso had time on the ball as Milan’s midfield three backed off and sat deep, whilst Pirlo was immediately closed down by Oezil when he had the ball, and was tracked closely when he did not. The Chalkboard below shows that, for this reason, Alonso was much more of an influence on the game than Pirlo.
The downside to Oezil’s role here was, of course, that he was rarely free himself when Real won possession, and he was not a particularly big influence on the game. Pirlo followed him, whilst Rino Gattuso played a deep role to the right of Milan’s midfield, keeping an eye on both Oezil and Ronaldo, shuttling between the two zones to help out Pirlo and Abate.
Real were wasting chances but Milan simply weren’t creating them – Ronaldinho and Pato rarely got the better of the full-backs, with Ronaldinho at his frustrating worst and Pato barely involved. Real eventually took the lead when Higuain controlled Di Maria’s disguised pass and finished well.
The first significant change of the game came when Milan introduced Pippo Inzaghi for the ineffectual Ronaldinho, who had been incredibly wasteful in possession, trying the killer ball every time, when Milan needed to retain possession slightly more and more higher up the pitch. His pass completion rate of around 50% sums up his disappointing night, and he was deservedly the first player to make way.
Inzaghi may be more of a central striker than Ronaldinho, but the fact he sprints his legs off non-stop made Milan more fluid upfront. He, Pato and Zlatan Ibrahimovic covered the forward area between them, rotating and causing the Real backline much more problems then when the starting three were spread out across the pitch in predictable positions. Ibrahimovic came shorter and dragged Pepe around, Pato moved into the centre and found some space, and Inzaghi gave Milan some urgency – even in a bizarre moment when he shoved Alonso to the floor when chasing down a loose ball, he at least showed more desire and commitment than the man he replaced.
Despite the change, Milan persisted with the approach they used throughout the game – long balls hit over the top. It seems strange that a side with so many creative players can be so keen on using such a primitive approach to football, but throughout this season it’s worked rather well, with Ibrahimovic racing onto through balls with his speed, and holding defenders off with his strength. The goal Milan scored against Ajax, for example, came from this very approach.
Real were playing a high defensive line, which further encouraged Milan to knock the ball over the top. Their strikers were frequently caught offside, and the Chalkboard to the left shows that this almost always came after passes from the Milan midfielders near the halfway line.
Balls over top
There are three ways playing a high offside line can fail. First, the defenders can make a mistake. Second, the attacking team can simply break through with a well-timed pass and run. Third, the linesman can make the wrong decision. Here, we had the first and third scenarios for the goals Milan scored.
The first Milan goal saw two player mistakes – one from Pepe, who couldn’t cut out a pass to Ibrahimovic, and one from Iker Casillas, who flapped the Swede’s cross-shot towards his own goal, for Inzaghi to tap in.
Inzaghi scored the second from an offside position (where he was born, according to Sir Alex Ferguson) from another lofted pass over the top, and again Casillas didn’t cover himself in glory – jumping to anticipate an Inzaghi lob, so the veteran merely passed it into the net beneath Casillas’ leap.
Milan tried to shut up shop by moving to two banks of four with Massimo Ambrosini on for Pato, but perhaps they invited too much Real pressure. Because of this change, Mourinho could afford to take centre-back Pepe off and bring on Pedro Leon, a flying winger – and it was Leon who scored the equaliser, meeting Karim Benzema’s excellent pass and squeezing the ball through Christian Abbiati’s legs.
A frantic finale and a frantic final change from Mourinho in the 94th minute – Oezil off, Raul Albiol and a return to a back four for the final few seconds.
Both sides should have won this game. Real shouldn’t have conceded simple goals, Milan shouldn’t have thrown away the lead in the last minute.
There was relatively little creativity from Ronaldinho, Pato, Ronaldo or Higuain, and the real battle in terms of creativity took place much deeper in midfield. Alonso saw more of the ball than Pirlo, and therefore Real dominated the majority of the game.
Milan’s favoured approach and biggest weakness is clear – they like hitting balls over the top, they don’t like being attacked from full-back positions. The inability to deal with a deep-lying playmaker is another problem Max Allegri will be thinking about over the next few days.
Real’s downfall here was from individual errors. Playing with a high line always leaves you prone to balls over the top, but until Pepe’s mistake, the high offside line (reminiscent of the approach used by Mourinho (and Carvalho) at Porto) was working very well.
Chalkboards courtesy of TotalFootball iPhone appMilan 2-2 Real Madrid: Real lead, mistakes put them behind, Leon grabs a late equaliser