Tottenham 0-0 Milan: Spurs hang on

March 9, 2011

The starting line-ups

Milan had the majority of possession in both matches, but failed to score in 180 minutes of football.

Harry Redknapp made one change from the first game, with Luka Modric returning in place of Wilson Palacios. Gareth Bale was only fit enough for the bench.

Max Allegri named a surprisingly attacking side, even when considering this was a game Milan needed to win. Clarence Seedorf and Kevin-Prince Boateng were in a midfield three alongside Mathieu Flamini, with Robinho in the hole.

This was another strange second leg. Tottenham have the glory, and in defensive terms they played excellently. It was Milan who dominated the game, though, by outnumbering Spurs in midfield, and in that sense, Allegri probably got his tactics spot on – he simply needed more inspiration in the final third.

Two phases

Spurs’ approach had two separate phases, and it’s important to differentiate between the first period – where they tried to play football but were outplayed – and the second period, where they accepted that Milan were going to dominate possession and instead ‘parked the bus’ deep in their own half.

That may seem an unnecessary distinction, but in strategic terms it is crucial – their initial tactic failed, their plan B worked well.

Milan start strongly

Milan were a completely different side from the first leg – in personnel, and consequently in style too. They were far more comfortable in the midfield, with Rino Gattuso suspended and Thiago Silva back in his preferred position at centre-back. Seedorf surprisingly played as a deep-lying regista – the Andrea Pirlo role – and was the game’s best player, completing 20 more passes than any other midfielder. With Boateng shuttling on the left and Flamini also providing energy on the right, Milan were much more positive and creative in midfield.

Spurs couldn’t compete in that zone because they had a simple numerical disadvantage. That wasn’t a problem in the first leg for three separate reasons – (a) because they were using two holding players, (b) because they were sitting back behind the ball anyway, and (c) because Milan were so ponderous and slow on the ball in the first leg. With Spurs having less of a strong spine here, with Modric alongside Sandro, and with Milan quicker at getting the ball forward, the away side dominated.

Despite all this, Sandro was actually having a great game, as his tackling and intercepting chalkboards show.

Sandro's tackles and interceptions - courtesy TotalFootball iPhone app

Midfield battle

The problem, though was that Milan had 4 v 3 in the centre of midfield. Sandro was broadly picking up Robinho, Modric kept an eye on Flamini, and Rafael van der Vaart played around Seedorf. That left Boateng free, and he drove Milan forward for much of the first half. He also got back and doubled up with Jankulovski against Lennon. In fact, Jankulovski and Boateng worked well together at both ends of the pitch, as the Czech constantly overlapped and stretched the play early on.

Crouch failed to hold up the ball, and gave away too many free-kicks

Tottenham failed to provide much of a goal threat. This was partly because of their own faults – their transitions from defence to attack were poor and it’s difficult to remember too many promising breaks, but also because Milan were able to keep a high line. Peter Crouch was a threat whenever he got into the penalty area, but with Milan’s centre-backs keeping him high up the pitch, Crouch was only able to move forward into the box when Spurs’ wingers got into the final 20 yards.

When that happened, Crouch won everything at the back post, but it happened rarely, and so he was instead left to challenge for headers 40 yards from goal – where he frequently conceded free-kicks.

Second half

Spurs played deeper after the break, and started to look as if they were playing for a 0-0. This approach seems to suit their back four – Michael Dawson, in particular, who is a great penalty box defender but often struggles when the ball is played over his head.

This meant Milan’s movement was less effective upfront – they had less space to work in when they got into the final third. Tottenham’s lines were closer together, and Robinho faded from the game. Milan then had the problem they encountered in the first leg – with no ‘link’ player, they couldn’t connect their midfield and attack.

Tottenham sitting deep meant that Seedorf had more time on the ball, though, and he continued to impress in possession.

Milan fade

However, both Boateng and Jankulovski departed midway through the second half, and Milan were less of a threat. Alexander Merkel came on and played one excellent direct forward ball, but otherwise overhit his passes and Milan’s play became sloppy.

Seedorf was the game's best player

On the other hand, Redknapp’s changes worked well. Bale came on – he didn’t provide much attacking threat, but as a converted left-back, was comfortable playing deep and helping out defensively. Jermaine Jenas provided energy in the second half, which helped Spurs compete in the midfield zone.

Milan were unimpressive late on. A couple of quick passing moves saw both Pato and Robinho go close, but Spurs sat deep and narrow – and Milan didn’t have any width to go around them.

Conclusion

Over the course of the two legs Milan had far more possession, but Spurs defended resiliently throughout. The opening to this game suggested that Redknapp wanted to take the game to Milan, but late on the policy of sitting back was the correct one. The poor transitions meant there was no counter-attacking threat from the home side, but good performances from the two centre-backs and Sandro kept the clean sheet in tact – and that was always going to be enough to win the game.

Milan were excellent in midfield but not good enough in the final third. The one consolation is that in Seedorf, they’ve found a short-term replacement for Pirlo in that deep-lying playmaker role.

Tottenham 0-0 Milan: Spurs hang on

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