Milan 2-2 Lazio: danger down the flanks
The opening Serie A game of the season was excellent, with all four goals coming in a frantic first 35 minutes.
Max Allegri continued with his 4-3-1-2 shape, with Antonio Cassano playing just off Zlatan Ibrahimovic upfront.
Edy Reja gave debuts to two strikers, Miroslav Klose and Djibril Cisse, though the Frenchman played in a wide-left role. It was a similar, lopsided 4-2-3-1 to the system Lazio used last season.
The main tactical interest here was how obviously vulnerable both teams were in certain positions – and, as it happened, they were both vulnerable in exactly the same ways, despite the difference in formations.
Defences defend deep
First, the game was extremely stretched from the outset, with both defences defending deep, and a huge amount of space in the midfield as a result. There was barely ever any pressure on the ball and the midfielders all had time and space to pick a pass – the one exception being Hernanes, who was squeezed inside Milan’s diamond and didn’t influence the game a great deal.
With seven players packed into the central midfield zone, it always seemed likely that chances would come from the flanks. Neither side had traditional winger in their ranks – Milan were narrow, and Lazio used Stefano Mauri relatively central and Cisse as a support striker, so any threat down the wings would come from full-back.
This was interesting, for two reasons. First, because the game was so stretched from the start, the full-backs had plenty of space to motor into. The downside of this, however, is that they have to run a long way to make up ground down the flanks, and if they get forward and their side loses possession, they have to travel an extremely long distance to get back into defence.
Second, it was interesting because none of the full-backs received great support from ahead, with the arguable exception of Ignazio Abate, who was covered by Rino Gattuso and then Max Ambrosini when Gattuso departed (with Mark van Bommel coming into the holding role). Therefore, when they attacked, they were creating overlaps against their stranded opposition numbers – but no-one was on hand to cover.
The 4-2-3-1 theoretically offers good protection for full-backs – the Rafael Benitez-style 4-2-3-1, for example, essentially looks like a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2 without the ball, with the wide players forming a second bank of four. Reja was happy to let his wide players amble back towards their own goal, however, which meant that Lazio frequently defended with just six players.
Abdoulay Konko was the most important player early on. He was given license to get forward and overlap Mauri, which gave a constant out-ball when Alberto Aquilani got too central, and meant that he and Mauri could overlap 2 v 1 against Luca Antonini. These 2 v 1 situations produced a dangerous cross in the opening moments, and later on resulted in Mauri getting space to cross for Cisse’s header.
On the other side, something similar happened. Cisse showed no interest in defending, and so Abate could leave him to Alessandro Nesta and move forward himself, getting most of that flank to himself with Luciano Zauri remaining deep. Unlike Lazio, however, Milan didn’t have a true wide player on that side, and it was only when Kevin-Prince Boateng came out to the flank to help out that 2 v 1 situations were created, meaning Milan’s overlaps weren’t as useful as Lazio’s.
The knock-on effect to Konko and Abate moving forward, though, was that Cassano and Cisse got space in behind the opposition right-backs. Cassano played Konko very well throughout, dragging him wide early on to create space for an Aquilani chance, but for the rest of the game he focused on getting the ball himself in left-sided positions, as he used to do so well for Sampdoria. The most obvious example was on 47 minutes, when a through-ball from Ibrahimovic resulted in Cassano running with the ball, coming inside and then shooting narrowly wide of the far post.
Cisse increasingly looked more like an additional forward as the game went on, to the point where Reja eventually seemed to move Hernanes out to the left to allow Cisse to constantly stretch the Milan backline, from left-of-centre positions.
Amongst this specific tactical battle, four goals in an action-packed first half resulted, almost inevitably, in a more tense second period after both managers were more cautious. There were less forward runs from full-back and therefore less space at both ends, though Milan should have scored a third.
A very interesting tactical battle that seemed to occur almost separately from the formation match-up, although the fact that Lazio had slightly more natural width meant their formation created overlaps more easily.
Both sides looked very prone to easy exploitation, however – Milan still look vulnerable to width, the major problem for Italian clubs in the Champions League, whilst Cisse and Mauri can’t be given such little defensive responsibility. A side with a good natural right-winger would have won this game.