In this week's tactical analysis, we once again return to the ever intense Serie A as AC Milan host Atalanta. Milan were outplayed from the very start by the more tactically astute and intelligent team. With an injury to Hakan Calhanoglu, Milan struggled to create quality chances going forward, resorting to long balls into Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Defensively, Atalanta right wing-back Hans Hateboer caused problems for Milan left full-back Theo Hernández who is showing more and more each week his defensive woes. Milan are now being exposed by the better teams in Serie A, and are on course of a collapse.
Atalanta came into this match with the tactical knowledge to dismantle Milan and prevent them from leaving their own half. Goals from Josip Ilicic, Duvan Zapata and Crisitan Romero were more than enough to win the game. While two goals came from set-pieces, Atalanta were able to move the ball comfortably and wait for quality chances to arise.
The xG of this match favored Atalanta, as expected, with it being 1.89 (Milan) - 2.44 (Atalanta). Milan were not without chances, but the style of football they have played this season has not prepared the players for the types of chances they got in this match. As stated above, long, over the top passes into Ibrahimovic are not the kinds of chances Milan are used to having.
AC Milan are missing some of their best players, which might explain why they failed to make the most of their chances. Alessio Romagnoli and Alexis Saelemaekers miss out through suspension, with Ismael Bennacer and Hakan Calhaoglu out through injury. Milan deployed a 4-2-3-1, however, it was rare to ever see this shape in the match. Milan often lacked structure in defense and were too easily pulled apart by Atalanta.
This Atalanta team is arguably their strongest lineup, deployed in a 3-4-1-2, with wingbacks Hateboer and Robin Gosens rarely dropping into the defensive line, often choosing to remain in midfield or join the forward line in attack.
Theo Hernández, when going forward, is a threat. However, now we are starting to see his defensive woes. For starters, Hernández often leaves the Milan backline to press the wide player on his side of the pitch. In the example below, he closes down Hateboer. The issue here is that the rest of the Milan defensive line sought to remain compact and narrow. Now, Hernández leaves space in behind for Ilicic to attack. This leads to even more problems for Milan, as now Tonali must leave his defensive position to chase Ilicic.
While the below image shows Milan’s issues defensively as a whole, Hernández is not doing his side any favors. Hateboer is about to receive the ball, so Hernández looks to press. This is a problem for Milan, as we stated above, because of the space left behind. Franck Kessié should be the player to close down Hateboer, not Hernández. Atalanta saw how Juventus exploited Milan’s left flank in their match, and are now doing the exact same thing. By keeping as close to the touchline as possible, Atalanta knew that Hernández would step out of position eventually.
Atalanta did not hold the ball for long periods of time, rather, they pressed highly and intelligently up the pitch and forced Milan to play long ball football to Ibrahimovic, or to try to build-up play from the flanks. Below, we see goalkeeper Gianlugi Donnarumma on the ball passing to his right full-back Davide Calabria. Milan must go wide because the Atalanta forward players keep their eyes on the Milan center-backs, while Marten de Roon man marks Kessié. Kessié and Sandro Tonali would take turns acting as the deepest player during the build-up phase, to little affect.
Milan saw most success in their build-up play when the two deepest midfield players, Tonali and Kessié, dropped into their third of the pitch. However, Atalanta were prepared for a tactical adjustment like this, tasking Matteo Pessina and de Roon with man-marking these players.
Eventually, Donnarumma decided to take matters into his own hands and step into the defensive line to help move the ball up the pitch. Milan would switch between the build-up tactics we discussed above, with the one we see below. Tonali can be seen running into the space he should already be in. However, wherever Tonali went, Pessina followed. Ilicic is also seen screening both Hernández and Kalulu, forcing Donnarumma to use other options. In the opening 15 minutes, Milan’s tactics were quickly nullified.
To combat the aggressive Atalanta press, Milan tasked winger Soualiho Meité with dropping into midfield as we see below. This was done so that Atalanta would use another player to man-mark Meité, disrupting the man-marking plans they had already. On top of this, Kalulu was encouraged to carry the ball into midfield himself, further disrupting Atalanta’s plans.
Milan eventually gave up on rotating between Tonali and Kessié for the deepest playmaking role, and had them both play deep instead, giving them a numerical advantage in the build-up phase. Including the goalkeeper, Milan now have seven players against Atalanta’s six in their defensive third, ensuring an easier transition going forward.
As the game went on, Atalanta adapted to Milan’s double pivot and instead switched a more passing mid-block, with focus on stopping service to the middle. Below, Tonali is made useless by three Atalanta players so Milan must change their plans again. Atalanta would press the side of the pitch that the ball was moved to. In the below example, Kalulu carried the ball towards Hernández, which in return, drew the press from Hateboer. When Kalulu and Milan notice this change in pressing direction, they look to switch the ball to the opposite flank where Calabria is.
Atalanta moved the ball forward effectively and consistently. One tactic they used often is building up play on one side of the pitch, drawing the opposition to that side, and then looking to break with forward passes to the opposite flank. Below we see four Milan players caught out of position while Romero is switching the play to the opposite flank. Hateboer draws the attention of Rafael Leão who now has to defend against the Atalanta right wing-back and Ilicic who can
On the ball below is Hateboer. Center-back Romero is running into the middle of the pitch, dragging Leão with him, while Hernández presses Hateboer. Ilicic can be seen dropping into his defensive third all the way from the striker position because of the space Hernández has left behind him. We mentioned above that Hernández can be a defensive liability, as we see now how Atalanta punish him. Romero and Ilicic are quality forward passing options for Atalanta with low risk, ensuring a quick and easy transition from the build-up phase to the attacking phase.
Atalanta trust center-back Romero to carry the ball into midfield to play long, diagonal passes forward because they are set up against a counter-attack should a pass miss its target. Below we see a few ideas on display at once. First, Atalanta committed three players to one side of the pitch as seen below in the black box. This draws the attention of at least three Milan players while also spreading the Milan backline further apart. Second, Atalanta deployed Hateboer to the opposite touchline, adding more width to the attack while drawing Hernández out of position. Finally, Ilicic is left alone with Musacchio, Milan’s weakest defender, who was brought on for the injured Kalulu. Atalanta can create one versus one and three versus three battles on both sides of the pitch while also remaining safe from counter-attack.
With Calhanoglu missing through injury, Milan struggled to move the ball forward and failed to leave an impact in the middle of the pitch. Brahim Diaz was brought off the bench to play in the number 10 role, but was ineffective due to his lack of experience, ability and game knowledge. This is no fault of Diaz however, as he is a winger, not a midfielder. Below we see Diaz eyeing space he should already be in. Milan needed a player like Calhanoglu to be the link from the defensive players to the forward players. Milan were relegated to playing long, over the top passes to Ibrahimovic, bypassing any sort of midfield play.
AC Milan desperately missed Hakan Calhanoglu in this match. He is the only player the club has that can link the play between defense and attack. On top of not creating chances, Milan and Hernández were once again exploited down the left flank. We saw Juventus exploit this weakness through Chiesa when Milan hosted Juventus just two weeks ago. This season, Milan uses a system reliant on a great number 10 player. When he is absent, so are the chances and creativity. Milan will not hold the first place spot in Serie A for much longer if this type of play continues.
Atalanta have proved once again why they are home to some of the most intelligent football players in the league. Manager Gian Piero Gasperini is showing the league how having intelligent players can beat opposition that are more technically gifted. With a modest fifth place position currently, Atalanta cannot be written off as potential Champions League qualifiers.