Coppa Italia 2021/22: How AC Milan lost the midfield battle vs Inter in a tight battle – tactical analysis
AC Milan and Inter put their Serie A title race aside as they faced off in the semi-final first leg of the Coppa Italia. Both sides had lost valuable ground in the league title race recently, Milan were coming off two consecutive draws against Salernitana and Udinese, while Inter were yet to pick up a win since their draw to Napoli in February.
Stefano Pioli stuck with the 4-2-3-1 he has preferred this season. Mike Maignan started in goal. Theo Hernandez and Alessandro Florenzi flanked Alessio Romagnoli and Fikayo Tomori in defence. Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessie started as a midfield double pivot. Rafael Leao, Rade Krunic, and Alexis Saelamaekers rounded out the front four with Olivier Giroud up top.
Inzaghi went with the XI he has preferred in big games this season. Veteran goalkeeper Samir Handanovic captained the side. Milan Skriniar, Stefan de Vrij, and Alessandro Bastoni played as a back three, with Ivan Perisic and Denzel Dumfries at wing-back. Marcelo Brozovic anchored the midfield three alongside Nicolo Barella and Hakan Calhanoglu, while Edin Dzeko and Lautaro Martinez played as a strike partnership.
Milan in possession
In their 5-3-2 mid block, Inter’s defensive organization was mostly dictated by Milan’s 4-2-3-1 shape. Martinez and Dzeko prevented Milan’s centre backs from passing to them. We can see how Martinez keeps Bennacer in his cover-shadow, while Dzeko does the same to Kessie.
Due to how narrow the 5-3-2 is, AC Milan naturally found most of their space out wide and in the half-spaces in build-up. The fullbacks would look to receive wide of Inter’s centre forwards, which would then be engaged by either the midfielder or the wingback.
Depending on the position of Inter’s nearside wingback, they or the nearside central midfielder would be responsible for pressing Milan’s fullback when they received the ball. Though usually the wingback was occupied by Milan’s winger on that side. In the example shown below, we can see Barella jumping to press Hernandez as the left back receives the ball, while Dumfries is responsible for Leao.
Milan’s main method of chance creation involved using Giroud as their focal point in attack. They utilised him as a target man, with the Frenchman dropping off the last line to link up with the attacking midfielders, or to drag one of the Inter centre backs out of position in order to create space for a diagonal run from Leao. Most of their shots came from wide combinations between winger, fullback, and attacking midfielder in order to create space for a wide overload and cross to Giroud in the centre.
Inter in possession
Inter were patient in possession, with their back 3 and Brozovic circulating the ball deep. Their central midfielders and wingbacks pushed up high. This created a front 6, as can be seen in the diagram and example shown below.
Often Brozovic would drop into the back line to receive beyond AC Milan’s first line. This allowed the wide centre backs (Bastoni and Skriniar) to be more adventurous. This also creates space centrally, especially if Brozovic was being followed, of the centre forwards could drop into the space created.
If Inter could not play short, they would often use Dzeko as an outlet to get the ball up the pitch. The Bosnian veteran has exceptional hold-up play, and allowed Inter’s midfielders and wingbacks to get up the field when he had the ball. A key part of Inter’s game plan was to isolate Perisic 1v1 with the fullback and either cross for Dzeko or find Calhanoglu underlapping in the half-space.
Key tactical battle: the midfield
While both sides technically played with a midfield three, the structure and tactical nuances between the sides was clear to see, and in my opinion, Inzaghi got the better of Pioli in this aspect of the match. As I mentioned previously, Inter’s centre forwards would block the passing lane to Milan’s double pivot. Milan’s solution to this was having Bennacer drop to create a back three, overloading the first line. However, Kessie was still being marked while Brozovic was marking Krunic. This resulted in Milan usually having no options to break the lines centrally, thus forcing the play to the fullbacks, who would then be pressed by the midfielders who were freed up by Milan’s double pivot already being marked.
In the image shown below we can see how Krunic is being followed by Brozovic, while Bennacer has dropped into the back line.
Pioli’s substitutes almost make the difference
In the 67th minute, Pioli made a bold triple substitution, taking off all three of their attacking players behind Giroud (Leao, Krunic, Saelamaekers) for Brahim Diaz, Junior Messias, and Ante Rebic. While Rebic was the most like-for-like change, the introduction of Diaz and Messias allowed Inter to be more penetrative behid Inter’s back line. Diaz in particular found joy in the channels making runs in behind the back line, and the former Real Madrid player often found himself in space and as the 3rd man, creating overloads in wide areas and was generally much more effective than Krunic. As we can see below when comparing heatmaps, Krunic (first heatmap) was less involved in advanced areas in 67 minutes than Diaz (second heatmap) was in the remaining 25. We can see that Diaz was particularly involved in the half-spaces and on the right wing.
Although the match ended 0-0, it was still an entertaining tactical battle. A draw was probably the fairest outcome, with the xG of this match ending 1.60-1.23 in AC Milan’s favour. This result sets us up nicely for a blockbuster of a second leg at the Giuseppe Meazza in April. The Milan rivals will not be thinking about that much any time soon though, as they both need to focus on the title race, AC Milan face Napoli in the next match of the Serie A, while Inter face bottom side Salernitana, surely an opportunity for Inzaghi’s men to extend the gap at the top of the table from 1 point?