Fiorentina 2-2 Milan: Montella reacts calmly to Fiorentina’s first-half setbacks

April 8, 2013

The starting line-ups

Despite a numerical disadvantage and two men injured early on, Fiorentina came back from 2-0 down to keep their Champions League hopes alive.

Vincenzo Montella was surprisingly able to call upon Stevan Jovetic – although he didn’t look 100% fit, and didn’t make it to the second half. Gonzalo Rodriguez was unavailable, so Nenad Tomovic started at the back.

Max Allegri used Riccardo Montolivo in the deep-lying role against his old club, while Cristian Zapata returned in place of Daniele Bonera.

Milan took control in the first hour, but the way Fiorentina responded was highly impressive.

4-3-3 v 4-3-3

Fiorentina had got the better of Milan at the San Siro earlier this season, when they were using a 3-5-2 against Milan’s 4-2-3-1. This was a completely different contest – both sides lined up in simple 4-3-3 shapes, with predictable battles across the field.

Initially, Fiorentina took command of the game. There was a greater emphasis upon possession – their midfield trio are all passers, whereas Milan’s side features two shuttlers either side of a regista, Montolivo. Fiorentina also pressed better, forcing Milan into a couple of defensive errors.

Pizarro v Montolivo

But when the game settled down into a slower tempo, Milan took command. The key battle here was between the two deep-lying playmakers, David Pizarro and Riccardo Montolivo. With their midfield colleagues pressing each other in more advanced positions, these two got time and space on the ball to dictate the play, and both Pizarro (69) and Montolivo (42) were their side’s most frequent passer.

Initially, Montolivo had problems on the ball. Whistled by the home supporters and put under pressure whenever he received possession, he sliced an early crossfield ball out of play. Pizarro was given more freedom, and knocked some decent passes out to Fiorentina’s full-backs.

But slowly, Montolivo grew into the game, and scored the opening goal – by dispossessing Pizarro, pressing high up the pitch. This was something Lazio’s Cristian Ledesma tried recently, with disastrous consequences – because the other two Lazio midfielders didn’t drop back and minimise the space between the lines. Milan did things much better – Sulley Muntari and Matthieu Flamini were disciplined as Montolivo moved forward, with the 4-1-2-3 briefly becoming a 4-2-1-3 as Montolivo went in search of the ball.

Pizarro wasn’t expecting pressure, dallied on the ball and was dispossessed, and Montolivo scored the opener.

That affected Pizarro’s confidence. Moments later he conceded possession cheaply and allowed Milan to break – and without their midfield metronome dictating play, Fiorentina were disjointed. Borja Valero and Alberto Aquilani both came deep to provide that passing quality, and Jovetic became isolated upfront.

The majority of the first half was played at a slow tempo, although Milan’s front three threatened sporadically. Mario Balotelli was more effective when he dropped off the front into deeper positions, allowing Stephan El Shaarawy to sprint in behind. Kevin-Prince Boateng naturally played deeper, and was also pushed back by Manuel Pasqual’s forwards runs – on the other side, Facundo Roncaglia is more defensive and a converted centre-back, so stuck tight to El Shaarawy when he moved inside.

Montolivo’s role as the key player continued – he swung in a dangerous free-kick for El Shaarawy header, although he subsequently broke up a Fiorentina counter-attack with a cynical foul, and was booked, meaning he was unable to harry and press aggressively.

Fiorentina forced into substitutions

Fiorentina suffered three big blows towards the end of the first half. First, Stefan Savic was injured, so was replaced with Marvin Compper. Then, Tomovic was dismissed for a perceived elbow as El Shaaraway raced through on goal, leaving Fiorentina with only ten men.

Next, Jovetic was forced to depart through injury. And this was Montella’s key decision – most managers would have instinctively brought on a replacement striker, in Luca Toni, and played 4-4-1 with Toni fighting for long balls. Montella did completely the opposite – he brought on Romulo, an energetic midfielder, in place of Jovetic, his lone forward. Romulo went to right-back, completing Fiorentina’s back four. Now, the home were essentially playing their starting formation, but without a striker – something like 4-5-0.

The line-ups for the second half, and how Fiorentina re-shaped with ten men. Substitutes are highlighted

It was a brave move, but it meant Fiorentina stayed in the game, were defensively solid, and continued to dominate possession (59% over the 90 minutes), which is quite unusual for a side down to ten men against a team of Milan’s quality.

There was a lack of penetration further forward – Adam Ljajic was the closest thing to a striker, with Manuel Pasqual energetically overlapping to provide width. But Montella’s strategy was probably to contain Milan until about 70 minutes, then throw on Toni later on.

Montolivo was still the game’s key player, however, and with no Fiorentina striker helping to press him, he received more space. He swept a great ball out for Ignazio Abate to whip in a dangerous cross, and later teed up Flamini to put Milan 2-0 up.

Fiorentian comeback

That should have been game over – but Fiorentina stayed patient, and earned a penalty after a Ljajic slalom. He converted it to make it 1-2.

And so the situation continued – Fiorentina took the game to Milan, but without a proper centre-forward to get on the end of chances. Toni continued to warm up, while Fiorentina passed the ball from flank to flank without much penetration. And then came a second penalty – Juan Cuadrado wa brought down, and Pizarro converted the spot-kick.

At 2-2, Toni didn’t get his chance. Montella settled for a point, removing Ljajic, his most advanced attacker – and introducing energetic midfield Giulio Migliaccio instead. It was now very much 4-5-0, and Fiorentina closed the game out.


A fascinating example of success playing with ten men. Granted, Milan’s second goal should have killed the game – but the key to Montella’s substitutions was the way Fiorentina could continue playing with their usual gameplan, based around short, patient build-up play – rather than knocking the ball long and then having to withstand pressure.

There was an obvious downside to having no striker, and perhaps the only thing Fiorentina could have hoped for was their two wingers earning penalties – which is exactly what happened. But had those incidents not occurred, Toni would have been a good Plan B.

Milan’s performance was unspectacular. Montolivo did well on his return, but Allegri lacked a spark from his forward trio. The attack-minded nature of Cuadrado and Ljajic pinned back his full-backs, who are usually crucial in stretching the play against ten men.

“We controlled the first half well, but when going a man up, we did not deal with the situation the right way,” said Allegri. “Paradoxically, Milan played better against 11 men than 10.” For that, Montella’s improvisation deserves praise.

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