Milan: 3-4-3 – Amelia; Bonera, Mexes, Acerbi; De Sciglio, Montolivo, Ambrosini, Constant; Emanuelson, Pazzini, El Shaarawy
Malaga: 4-2-3-1 – Willy; Gamez, Demichelis, Weligton, Eliseu; Camacho, Iturra; Portillo, Joaquin, Isco; Saviola
Milan started the match with a three-man defense, an idea first floated earlier today after Allegri admitted that they had been working on it in training.
This formation saw Milan begin with 3 central defenders. Kevin Constant and Mattia De Sciglio were the wing-backs in this formation, which afforded them extra room on the wings to maneuver. Urby Emanuelson played as a shuttler between the attack and defense, often slotting in as a 5th midfielder, and pulling wide and drifting even with Pazzini and El Shaarawy on the counter. There were only two players in the center of the pitch with this formation, Ricardo Montolivo, who was walking on eggshells after an early yellow card, and the aged Massimo Ambrosini, who simply doesn’t have the ability to anchor a midfield like he did a decade ago.
What this formation does is pull a player out of the center of midfield and replace him with a central defender. The wing backs get to cover more advanced ground, and are able to overlap the wingers, giving width in the offensive third. Additionally, the wingers help with defending width, and indeed, Milan were solid from the wing all night.
Tactically, this was a bold and interesting move from Allegri, as the performance addressed his primary weakness over the past few seasons, the flanks. In the opening minutes, before they became trapped in the defense, Kevin Constant and Mattia De Sciglio controlled the flanks with support as Stephan El Shaarawy and Urby Emanuelson made diagonal crossing runs (which led to El Shaarawy’s attempt on goal in the late minutes that nearly equalized) while Pazzini checked towards the ball in an effort to hold up and give time for the central midfielders to arrive. The weakness of previous setups became the strength of this one, and for the opening half-hour this seemed like a good move for Milan. It didn’t last, however, as the constant pressure from Malaga led to the wings dropped back into defense, turning the three-man defense into a five man defense, and the ultimate formation into a defensive and negative 5-2-3.
As Allegri noted post-match, the passing was poor on the counter, Milan only completing 73% of their passes, below their average of 86% for the season. In particular, Mattia De Sciglio was very poor with his distribution, completing 60% of his passes, a team low. Granted De Sciglio was playing further up the pitch than he normally does in the four man defense, and thus he was seeing more pressure. He was constantly being harassed, and did well to retain possession on many occasions, however it was clear this hawking was flustering the youngster. This game was certainly a learning experience for him, a positive spin on a negative night for the youngster. His talent remains undeniable, as he was excellent sending in 3 accurate crosses from his flank.
The weakness of a 3-4-3 is the center of midfield, especially if the wings have drifted too deep and are acting in a 5-man defense, as they did as the match wore on. The formation requires an incredible level of fitness, especially from the wing players expected to cover most of a flank, and once Constant and De Sciglio tired, the formation required shifting. Rather than do this, Max Allegri tried to break through (the same old wait and see attitude that’s caused problems since his ascension to the managerial role), and this ultimately led to the squad becoming more and more negative and more and more defensive.
When that happens, as noted above, the formation looks like a 5-2-3, and today Ricardo Montolivo and Massimo Ambrosini compounded this defensively-obsessed back-line and dropped far too deep on several occasions. The pair opted to cover holes along the defensive back line rather than cover the space and the runs from midfield. Once Milan were particularly compact and deep, it was a simple matter of a well-timed run and a lob over the top of the defense and Milan found themselves down 1-0. Defending is a matter of percentages, and it’s become clear this season that Max Allegri is fine with the chances that come from long-shots as he believes they’re low percentage chances. They are, however against quality opposition, sitting back and allowing long-shots is not a solid plan, and good players will make you pay. This Allegri’s Milan have not seemed to learn yet, and they continue to be picked apart by more talented opposition.
On the offensive end, Milan were spotty at best. The lineup Allegri sent out was devoid of any playmakers (this should be obvious by now), Montolivo included. Montolivo is a facilitator at best. When he’s positioned so deep and next to the static Ambrosini, his primary task is to retain possession. If he’s given extra time and space, which he was not today, he’s able to pick out some nice passes and slide some balls in behind defenses. Ambrosini needed to take the pressure off of him, however, today was not his match. As a result, the chances Milan created were of two sorts, the predictable buildup with an obvious end, or the quick counterattack that utilized speed on the break.
Something happened when Milan got in the offensive third (before the ball was returned to Malaga) mentally. I’m not sure if it is a block, a lack of training, a lack of discipline, a lack of ideas, or a lack of determination, but there have been far too many errant passes in the final third of the pitch this season for a top side. Allegri may believe the defense is fine, however even he conceded that the offense needs improvement. If Allegri is conceding that something needs improvement than it really must need it. Box-Panic, this will be referred to. Until the discipline and serenity returns to the squad, it is unlikely that the finishing is going to improve.
Malaga’s performance was very anti-Milan. They opted for quick passes and triangle offenses in tight spaces. The Milan defense was about as compact as it could be, however, Malaga still probed around the edges of the defense, especially as De Sciglio/Constant dropped back leaving a layer of space that the midfielders of Malaga exploited with long shots and precision passing all night. Allegri’s side this season has struggled to consistently bring good pressure, while showing that Milan themselves are particularly prone to pressure, especially high up the pitch. Within 10 seconds of the opening whistle, Milan had an errant pass almost intercepted and taken in to goal.
Pato and Bojan brought sex-appeal to the team and little else. Perhaps because they were strikers #4 and #5.
I’ll conclude with a quote from Max Allegri, “I think the team is more protected with this system and of course we will improve with practice. That’s not to say we won’t ever return to four at the back, but right now we need to find some balance.” This formation is a good move, and I applaud Allegri for going out and fixing the issues with his previous formations. This is certainly a positive. However, as he wants to take this formation forward (and why not – an extra central defender for him to add to the rotation) he must learn to put the right players in the right positions. Ambrosini was exposed today, however since he was not directly at fault for the goal, many will overlook this. Ambrosini put extra strain on Montolivo, and the five man midfield idea puts even more strain on the midfielders, as they must cover extra ground for the defense. Antonio Nocerino or Kevin Prince Boateng might be a positive option for this pairing, however as long as Max Allegri is in charge, a De Jong Ambrosini partnership seems more likely than a Boateng/Montolivo partnership.
While a positive idea tactically, Allegri’s Milan looked out of sorts ultimately against a well-organized opponent. The three-man defense seems more useful against provincial sides who are less likely to attack, as they won’t force the wing-backs so far deep. While it was good to see Allegri address the failures of his previous systems, it also was probably a poor idea to try a new system in a must-win game after back-to-back defeats. It didn’t end up the masterstroke that Max had hoped it would be, but his 3-4-3 formation shows that Allegri is capable of fixing his previous tactical missteps, even if he was unable to foresee the risks that came with his method.
Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com
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