Milan 0-1 Tottenham: classic away European performance from Spurs
Tottenham kept it solid at the back, and won the game with a lightning quick break in the closing stages.
Max Allegri chose to use Thiago Silva in midfield, which meant Mario Yepes came in at the back. Clarence Seedorf was the trequartista, and Pato was left out.
Harry Redknapp couldn’t use Luka Modric from the start, so Sandro played in the centre of midfield. Niko Kranjcar was left out despite two goals in two games, with Steven Pienaar preferred.
Slightly surprisingly, Spurs dominated the start of the game. They had more possession and played most of the opening period in Milan’s half.
Tottenham had one clear strategy – to work the ball to the flanks, where Milan were light both in terms of numbers and in terms of quality, and work 2 v 1s before swinging crosses in towards Peter Crouch. Crouch, who is more of an aerial threat than he’s sometimes given credit for, moved towards the back post and challenged one of Milan’s full-backs. Most frequently, Spurs worked the ball down the right and Crouch peeled off and challenge Ignazio Abate in the air.
The more impressive part of Spurs’ performance was their defensive showing, however. Knowing that Milan’s central midfield zone was not particularly creative (mostly because of the absence of Andrea Pirlo), they stood off and focused on keeping it tight between the lines of defence and attack, where Milan’s forward three players were trying to work.
Spurs defend as a team
The most obvious priority was to stop Clarence Seedorf having time on the ball. He was tracked across the pitch, generally by Wilson Palacios, who had an excellent game, and the Dutchman made almost no contribution. Milan had the classic problem with the 4-3-1-2 – if the trequartista isn’t creating, the team becomes completely disjointed and can’t get the ball forward. Milan were sluggish, slow and unambitious with their passing, which was both a result of Spurs’ tactics and helped Spurs’ tactics – Redknapp’s side had more time to get behind the ball and take up good defensive positions.
Palacios and Sandro dealt with Seedorf, whilst the Spurs wingers tracked Milan’s full-backs admirably. There was little forward drive from Mathieu Flamini or Rino Gattuso, and in all, Milan were terrible in the first half. The only notable feature of their play was how Thiago Silva dropped between the centre-backs to transform the four-man defence into a three-man defence when Spurs closed down from goal-kicks.
Allegri replaced Seedorf with Pato at half time, pushing Robinho deeper into the trequartista role rather than going 4-3-3, which seemed a more logical move. Milan’s play picked up in the second half – Flamini and Gattuso got forward more, and Robinho’s movement was better than Seedorf’s. Still, they lacked creativity in the final third, and by denying space between the lines, Spurs stifled good players remarkably easily.
Despite a few substitutions, the formations and tactics changed little in the second half. Milan stayed 4-3-1-2, Spurs kept to a 4-4-1-1 shape, though Modric played deeper than Rafael van der Vaart.
Silva’s deployment in midfield meant that Milan lacked pace at the back, and they were exposed in fairly predictable circumstances – Aaron Lennon running at the back four with the ball on the break. Modric played him in at the start of the move and Crouch finished it, but it was Lennon’s pace that won this game, even though the goal was the only occasion he really demonstrated his speed on the ball. “We always knew if we got a breakaway we could get that away goal”, he said after the game.
Spurs impressed in the group stages because they were gung go, almost endearingly naive in the way they approached games – dodgy at the back but potent upfront. This was something quite different – controlled in defence and strategic in the way they attacked. Their central midfield duo played brilliantly – this was the first time they’d completed 90 minutes alongside one another, and their wingers did their defensive tasks flawlessly. As Steven Pienaar says, “Teamwork & collective responsibility was the key tonight“.
Spurs were excellent in the way they defended, but it was primarily due to the efforts of the midfield rather than the back four, who did nothing wrong, but didn’t have to do anything special.
Milan were atrocious in the first half, marginally better in the second but still lacking a clear goalscoring threat, and they remain vulnerable in a very obvious respect. They now have to take the game to Spurs in the second leg, and Spurs can play on the counter-attack from the outset. This is an uphill task for Allegri.