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Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan – tactical analysis

Serie A action from this weekend threw out an excellent matchup between both Sassuolo, who went into this game with only one loss so far this season in the competition, and Milan, who are currently sitting pretty at the top of the league.

Stefano Pioli’s men have exceeded everyone’s expectations in this campaign and maintained their top spot in the division with a 2-1 away victory at the weekend. The Rossoneri’s fanbase may have started to worry that the wheels have fallen off with their last two results in the league, drawing to Parma and Genoa respectively, however, a vital three points were earned against Sassuolo thanks to goals from Rafael Leao and Alexis Saelemaekers.

Sassuolo dominated the game in terms of chances and possession statistics, but to sound cliched, the only stat that matters is the scoreline. The loss means that the I Neroverdi have dropped to sixth in the table, two points ahead of Atalanta who have a game in hand. Roberto De Zerbi will no doubt be concerned about this result as Sassuolo face Gian Piero Gasperini’s side in two games from now.

This article will be a tactical analysis of Sunday’s game. It will be an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides in their tactics, throughout the game, as well as taking a look at where each team could have improved in their set-up.

Lineups and formations

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

De Zerbi made wholesale changes to his starting lineup from the Sassuolo team that drew 1-1 to Fiorentina on Wednesday night. He deployed a 4-1-4-1 instead of their conventional 4-2-3-1 for this bout.

Federico Peluso and Vlad Chiriches were replaced as the centre-back partnership with Marlon and Gian Marco Ferrari, with Jeremy Toljan and Rogerio maintaining their spots as the fullbacks.

The central midfielders ahead of the backline were also changed. Manuel Locatelli was suspended and so was replaced with Maxime Lopez, whilst Pedro Obiang was dropped for Mehdi Bourabia.

Francesco Caputo was not quite fit to start yet, and so Gregoire Defrel got the nod to start up front, flanked by both Domenico Berardi and Filip Djuricic, with Hamed Junior Traore, the brother of Manchester United player Amad Diallo Traore, sitting in the number 10 position.

For Milan, Stefano Pioli also made a couple of changes from the team that drew away to Genoa midweek. Theo Hernandez started over Diogo Dalot at left-back, whilst Brahim Diaz and Alexis Saelemaekers were put back into the starting lineup in place of Ante Rebic and Samu Castillejo.

Rafael Leao, who started on the wing against Genoa, was utilised as a lone centre-forward in this match.

Sassuolo’ structure with established possession

Sassuolo are a possession-oriented side under De Zerbi, and there is a heavy emphasis from the manager on building up through the thirds of the pitch with positional attacks. They are generally successful in this approach which makes for an easy on the eye style of play.

One of the main fulcrums, when they are in the established possession phase of play, is the use of the single-pivot or double-pivot, depending on the system of play. Against Milan, they opted for a 4-1-4-1 system with a single-pivot.

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

Here, we can see an example of how I Neroverdi were structured when they had gained established possession as can be seen above. The single-pivot, which was Bourabia, would position himself in between and behind Milan’s first line of press of two players.

Bourabia would generally stay in the central corridors and would rarely drift out wide if the ball was shifted out to one of the fullbacks. Both of Sassuolo’s fullbacks stayed back to act as wide passing options for the two centre-backs and goalkeeper when they were circulating the ball around, looking for an opening in Milan’s block to play forward.

Meanwhile, the two advanced central midfielders, Traore and Lopez, would position themselves between the winger and central midfielder of the Rossoneri’s compact midfield, in order to be progressive passing options between the lines. If the backline were struggling to break Milan’s disciplined defensive structure, then one of the two central midfielders would drop short to help them move the ball, which can be seen in the following image:

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

Sassuolo were struggling to make any headway in this situation, and so Traore dropped to play a bounce pass with Ferrari. This movement is important, particularly when trying to break down a defensive mid-to-low block, as it forces the player’s marker to follow him out of position, leaving space in behind for another player to move into.

Milan stifling Sassuolo’s positional play

In the previous paragraph, whilst explaining Sassuolo’s offensive structure, we also touched on Milan’s defensive tactics throughout the game.

Pioli knows the strengths of his players and knew that his side is not good enough in possession to go toe-to-toe with a possession-based team like De Zerbi’s side, and so the Italian manager, like usual, set his side up to stifle Sassuolo’s positional play in the central areas, and counterattack swiftly once possession is regained.

One of the key areas that Milan targeted was the single-pivot. The Rossoneri deployed a 4-2-3-1 as their base formation, but whilst out of possession, the shape resembles a 4-4-2. The 4-4-2 shape was used when the team defended in every block; low, middle, and high.

To stop the ball supply into Bourabia as the opponent’s single-pivot, the two players in Milan’s forward press, Diaz and Leao, had to be extremely disciplined. They were tasked with marking Bourabia, but also with high pressing Sassuolo’s two centre-backs, forcing them to move the ball quicker.

They did this by having one player press the ball-near centre-back, whilst the other dropped off onto the pivot. They constantly switched between these roles when I Neroverdi’s backline were circulating the ball, hence why the tactical discipline was needed.

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

In this image, Ferrari has just received the ball which has triggered Diaz to move off Bourabia and press him to force him to play a pass; meanwhile, Leao has begun to drop onto the pivot.

The ex-Real Madrid man, Diaz, can be seen to check his shoulder to make sure that Leao is taking over the marking role to ensure that the opponents are unable to use their pivot player, making him null.

Merely a few seconds later, the roles were reversed with Leao pressing Marlon once he received a pass from Ferrari, with Diaz dropping back onto Bourabia. The shape would then almost look like a 4-4-1-1. Bourabia only received 40 passes in the entire game, which is quite below par considering his side had 596 passes in total throughout the match.

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

However, this was not the only way Milan stifled Sassuolo’s positional play in the central areas. They also did so by using a man-marking defensive system with their midfield. The 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 lines up quite well with the 4-1-4-1 on the pitch in terms of man-marking.

The two wingers, Calhanoglu and Saelemaekers, were tasked with pressing Sassuolo’s fullbacks when they got on the ball. Diaz and Leao, as already detailed, marked and pressed the two centre-backs and the single-pivot, whilst Milan’s double-pivot of Franck Kessie and Sandro Tonali man-marked Sassuolo’s two advanced central midfield players.

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

Here we can see this defensive man-marking structure in full effect. Tonali marked Traore with Kessie keeping a watchful eye on Lopez. If one of them drifted between the lines, as they so often tended to do to find space and look to receive a pass, the marker would follow them.

The problem with this, of course, was that by drifting into the halfspaces or wider areas, Sassuolo’s advanced central midfielders were able to split Milan’s midfield, which in turn created too much space in front of the backline for the centre-forward to exploit by simply dropping to receive, dragging out a centre-back and leaving more gaps in Milan’s block.

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

This was just one example where Sassuolo attempted to split Milan’s central midfield players. De Zerbi’s side were struggling to play through their opponent’s mid-block, and so both Traore and Lopez pushed further apart, stretching Milan’s double-pivot and allowing Defrel and Caputo to drop into the space left in the central area.

This dragged out the nearest centre-back, as can be seen in the previous image, which was quite dangerous for the visitors as they kept leaving space in behind for one of the advanced central midfielders or winger to attack into.

Another example can be seen in the following image:

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

Yet again, Traore and Lopez split wide, allowing the lone striker to drop, almost as a false 9, which drew the nearest centre-back onto him, leaving space in the backline to be exploited. Lopez made a darting run in behind when this exact move occurred, but the ball wasn’t slipped through to him in time.

This was a great tactical play by De Zerbi and Sassuolo; however, it came to no avail, predominantly because the wide players in the 4-1-4-1 system were too wide to make effective runs into space when the centre-forward dropped to receive the ball from the backline.

Milan’s defensive structure was superb, and for the majority of the game, it forced their opponents to play into the wide areas, with Sassuolo being limited to merely 4 positional attacks in the central areas – a very poor return for a team with 68 percent ball possession.

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

Counter-attacking wins the match

Once more, Pioli’s Milan showed why they are by far the best team in Serie A at transitioning from defence to attack. They are even, perhaps, one of the best sides in European football at offensive transitions.

The opening goal was a record-breaker, with Leao scoring from kick-off in six seconds, the fastest goal in the league’s history. This took Sassuolo by surprise due to the sheer speed and unexpectedness of the attack.

Regardless, it was the second goal, which from a tactical and coaching standpoint, Pioli will be more pleased about because of the quality of the counter-attack from the league leaders.

Typically, when Milan counter-attack, they use at least four players, but mainly five, supporting a five-up, five-back counter-attacking system. These four players are the front four, as well as generally one supporting midfielder from deep.

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

This is just one example. Tonali won the ball back from Sassuolo, and instantly the front four darted forward, keeping width to stretch the backline, whilst the Italian midfielder himself supported the attack from a deeper position.

For the second goal, a similar format was used apart from Hernandez joining the fold with his lightning-quick speed as Diaz and Calhanoglu were too far behind.

Serie A 2020/21: Sassuolo vs Milan - tactical analysis tactics

Hernandez made a solo run into the box before squaring for a simple tap in for Saelemaekers to make it 2-0 in the first half, which was subsequently the winning goal.


This game was a fascinating tactical battle and at times looked like a game of chess with both sides afraid to make a mistake. Milan held firm in their defensive shape, whilst Sassuolo were forced to be patient to find gaps in their opponent’s block. Ultimately, it was the Rossoneri who achieved a checkmate to maintain their lead at the top of the table. Had they drawn or lost, bitter rivals Inter would have taken the throne for the time being.

Sassuolo should not be overly disappointed. A mere lapse of concentration in the first six seconds of the game cost them to drop three points, but overall, their performance was solid apart from missing a creative outlet to break Milan’s defensive line.

I Neroverdi will need to pick themselves up for this weekend’s game against Claudio Ranieri’s Sampdoria; meanwhile, Milan are playing Lazio at home, with Juventus on the near horizon.