AC Milan is not just a mere club, it is associated with years of legacy, success, passion. Lots of hard work has been put to create such a name for the club. The 7-time European Champions have always been a club to watch out for. But in recent years, things have been far from what was expected of them. AC Milan had been out of the race for the European Cup and hasn’t challenged for the Scudetto in a long time. When Stefano Pioli took over the reins of AC Milan as the manager, It was not a walk in the park for him. The revival of AC Milan has been noteworthy under Pioli this season.
In his first season, He led the club to 6th position, after showing impressive form after the COVID-19 lockdown as the league resumed. His impressive performance from last year had prompted the management to keep him at the club for next season. Needless to say, It has turned out fruitful as Pioli’s lads at Milan have been performing brilliantly. So, without further ado, Let’s dive into the AC Milan Tactical Analysis, and look at how Pioli has shaped up his team to the top of the Serie A table.
Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 Formation: How Pioli organizes his team
Stefano Pioli prefers to set up his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The defence consists of a stopper and a ball-playing defender and a pair of fullbacks who are attack-minded and prefers to make overlapping runs to participate in team’s attacking transition. The double-pivot in the midfield consists of Kessie and Bennacer who play a very important role in the team’s build-up as well as the defensive play.
The front 3 remains flexible with Calhanoglu remaining as the only constant in the number 10 role. Zlatan Ibrahimovic plays as a lone striker upfront. Pioli prefers to keep his defence compact even while going forward which makes the role of Kessie and Bennacer pretty crucial. Theo Hernandez with his overlapping runs makes it difficult for the opponent’s defence.
The Role of Double Pivot: The Backbone of AC Milan
The role of Kessie and Bennacer is very crucial for the system that Milan follows under Pioli. Kessie and Bennacer play in the double pivot on the centre of the pitch. Their role is to provide defensive protection while the fullbacks make overlapping runs. Kessie and Bennacer both possess the ability to drop into the centre-back position while Theo Hernandez can move forward to overlap.
Kessie is the one who plays the role of dropping deep to create a three-man backline along with Kjaer and Romagnoli as the two fullbacks launch forward. When the opposition tries to play the ball through the centre the double pivot narrows the gap between them to squeeze out space. While facing attacking opponents, the centre backs drift wide and the double pivot drops in the centre to create a five-person low block.
Bennacer is a deep-lying playmaker who also is the source of AC Milan’s creativity from the back. In the case of opponents who try to overload the wide areas to prevent AC Milan’s advancements from the wide areas, Bennacer or Tonali becomes the centre of creativity from the middle of the pitch, they try to play the ball in the half-spaces which the wide players take advantage of by drifting centrally resulting in players being drawn with them creating a space in the wide areas.
Bennacer or Tonali are also adept in playing the through balls targeting the forwards who make runs from behind of the opposition defenders. We give an illustrated example of Bennacer’s ability to break the defensive line with his passing.
In this sequence of images, We see Bennacer getting the ball in the midfield area and identifies the run of Hauge. Hauge Identifies the opportunity to make a run behind the Napoli defender.
Bennacer then makes a line-breaking pass to Hauge who has abundant space upfront to run directly to the final third. As a result, Bennacer completely bypasses the Napoli defence with his passing ability.
Zlatan’s Hold-up play: The key in offense
AC Milan possesses a brilliant target man in form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has been a key figure in Milan’s revival under Stefano Pioli. Zlatan is one of the best in Europe in terms of holding up play and winning the aerial balls. Zlatan’s hold up play allows Donnaruma and the centre-backs to hoist up the ball targeting him upfront against the teams who press intensely, resulting in Milan completely bypassing the press in defence and midfield. Zlatan, meanwhile, with his excellent aerial ability heads the ball down and keeps hold of the ball allowing the likes of Saelesmaekers and the other wide attackers to make their runs into the box.
Zlatan will then try to play the ball targeting the run from his teammates with a flick or a backheel. In case of opponents who play with a deep low block, Zlatan comes handy with his movements. In this case, Zlatan attracts the defenders out with his movement, creating a space in the low block, resulting in the Milan players getting space to move into the box or take a shot from outside of the box.
In this picture, We see Zlatan holding the ball after receiving it, as he scans the pitch to find out one of his teammates making a run in the free half-spaces behind.
Zlatan just flicks the ball backwards to find his teammate. As a result, the player gets clean through and scores the goal. This is another example of Zlatan’s lethal play in terms of linking up with his teammates.
Switching the play: Role of fullbacks
Milan possesses two great full-backs in the form of Calabria and Theo Hernandez. Both of them are potent attackers. Calabria is defensively better of two, but he still plays an important role in the team’s attack. AC Milan prefers to create a passing triangle in the wide areas to move the ball forward against the opposition press. In case, if they are outnumbered in the wide areas they use the opportunity to play out the ball in the opposite flank, where there is adequate space for the opposite full-backs to make a run forward. Generally, Milan prefers to create the passing triangle in the right side with Calabria, Bennacer and Saelesmaeker forming the triangle.
It results in the opposition defenders and midfielders shifting to the right side while creating space in the left flank where Theo has placed himself, taking advantage of the ball being moved to the opposite flank where Theo will either move out wide or cut back in to take a shot. This the reason for Theo’s lethal goalscoring form in the last two seasons. This is the reason, why AC Milan has been successful in using the wide players successfully under Pioli.
Hakan Calhanoglu: The creator-in-chief
In simple words, Hakan Calhanoglu is the creative hub of AC Milan’s midfield setup under Stefano Pioli. Calhanoglou plays a vital role in his flexibility nature in the midfield. Hakan usually plays a two-pronged role in AC Milan’s midfield. In case of heavy pressure from the opponents, he drops deep with the double pivot to form a 3-man-midfield to create a 4-3-3 formation which results in opponent getting free half-spaces in the midfield. On the offensive side of the 4-3-3 part, he has the ability to create the play for the team from the deeper areas of midfield.
In this image, We will see Hakan dropping deep to make a midfield of three and trying to create the attack from the deep.
Generally, He plays as the number 10 for the team. His passing ability makes him one of the best enganche in the league. He has the ability to find his teammates making a run by playing one ground-breaking through ball. He has created 53 chances this season, up to 25th December, which is the highest among the players of the top 5 leagues surpassing the likes of Leo Messi and Kevin De Bruyne. In the case, where the opponents overload the centre of the pitch, Calhanoglu tries to play out the ball wide to his wide players on the flank. He is also a master of scoring goals from outside the box with his ability to take long rangers targeting the left and right bottom corner.
In this sequence of images, We see Calhanoglu winning the ball higher up the pitch and seeing his teammate on the right flank.
Calhanoglu then plays the ball out wide to his teammate with his long range pass and finds his teammate, as the opponent creates overload centrally he plays the ball out wide to provide the player width to operate on.
AC Milan’s pressing under Pioli: Defensive and offensive impact
AC Milan has been a high pressing side under Stefano Pioli. The team averages 24.2 years according to CIES Observatory, which is quite youthful, despite featuring the likes of 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Players like Hauge, Calhanoglu and Theo are pacy and are given the duty to press the opposition. Leao and Saelesmaeker also actively participate in the pressing from the wide areas, putting pressure on opposition full-backs. Ibrahimovic cannot participate in the press, but he cleverly cuts the passing route with his positioning. This result in the full-backs trying to loft the ball up which is easily taken under control by Milan defenders.
In this picture, We see how AC Milan creates the passing triangle on the right side of the pitch.
Milan tries to play the ball quickly after winning the ball by press relying on their one-touch passing, which has been a lethal weapon for Milan under Pioli. In case of beating the press, the Milan side either uses the passing triangle on the right side or tries to loft the ball targeting Zlatan. AC Milan always tries to press the opposition on the flanks by creating a 2 vs 1 overload and also using the sideline as a player.
Conclusion: The Revival of AC Milan
AC Milan has always been an emotion for the football fraternity. Under Pioli, The revival of AC Milan is a good sign for the club. Paolo Maldini, the technical director for Milan, also deserves his fair share of credit for off-the-field transfer activities. Now, It will be interesting to see if AC Milan can keep up the good form and finish the season on the top, winning a Scudetto, after a long time. Only time knows the answer and as for us, We are ready for a roller-coaster ride at the San Siro where the Rossoneri’s are back to claim their share in Italian Football.
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