There have been some intriguing displays all over the top European leagues since the start of the 2020/21 season. From Liverpool showing atypical vulnerability, through Atletico Madrid’s uplifted performance in La Liga to Bayern Munich’s continuous dominance in Bundesliga.
But none of the above raised the eyebrows of the football world more than the completely transformed Milan who blossomed under Stefano Pioli’s guidance.
The team changed their ways and reached the top of Serie A. They sat there comfortably and unbeaten until round 16, where they were painfully defeated by Juventus.
Rossoneri’s balanced performance brought them consistency which led to outplaying almost all of their opponents so far, resulting in being the only unbeaten team in Europe’s top 5 leagues at the beginning of 2021.
While the expectations towards Pioli weren’t very high with his arrival, he managed to build a tremendous young squad able to conquer the biggest opponents and surprise with quite an effective football which brought them 12 wins and four draws in 17 games.
A look into Milan’s main traits
Milan’s style of play looks quite simple at first glance, but there’s actually a complexity that helps them in winning games. While they don’t do anything too unusual, their versatility allows them to adjust well to different opponents and situations while sticking to the main principles of the game.
Pioli’s team perform an intelligent football and smartly manage to take advantage of their opportunities. Opportunities that they have created with well-measured movement, creative passing and balance between the lines.
The 4-2-3-1 set-up is their most-used formation, but their strategy always depends on the opposition and how they could effectively expose them. The main principles that always stay the same are consistent defence, constant pressing and explosiveness in attack.
The pretty young and consistent starting XI have managed to achieve fluidity, versatility and complexity. The players look prepared against different approaches and always find a way to threaten the goal. Their ability to play with width but also use the central areas is one of the reasons for their efficiency. The explosiveness in their attacking actions often forces their opponents to play aggressively, leading to a lot of fouls against them and respectively many opportunities upfront.
The team have the Serie A one of the best records in terms of goals scored – 37. They are also one of the most successful teams in terms of converting attacking set-pieces into goals. The Rossoneri have currently scored 15 goals from set-plays (eight penalties)
But how do they achieve that consistent performance? Is it they talisman Zlatan Ibrahimović or is it the manager Pioli?
Further in the analysis, we dive into the team’s best assets and how they successfully outplay their opponents.
The team mainly rely on their counter-attacking actions which are successful thanks to their pressing strategy and ball recovery abilities. They would constantly try to catch their opponents off guard and use pace and smart off the ball movement to expose them.
There are two different patterns in terms of catching their opponents on a counter and creating opportunities. They’d either use the attacking midfielder (who’d always position on the counter) for his movement and passing skills to spread out to his teammates or they’d directly use Ibrahimović for his hold up play, aerials presence and work under pressure.
In the first case, they’d use a lot of movement and would focus on overloading the advanced areas and crossing, whilst in the second one, they would often find the 39-year-old with a long ball and use him to either shoot or lay the ball back for one of his teammates (most frequently Hakan Çalhanoğlu) to shoot from outside the box. Milan are among the teams with the most efforts from distance with 37% of their shorts coming from outside the penalty area.
The Turkish international is their power engine as his movement and passing abilities are most frequently use to spread the ball out to the attackers and help them in executing the counter-attacks. He is always positioned in a way to be able to receive the ball once the team gain back possession and quickly progress it to the advanced areas either with a long pass or a progressive run and through ball.
The team’s defensive actions have improved, which is one of the reasons for their dominance on a counter. Their press intensity often fulfils its purpose and results in recovering the ball, which gives the Rossoneri perfect opportunities to counter-attack. Their man-to-man marking strategy and the intense pressure they apply on the opposition are successful for the most part and result in many goal scoring chances.
They recover the ball 78.14 times on average, while their 4.86 counter-attacks per 90 increase their explosiveness and help them in creating more opportunities in front of the goal. Their awareness and concentration help them in ball interception and constantly looking to gain back possession instead of defending in a passive manner has turned into a winning strategy for them.
We’re not continuing with pointing out Ibrahimović not because of underrating his impact, but because he is only the final asset in a well-working machine that Milan became. He, along with his teammates, is part of a well-thought strategy, using the players’ strengths in the best possible way and challenging their opponents constantly.
What makes the difference for the Italians is their thoughtful and versatile build-up approach. While the team don’t overcomplicate things with their movement, their successful adjustment to the opposition’s different strategies makes them unpredictable in attack and allows them to break through different defensive structures.
Looking into Milan’s build-up patterns, their reliance on the wide areas is clear, but they could often be seen using different movement depending on the in-game circumstances.
Positional play and width
In their usual set-up, the double pivot of Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer would stay close to each other in order to protect the central areas and support the four-men backline. They wouldn’t only offer support as a second line of defence, but also often drop back in the defensive line, allowing the full-backs (especially Theo Hernández) to move to more advanced positions and help with ball progression.
They aim to build-up from the back using positional play, relying on the centre-backs and the full-backs who are most likely to be positioned half-way to spread out. They would use short pass combinations and circulate the ball inside and out, in efforts to move off it and smoothly progress it. The team often look to play with width, and the positional play helps them in that.
The full-backs are always looking for overlapping and underlapping movement, which forces their opponents to cover them tightly, often leaving more space for the centre-backs to move in and exploit. That helps a lot with ball progression due to the constant gaps that occur, allowing a lot of movement.
The full-backs would make positional changes with the wingers and rely on link-up-play in the advanced areas. While they often rely on crossing (13.81 crosses avg), one of their best assets is the movement of Çalhanoğlu and Ibrahimović. The two wouldn’t only wait to receive the ball in the central areas but would support the movement on the flanks too, constantly providing passing options and dragging players out of position.
The use of the half-spaces is extremely important too. If we look at the regular starters Çalhanoğlu and Alexis Saelemaekers are the key players in these areas. Whenever the team want the right-back, Davide Calabria, to exploit the advanced areas, Saelemaekers would cut inside and join the attacking midfielder, both acting as passing outlets or engaging defenders. Çalhanoğlu’s control and passing abilities are key for creating chances. He is second in the league in terms of 1vs1 dribbling success rate – 73.17%. His dribbling is often key for ball progression and for the team’s actions in the final third.
Switch of play and playing through the central areas
Milan have a solution against well-structured teams that employ low-blocks too. Whenever they struggle in positioning between the opposition’s lines and finding a way to penetrate, they would switch play and use the wide players’ movement to quickly break through and exploit the empty spaces while the defensive structures are leaning towards the overloaded areas. That would often happen on the right in order for Hernández to be used as a direct threat on the other side.
The team, though, wouldn’t only use the wide areas to expose their opponents. They can successfully penetrate through the central areas too. There, Kessié helps with ball progression but the key role goes to Çalhanoğlu who would drop deeper, often on the central line, to pick up the ball and advance it. He would be the main passing outlet whenever the team are looking to build-up through the central areas and then eventually spread out wide.
Direct play against pressing teams
The team’s 4-2-3-1 formation usually allows the players to position well and open the passing lanes without many efforts. That makes them rely on short pass combinations and well-measured actions.
When they need to find a solution against pressing teams who try to pin them back they’d either switch to a direct play and try to deliver the ball to a goalscoring position as quickly as possible or rely on counter-attacking.
They wouldn’t usually go for long balls since it’s riskier and it doesn’t offer a lot of options but would use them occasionally to utilise on the attackers’ good placement in the advanced areas.
Rossoneri’s record from set-plays has been impressive so far. Due to their attacking approach and the other teams’ aggressiveness against them, they often get handed set-piece opportunities, which they don’t take for granted.
The team take the most out of their corners. With 6.5 corners on average per 90, and more importantly 37.4% of them ending up with shot they perform way better than the 30.8% average for the league. Their positioning in the box and their aerial superiority often give them the advantage in these situations.
They often get awarded with penalty calls thanks to their positional awareness and flair. They often have an advantage due to their opponents’ aggressive play. They have now scored eight penalties in Serie A, all thanks to the clinical finish of both Ibrahimović and Kessié.
The team have now scored 15 of their 35 goals through set-plays which is an impressive record
Zlatan Ibrahimović and Theo Hernández
Apart from Çalhanoğlu who we already mentioned as the creative force of the team, it is only right to praise the other two leading figures – Ibrahimović and Hernández.
Despite featuring in only six games so far, the 39-year-old is still their leading goalscorer with 10 goals. His presence in and around the box has been crucial for Milan’s successful attacking actions. Not only thanks to his smart positioning and outstanding finishing abilities but also due to his aerial presence, hold-up-play and vision.
While being their target man and dominating with his height (10.27 aerials per 90 with 60.9% success) has been one of his main responsibilities, the Swedish doesn’t show any selfishness and tries to support his teammates’ movement all the time. His experience and vision help him in providing smart passes and through balls in order to create opportunities for the Rossoneri. His 3.05 smart passes and 2.57 through balls per 90 add up immensely to his value. Not only he is always a constant direct threat with his 5.45 shots per 90, but he also provides quality passes to his fellow attackers.
Hernández’s impact has been equally impressive. The left full-back transformed into a key player for the team in the last couple of seasons thanks to his irreplaceable support to the ball progression and the attacking actions. While he has defensive responsibilities, his main role lies in advancing the ball using his control and pace.
Despite his wide position, crossing isn’t his biggest asset. Although he does provide with them, supporting his teammates in attack, the 23-year-old likes to cut inside and act as a direct threat. His movement towards the central areas has been extremely beneficial for the team. Also, surprisingly for his 184 cm, he provides good aerial coverage and 58.8% of his aerial duels. All of the above has led to four goals and three assists in the league so far.
Pressing strategy and defensive actions
As already mentioned, Milan’s defensive actions start with their pressing strategy in 4-4-2 out of possession. They are usually quite aggressive in their high press and tend to pressurise the defenders and the goalkeeper intensely. They try to block the passing lanes and trouble the opposition’s build-up often forcing inaccurate passes. That aims to recover the ball in the advanced areas and immediately using their counter-attacking abilities to expose their opponents. Their pressing strategy and man-to-man marking lead to their high counter-attacking frequency and their success.
The wingers would cover the full-backs, while the striker and the attacking midfielder would try blocking out the central areas. In case they don’t manage to stop them from breaking through, the double pivot steps out. Their main responsibility is providing support to the backline, either by acting as a second line of defence or covering depth in case any of the defenders are out of position.
They usually win a high percentage of their defensive duels, but expectedly their opponents try to hit them on the flanks, where the full-backs are frequently too high up to be able to drop back and defend properly. They also do sometimes leave gaps centrally due to their high positioning and involvement in attack.
While they are outstanding in their corners, the team have conceded six goals from set-pieces so far this season and do need to improve on their reactions in the box.
Milan’s balanced performance and versatility in attack have led to their long unbeaten run and respectively the leading spot in Serie A.
The above analysis shows that Milan have become a side that play intelligent football without overcomplicating it. The players trust their senses and use their strengths to expose their opponents which leads to fluidity in building-up and explosiveness in attack.
Relying on a consistent defensive line has helped them in performing solidly in defence and despite some notable mistakes their overall actions have been smart enough to keep their opponents away from the goal.