Milan 1-1 Juventus: Emanuelson nullifies Pirlo and robs Juve of their spare man too
1st v 2nd in Serie A – Milan remain a point ahead, but Juve have a game in hand.
Max Allegri still has big selection problems – Kevin-Prince Boateng joined the injury list, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic was suspended.
Antonio Conte’s first nine names on the teamsheet were as expected – but Marco Borriello and Fabio Quagliarella upfront was a big surprise.
The game finished level, but Milan were the better side here – Conte made mistakes, and Milan played well. The Juve coach seemed to accept this, saying, “First of all we must praise Milan, as they played for an hour at the highest level and put us under pressure with our own weapons. Where I see that we went wrong, it’s also because they made us go wrong.”
Accordingly, the majority of the report will be looking at how Milan outwitted Juve.
Juve had the players to use either a three or a four at the back. From kick off, they seemed to line up with a back four, but it quickly became apparent that Conte had decided upon a back three, with wing-backs pushing forward to provide width.
Juve had a couple of promising moments when they moved forward by switching the ball from flank to flank. With the away side playing two upfront, Thiago Silva and Philippe Mexes had no spare man, and therefore the two Milan full-backs had to drop in and provide cover – which they both did well throughout the game.
Emanuelson v Pirlo
But Milan were the better side, and the main reason was the battle between Urby Emanuelson and Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo has been enjoying a superb season for Juve in the deep-lying role, and having released him last summer, no club knows that better than Milan. Therefore, they instructed Emanuelson to pick up Pirlo when Juve had the ball, and he struggled to dictate the play. Usually he plays 81 passes per game with 85.4% completion ratio, here he played 73 with 82% accuracy – not a huge difference, but his influence was less obvious.
But crucially, Emanuelson charged past Pirlo when Milan won the ball, which meant that Juve’s spare man at the back (the reason Conte had chosen a three-man backline) was no longer evident. Milan could get the ball forward quickly, drag the back three across the pitch out of position (particularly with Robinho’s movement into deep and wide positions), and power through the gaps.
The Juve back three were stranded against the movement of the Milan front three, receiving little protection from Pirlo ahead of them, while Stephane Lichsteiner and Marcelo Estigarribia moved forward as Juve’s third and fourth highest players up the pitch in attacking moves, meaning they were in no position to defend quick breaks.
(The midfield duos of Sulley Muntari-Antonio Nocerino and Claudio Marchisio-Arturo Vidal battled in the centre, with the Milan partnership stronger in the tackle – particularly Muntari, who made nine tackles in the game. By losing the battle in this zone, Juve struggled to connect the midfield and the attack.)
So where was Conte’s mistake? The forward duo probably wasn’t right, certainly. But Juve weren’t really getting the ball forward in the first place for that to be an issue. The problem was in a deeper zone, and the interesting thing is that while a back three logically makes sense against a front two, it probably wasn’t right considering the personnel involved here. Milan’s trequartista, whether Boateng or Emanuelson, is tasked with connecting the midfield and the attack with constant running, and therefore Milan effectively play more than a front two – a front 2.5, perhaps.
The back three could still have made sense had Juve’s holding player been more of a defensive force – Sergio Busquets, for example – but with Pirlo very much a creator and often strolling back, they were exposed in that position, especially on counter-attacks.
Although we’ve seen Juve play a back three with Pirlo ahead against other sides, it hasn’t quite been in this situation. Even against Udinese, who also play an energetic player in the number ten role (Almen Abdu), Juve were 3-5-2 but up against a 3-5-1-1 – so when Abdi moved forward Juve still had a spare man, the value of which shouldn’t be underestimated.
Conte switched things at half time, moving from the 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3ish shape by bringing Simone Pepe on for Estigarribia, putting him on the right and moving Quagliarella to a leftish forward role. Interestingly, Milan’s front three seemed to widen as a result, with Emanuelson playing slightly to the right, Robinho more to the left, and Stephan El Shaarawy on for Pato to provide more energy upfront. With Juve wider at the back and two full-backs trying to get forward, Milan now had to work harder at the front.
But the main reason Juve got back into the game was Conte changing his strikers. Even here, he did things in an odd manner – Mirko Vucinic replaced Borriello on 54 minutes and went upfront – we had to wait until 70 minutes for Matri on for Quagliarella. Matri went upfront and Vucinic to the left. It seemed more logical to bring on Matri for Borriello, then Vucinic for Quagliarella – Vucinic clearly isn’t a number nine, while Matri’s ten goals make him Juve’s best striking option by a considerable distance.
Rarely has Conte got it wrong this season – he did here, as the formation and the identity of the starting forwards were both issues. However, he still emerges with credit – first for having the grace (and intelligence) to say he knew he made errors. Second, more importantly, for turning things around and picking up a point.
Milan were very good for the first hour, with Robinho pulling the strings and Emanuelson driving at the Juve defence – his ability to act as part-midfielder, part-forward caused real problems. Playing a shuttler as a trequartista will win Milan few points for beauty, but it does give opponents an unusual threat they find it difficult to respond to.