Milan v Arsenal should be an interesting battle of very different formations and styles

February 15, 2012

Possible starting line-ups

A quick preview of tonight’s game…

On the left is the potential starting line-ups for the two sides. There may be changes to this – Arsenal have injury problems at the back and may play Francis Coquelin at full-back, while Milan’s three advanced midfielders can all switch around, as they did against Inter.

But the real interest here is not the players used, but the battle of systems. Milan play 4-3-1-2, Arsenal 4-3-3. This, more than most games, should be an excellent clash of styles. Milan are slow at the back and narrow in midfield – they are clearly vulnerable to pace down the flanks, as Tottenham demonstrated at the San Siro last year.

Arsenal should be able to get joy down the wings, in two separate ways – (a) attacking the full-backs at speed, and (b) by getting the full-backs forward to create 2 v 1s against the Milan full-backs. This will force the shuttlers on the sides of the diamond out to the flanks, will leave gaps in the midfield and then force the Milan trequartista to drop back and help out, making Milan a broken team. (Their trequartista is usually Kevin-Prince Boateng or Urby Emanuelson, players based around energy rather than guile, because Max Allegri is so concerned with joining the forward two to the midfield three. If that link man can be taken out of the game or pushed deeper, Milan have problems.)

The importance of attacking down the flanks is why it makes sense for Wenger to play two naturally attacking full-backs, if possible. Kieran Gibbs may not be fully fit, but it is vital to have good attacking players there, on their natural sides, rather than other options (Thomas Vermaelen is a centre-back, Coquelin and Sagna are right-footed).

Milan’s front two do little defensive work, but the movement of Robinho out to the flanks can stop the full-backs getting forward.

If Arsenal are taking lessons from Tottenham’s display last year, then it makes sense to sit back and counter. Arsenal aren’t particularly good at defending deep – Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny prefer to push high up the pitch and force attackers away from goal, but Vermaelen must beware of giving space to Zlatan Ibrahimovic in behind, as he did twice in the 2-2 draw with Barcelona two years ago. Milan’s threat comes from individual quality upfront – to win the game, they need to excel in that department rather than tactically.

But Milan’s midfield aren’t at all creative on the ball, as explained here. The man who plays the most key passes in the side is Ibrahimovic, while the assist leader this season is Antonio Cassano, who has been out for four months. The possible presence of Alberto Aquilani would change that, but otherwise opponents can afford to let Milan have time on the ball – there’s no real need to close down.

The key player, though, will be Mark van Bommel, sitting deep in the midfield. As shown by the blue, orange and red highlighting in the diagram above, Arsenal should match Milan 3 v 3 deep in midfield, but van Bommel will be free. His influence on the side shouldn’t be underestimated – his calm, reliable passing sets the tempo. Arsene Wenger rarely varies his tactics significantly, but it would be worth him asking Robin van Persie to drop onto van Bommel, and effectively playing 4-3-3-0 without the ball. That would nullify van Bommels influence and also create more space for Arsenal to break into.

On that note, while Tottenham’s strategy at the San Siro worked well, they were fortunate that Milan’s deep-lying midfielder was Thiago Silva, a centre-back out of position and not particularly great at the ball. In the return leg, Allegri used Clarence Seedorf there and the Dutchman was given too much time on the ball, completing 20 more passes than any other player. Van Bommel needs to be watched, but if Arsenal can break past him and force him into an early yellow card, his defensive ability is severely weakened.

This is likely to be an odd battle – fascinating tactically by virtue of the fact it won’t be very tactical. In other words, these two coaches are quite inflexible, playing roughly the same system every week. The 4-3-1-2 v 4-3-3 match-up is very obvious – the former has an extra man in midfield, the latter is stronger down the flanks.

The clash seems to suit Arsenal more, and this performance will say a lot about them. Arsenal now play a system based around getting the ball wide and attacking quickly down the flanks – facing a narrow side that is slow at the back plays into their hands. With that in mind, if Arsenal don’t come out on top here, one wonders which of Europe’s big guns they would stand a chance of beating.

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