Despite losing at home, AC Milan kept the top spot in the Serie A with 37 points after 16 games played. However by failing to extend their lead, the race for Serie A has opened up only eight points separating first and fifth place respectively.
In this tactical analysis we will take a look at the differences in defending styles between AC Milan and Juventus, both team’s attacking ideas and AC Milan’s impeccable build up play.
AC Milan deployed their tried and tested 4-2-3-1, with the only exclusion being Zlatan Ibrahimović who missed out through injury. Full-backs Theo Hernández and Diogo Dalot were responsible for providing width in attack, while Franck Kessié and Davide Calabria were asked to stay back during the attacking phases. Kessié in particular was integral to AC Milan’s build up play, causing Juventus to make mid-game tactical tweaks to stop him. Going forward we saw wide players Samu Castillejo and Jens Petter Hauge play narrow, while striker Rafael Leão was often seen dropping deep to help his side build play. AC Milan’s main focus in attack was overloading the central defensive areas with the forward players, while the full-backs exploited the wide areas in Juventus’ final third.
Juventus deployed a rigid 4-4-2 in defense, that transitioned to a 3-3-4 in attack. This was done by having Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci act as the three central defenders, while left full-back Gianluca Frabotta joined the forward line. Aaron Ramsey, Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot would also remain central, while Federico Chiesa occupied the right side of the forward line. Forward Cristiano Ronaldo mostly remained central, with Paulo given the freedom to move anywhere on the pitch he wanted. He was instrumental in Juventus’ transition from midfield to the final third.
Below we will analyze our first example of the AC Milan build-up play. It begins with goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Rarely were Kjaer or Romagnoli passed to from Donnarumma. Their role was to hold their position to draw a high press from their opponents. Donnarumma instead played the ball to either Calabria or Kessié, depending on: 1) who was available to receive the ball with space to turn or pass and 2) the position of his full-backs.
We see here that Hernández is running into space on the left side of the pitch as Kessié receives the ball from Donnarumma. We saw frequently that AC Milan would invite their opponents to press, only to then quickly move the ball to the wide spaces left behind the pressing players. In this example, it is Chiesa who leaves space behind because of the press.
Below we have another example, except here AC Milan show how to exploit the middle of the pitch immediately after exploiting the wide area. Donnarumma passes to Calabria who immediately switches the ball to Dalot. Dalot is not being actively pressed or man-marked so he has time and space to find the best pass. Hakan Calhanoglu drops into the space left behind the pressing Juventus players and is able to act as the catalyst for the AC Milan counter-attack.
Juventus chose to use a mid-block when defending, instead of pressing high or sitting deep. Ronaldo and Dybala had two responsibilities: 1) Shield the deepest midfielder from receiving the ball. In this example, it is Kessié. 2) Chase down Kjaer and Romagnoli. If the defenders passed backwards to Donnarumma, Juventus would press as a team. If they went sideways to a full-back, like Dalot, Juventus would press that side of the pitch. To help Dybala and Ronaldo of keeping Kessié out of the game, Rodrigo Bentancur was tasked with man-marking Kessié.
Below we see AC Milan go backwards. When this happens, the Juventus press is engaged. The forwards Dybala and Ronaldo would pick up a central defender, Chiesa would target Hernández, Ramsey and Rabiot would pursue the AC Milan double-pivot of Kessié and Calabria. This often forced Donnarumma to go long, as an immediate passing option was not available to him while under pressure.
During and after a goal-kick, AC Milan would use forwards Leão and Castillejo to press the Juventus central defenders Bonucci and de Ligt. Calhanoglu would man-mark the Juventus midfield player dropping deep to help with the build-up. Hauge was tasked with pressing Danilo. In the example below, Frabotta is missing because he is still in the middle third of the pitch, too far from the build-up. This creates a five versus four scenario that favours Juventus, however against a side with pace and energy like AC Milan, it’s still quite risky to play out of.
Our second example shows what happens when Frabotta returns to his starting position as a left full-back. AC Milan adopt a man-marking system while pressing, forcing Wojciech Szczesny to go long and far as he has no central passing options, and his wide options are easily pressed. Of 12 long passes attempted, Szczesny only completed six.
Chiesa was arguably Juventus’ most important player during the attack, comparable with Dybala. Chiesa’s role was to act as a traditional winger and hug the touchline, encouraging Hernández to step away from the AC Milan defensive line, creating space in the central channels for Juventus to exploit. Below we see Juventus in a sort of 3-3-4, with Chiesa unopposed in space. Frabotta can be seen on the opposite flank, tucked in with Ronaldo and Dybala. The AC Milan defense now has four forward players to defend against, with one of them being gifted space to sit in. AC Milan should have instructed Hauge to keep closer to Chiesa in order to remove some pressure on the defense.
Below we see Chiesa in possession. Hernández is challenging him, but leaves space behind him for Dybala to run into. Hauge comes back too late to help defend because the space is already made vulnerable. Rabiot drags Kessié with him to the ball, while Dybala eyes the space between Romagnoli and Hernández. If we isolate this, it becomes a three versus three scenario created from the wide area with a goalkeeper, a routine training ground exercise. Through this action, Dybala was able to cleverly and skillfully set up Chiesa’s first goal.
It’s fair to say that most teams would struggle without a player like Zlatan Ibrahimović. AC Milan adapted to life without the Swede by using forward Leão as a sort of false nine. He would often drop into the space between the Juventus midfield and defensive lines in order to draw his marker out of position, or, act as a passing option for his team’s midfield players. When doing this, wide player Hauge moves into a more central position, with ideas of running into the space left by Leão’s marker. Below we see just that. Leão drops deep to help Dalot and Calabria. Bentancur and Ramsey are occupied with the two AC Milan players, so a member of the Juventus defense must step into midfield to mark Leão and assist with what could become a three versus two scenario, favoring AC Milan.
Without a tall, powerful presence like Ibrahimović, AC Milan chose to play between the lines when attacking, instead of using a center-forward to create play from. Leão is in midfield, and is making a run into the Juventus defense. Hauge, Castillejo and Dalot all stay in-between the midfield and defensive lines, while Hernández provides width on the left flank. This was AC Milan’s most common attacking tactic when they were allowed possession. Juventus are more than capable of defending against this. Rabiot challenges Calhanoglu on the ball, while Chiesa moves out wide to deal with the overlapping full-back. The Juventus back four is now able to defend against the central attacking AC Milan players without threat of an overload in any area of the pitch.
AC Milan didn’t play poorly, in fact, they’re still one of the most exciting teams to watch in Serie A this season. They’re very capable of building out from the back and can counter quickly through players like Calhanoglu. However, when they reach the final third there is more to be desired. This will likely change when Zlatan Ibrahimović returns, and this loss will be soon forgotten if AC Milan have as successful a season as many expect them to.
Juventus will walk away happy to have taken all three points off of long time rivals as they continue to struggle to make their way up the league table. If they can continue to defend with discipline after this game, and attack creatively by using forwards Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo to their fullest potential, then Juventus will almost certainly turn their season around.