In this tactical analysis we will be discussing how Napoli beat AC Milan, where AC Milan should improve and where the bulk of Milan’s chances come from.
The game ended 0-1 to Napoli, but the xG tells us more of the story. AC Milan 0 (1.12) - 1 (0.98) Napoli (infogol.net). This tells us that AC Milan did create high quality chances. The issue is that the AC Milan players left their shooting boots at home, while Napoli were clinical when they needed to be.
AC Milan deployed a very rigid 4-2-3-1 structure that turned into a 4-5-1 when out of possession. The only exception being Theo Hernández who was always joining the attack both on the wing and centrally. Notable absences are Zlatan Ibrahimović, Ismael Bennacer and Alessio Romagnoli. Romagnoli has been one of Milan’s best defenders this season, but was replaced by 21-year-old Matteo Gabbia who last played for Milan on December 6th, 2020.
Napoli deployed a 4-2-3-1, but in possession the forward players were encouraged to move between each other’s positions to cause havoc amongst the Milan defenders. No significant absences from Napoli,other than Faouzi Ghoulam. Otherwise, this is Napoli’s strongest eleven.
Theo Hernández was given the freedom to join the AC Milan attack frequently. He often stepped inside midfield to help create numerical advantages for Milan in the center of the pitch. When Hernández does this, he draws a pressing Napoli player. In the example below, it is Fabian Ruiz. By displacing a Napoli midfielder it allows AC Milan to occupy the space left behind with their own attacking player. This is how AC Milan would attack the center. Hernández was also encouraged to play killer through balls and to look for passing options, rather than crossing the ball like we have come to expect from him.
On top of this, Milan would have their wide players Samu Castillejo and Rade Krunic make runs into the wide areas to either draw their full-back marker, or to occupy the space and act as a passing option. Milan could attack from the middle and the wide areas easily.
No player is without their weaknesses. Whether it is the fault of the manager or player, who's to say. Hernández is not the full-back to track their winger, nor play in a narrow and compact defensive structure. He is best used as wing-back where he has very little defensive responsibility, perhaps in a three/five at the back system, where his left sided center-back can cover for his lack of defensive presence.
Napoli scored through a counter-attack. An excellent one at that. When Napoli won the ball below we saw two critical decisions being made. First, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne run at the central defenders, forcing their focus on their runs. Second, Matteo Politano attacks the space between Hernández and the left sided center-back Matteo Gabia. Napoli’s central runners (boxed in red) drag the attention centrally so Politano can run on to the pass from Piotr Zielinski, in behind Hernández. In fairness, this transition from AC Milan’s possession to Napoli’s attack was quick, but not quick enough that Hernández or manager Stefano Piolo couldn’t have prepared for. AC Milan have regularly conceded chances and goals from Hernández’s side of the pitch.
We mentioned above that Hernández played a crucial part in AC Milan’s plan to attack centrally. Below, we can see a more clear example of what goes on during Milan’s attacking phase. Rafael Leão, Hakan Calhanoglu, and Samu Castillejo all remain central, with Krunic not far from action. Hernández draws a pressing midfield player while a three versus three scenario occurs centrally and Diogo Dalot lurking on the right flank. AC Milan regularly created these scenarios. Calhanoglu thrives in these environments, as most pure “number 10’s” do and was encouraged to take shots from long or slip in clever passes to his teammates. With a more clinical forward up front, like Zlatan Ibrahimović for example, Milan would have seen the back of the net.
Dalot doesn’t receive as much credit as Hernández when it comes to going forward, but he was also encouraged to move centrally. AC Milan look to break down narrow and compact defensive structures by overloading the middle with their own players, thus nullifying the effectiveness of a compact structure. In order for a narrow and compact structure to work, players cannot be allowed the space centrally. To create space, Milan created overloads, causing their opposition to move out of position and follow new Milan players. We see below two Napoli midfielders tracking back to deal with Milan attackers.
Napoli didn’t go through long periods without possession. They finished the match having 45.5% of the ball. However, when they didn’t have possession they took up a 4-5-1 shape with Diego Demme and Ruiz switching between the deepest central midfielder position. This stops Milan from building an attack in the middle third of the pitch centrally and forces them wide. Once Milan go to the wide areas, the wide player in that space initiates the press. In the exampl below, it’s Insigne. Milan commit numbers centrally while also pushing Hernández forward. Napoli have done their homework and know that once the ball is won from Milan’s possession, they can attack the left flank and central areas on the counter. This is how they scored as we mentioned earlier.
When Napoli did have possession they looked to attack with numbers and with forward players comfortable changing between positions. On the ball below is Insigne. He has Zielinksi, Politano and Lorenzo joining the attack in the forward line, while Mertens was encouraged to make late runs into the box and nick and loose balls after a cross or pass. The front four can attack Milan’s back four, forcing Sandro Tonali and Krunic to take up more defensive roles, which also leaves space in behind for Napoli midfielders to attack. Napoli’s attacking theme was to attack the space left behind; a theme AC Milan have seen all too often this season.
After this match, AC Milan are now nine points behind Serie A leaders and arch rivals Inter. With eleven matches to play, anything is possible, especially with Inter who are known for their olympic level choking ability. With that being said, AC Milan’s injury problems are adding up. Leão is likely not the long-term solution for MIlan as their play style so clearly suits a strong presence like Zlatan Ibrahimović. Time will tell how AC Milan will cope. With just six points separating second and sixth place, AC Milan may have more than just slipping title hopes on their minds.
Napoli have largely gone under the radar in Serie A this season. After crashing out of the Europa league and a dodgy festive period in the league, they look to have finally found some decent form while playing exciting football too. The quality isn’t there yet to be considered title challengers, but a win over AC Milan is exactly what this group needed to remind the league that they’re not a team of yester-year.Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @pythaginboots
I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___