Milan 1-0 Juventus: Milan sit deep, then break quickly through their front three

November 27, 2012

The starting line-ups

Juventus lost in Serie A for the second time under Antonio Conte.

Max Allegri continued with the 4-3-3 shape he used away at Napoli last week – Mario Yepes replaced Francesco Acerbi at the back, while Marco Amelia started in goal.

Antonio Conte picked Martin Caceres on the left side of defence in place of the injured Giorgio Chiellini – previously, Caceres has played to the right of the back three, with Andrea Barzagli moving across, but Barzagli remained in his usual position. Ahead of him, Mauricio Isla started rather than Stephane Lichtsteiner, who must have been more badly injured than was reported before the game.

Milan were a shade fortunate to win the game – it was universally agreed that the ball didn’t strike Isla’s arm for Robinho’s penalty – but overall they were the better side, as Gigi Buffon agreed. They defended solidly and attacked at great speed.

3 v 3

It’s always interesting when a 4-3-3 meets a 3-5-2. The front three of the first side have to make a decision about how they’re going to play without the ball – do they press three-versus-three, or do the wide players drop into deeper positions, allowing the opposition centre-backs time on the ball, but preventing them from passing into midfield easily?

Milan chose the former. Stephan El Shaaraway stayed high on the left, while there was a little more fluidity between Robinho and Kevin-Prince Boateng in the other two roles – after some early switching, Boateng stayed more permanently in the centre, with Robinho wide-right. Milan pressed Juventus heavily, particularly when Buffon was taking goal-kicks, and this disturbed their passing rhythm throughout the game – when Boateng pushed forward onto Leo Bonucci, Antonio Nocerino supported him by pressing Andrea Pirlo, and Buffon had nowhere to go.

Overall, Juve’s passing was dreadful for the majority of the game, and although sloppy distribution from the likes of Pirlo and Arturo Vidal can’t solely be attributed to Milan’s closing down, it was unquestionably a factor.

Boateng positioning

At the start of the game, with Riccardo Montolivo and Nocerino occupying Claudio Marchisio and Vidal, it seemed that Nigel de Jong and Pirlo would be the game’s two ‘free’ midfielders - and therefore only one winner in terms of creativity.

But after around 15 minutes, Boateng started to drop onto Pirlo and prevent him dictating the play from deep, and now Juve had more of a problem – Pirlo was unable to start attacks. The free man was now Bonucci, and he broke forward out of the back, and hit some excellent long diagonals to the two wing-backs, who pushed high up the pitch but also had freedom to move deep to collect the ball, knowing that Milan’s full-backs wouldn’t want to advance too high up the pitch.

However, both Milan full-backs had good games. On the right, Massimo De Sciglio made a couple of good interceptions and tackled Kwadwo Asamoah when he tried to dribble past. On the left, Kevin Constant didn’t give Isla any time to cross – he blocked more crosses than any other player in a single game in Europe’s major five leagues this season, a rather obscure but nevertheless telling statistic.

Milan breaks

When Milan got the ball, they broke quickly. Their formation was different from that used by Inter in their win over Juventus, but there was a similarity in how they kept three men up the pitch, and were fluid yet never naive in leaving Pirlo free. Boateng spun in behind him when Milan won possession, while El Shaaraway simply had too much speed for the Juve backline.

Pirlo’s defensive play has improved since he moved to Juve last year, but often it seemed like Milan were simply breaking three-against-three, with Pirlo offering little support. The forward running of Montolivo and Nocerino helped Milan play quick transitions, and they really should have managed a goal in open play.

Second half

After the break, Milan defended deeper, which gave the Juventus forwards more space between the lines to work in. Meanwhile, the full-backs tucked in closer to the centre-backs, which gave Juve’s wing-backs more room on the flanks, and gradually Juventus began to dominate, with Pirlo sometimes moving higher up the pitch, out of the reach of Boateng.

But the major story in the second half was the substitutions made by Conte and co. At half-time, Isla was removed with Simone Padoin replacing him. He’s a versatile player and can happily play wing-back – but generally on the left side, and he’s a much more defensive player than Isla. He didn’t take advantage of the freedom he was being afforded down the flank, and Juventus surely could have done with a more attack-minded player there – Simone Pepe, for example.

The second change – bringing on Sebastian Giovinco for Quagliarella – was a straight swap, but the final move was Paul Pogba on for Asamoah. Pogba went into the centre of midfield, while Caceres half-heartedly advanced further up on the left side – but  it didn’t help Juventus stretch the play or create chances, and it was difficult to see the logic in the switch.

Allegri, however, made one very clever change – taking off Robinho and bringing on Giampaolo Pazzini, who generally stayed to the right of the pitch. As a natural centre-forward, his hold-up play enabled Milan to get up the pitch at a time when Juventus were pinning them back, and when Milan’s attackers seemed to have run out of energy. Juve still dominated possession, but Pazzini was a useful out-ball, and Milan looked more composed.

Cristian Zapata for Mexes was a straight swap, apparently for injury reasons, while late on Mathieu Flamini replaced Boateng and sat deeper – giving energy and an extra midfielder after Juve had introduced Pogba.

Conclusion

Is the main story that Juve lost again, or that Milan actually played well? Either way, the latter’s 4-3-3 formation seems to suit the players, and certainly suited the challenge against Juventus, with Boateng playing an interesting role as a part-false nine, part-forward destroyer. Milan had to be brave, leaving three forwards high up the pitch, but after Boateng dropped onto Pirlo (rather than Bonucci), it seemed a logical strategy for countering.

However, it must be emphasised that Milan needed good games from individuals. The full-backs had to be clever with their positioning – not giving the Juve wing-backs time on the ball, but not leaving the centre-backs exposed two-versus-two, while in the centre of the pitch Milan simply won the individual bettle – and against this Juve midfield, it’s not often you can say that. Montolivo, in particular, was superb.


Milan 1-0 Juventus: Milan sit deep, then break quickly through their front three

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