UEFA Champions League 2021/22: How can Pioli’s Milan edge Liverpool in a do-or-die game – tactical preview
The 2021-22 Champions League returns for its final gameweek of the group stage and the last one of 2021. So many knockout spots are still yet to be confirmed as the teams look to battle it out in the final week. The focus will be on the Group B clash between Milan and Liverpool at San Siro. With Liverpool being confirmed as group winners, the second spot is still up for grabs with all 3 teams, Porto, Milan and Atletico Madrid still in the race to qualify.
Liverpool have had a very good season so far both in the EPL and Champions League. Though they faced some hiccups in the league, they have been ruthlessly good in the group of death winning all of their games scoring 15 in the process. They would be looking to do a clean sweep against their eternal European rivals.
Milan, on the other hand, are in a do-or-die situation where only a win would take them to the next round and they also should hope that Porto would not win in their game against Atletico Madrid.
Milan’s idea out of possession is key to their chances
It’s very clear that despite playing in their home, Milan would be set up to soak pressure from Liverpool and would likely look to cede possession to one of the most dominant teams in Europe presently. This means that their idea out of possession is very important especially given the fact that Liverpool were able to find numerous ways to break them down a couple of months ago.
Milan would be using the same 4-4-2 system out of possession like in the image below that they used in Anfield in the first clash between them. But even with a 4-4-2, it would be important from Milan’s side that their players get their positioning and angle very right. Liverpool often looks to overload the opposition in multiple phases including the build-up phase. So it would be very key from Milan’s point of view to have their midfield in pressing the Liverpool midfield and winning the ball from there.
Liverpool also have a very effective way of using the wide regions to their effect if the central regions are very compact. The likes of TAA, Henderson and Salah in the right flanks and Robertson, Mane/Jota and Keita in the left have really played good rotations to take the opponents by surprise on multiple occasions this season. It would be very important for Milan to keep track of the Liverpool players by looking to track them with their runners. Especially the runs into the half-spaces are very key and the likes of TAA and Henderson would have to be tracked by Kessie really well with the forwards needing to support the full-backs defensively.
The spaces in between the full-back and centre-back are something that Liverpool have started to attack and prioritize on. So the likes of Kessie, Tonali or Bennacer would have to be very careful in blocking the lanes there or following the markers closely.
In the reverse fixture, even in the build-up phase Liverpool used multiple unique and different ways to attack the Milan defence. The 4-4-2 that Milan used was stretched vertically by Liverpool with their staggering playing a major role in it. The likes of Keita dropped into the backline while the full-back on his side went very high which meant that that wide midfielder from Milan had to press Keita from out to in so that he doesn’t have the passing lane to the full-back. This eventually opened up the half-space and the likes of Jota would drop into space and use it like in the image below.
This trade-off is something that is very difficult for Milan to execute since they would have to choose between which would be less threatening in a situation where both playing the ball to a very attacking full-back as well playing it to a forward dropping deep into the half-space are pretty dangerous.
With Jota seamlessly transitioning into the striker’s role in Firmino’s absence playing as a false-9 in some situations and dropping deep often, Milan should also be wary of his threat in the box as well as his ability to move into spaces. We can see an example below in the reverse fixture where Keita moves to the wing dragging Bennacer with him that allows Jota to drop into the space and receive a ball from Robertson.
It would be very interesting to see Milan would actually play a very deep block in a must-win game especially when Atletico Madrid are playing Porto where although Porto have done well, Atletico Madrid would be expected to win the clash and qualify. So Milan would certainly look to start well early and apply pressure well. They did that against Atletico in their previous game where they pressed the current La Liga champions higher and look to dominate possession. Even if they do not wish to do the latter against Liverpool they would certainly look better off pressing high instead of staying too low in a must-win clash.
We can see a good example of their 4-4-2 in a very good pressing shape higher up the pitch with the players positioned very well and in equidistant positions from their markers. One thing that would be very different to what Liverpool would do in these situations is to use Alisson as a third player in the build-up but if Milan still focuses on marking the outfield players it would mean Alisson would really not have the options to play.
Milan’s counter-attack execution might prove vital
As said before, Milan will mostly look to cede possession of the ball and unlike Atletico Madrid, Liverpool themselves would definitely demand possession of the ball. So it would be very important for them to do well in the situations they get especially in counters. Liverpool usually have a very good rest defence during the transitions that is probably very difficult to breach. Both of Milan’s goals last time out against Liverpool were from the counter-attacks.
The common way they might look to get past the Liverpool defence is the passes in behind the defence from Theo Hernandez. These would also have to be executed very well since Liverpool set very good offside traps against the runners like in the image below in their previous encounter. The likes of Leao are very important for them to stretch the Liverpool defence laterally and open gaps in the Liverpool defence.
Milan will definitely play either Ibrahimovic or Giroud, both tall and strong players in the air. This would be a good battle with them against the likes of Van Dijk and Matip or Konate. They could be used to hold the ball and release it to the wingers who can be used to exploit the space behind with their movements. This could especially work with Leao against Alexander-Arnold. This is something that Everton did in their clash against Liverpool last week where Richarlison dropping meant it opened the space for Gray to make a run and score a goal.
Braham Diaz’s role in the team and his performance on the day will be very crucial to Milan’s chances of winning the game. His free-positioning in between the lines and close control against the Liverpool midfielders’ pressing might turn out to be very vital. This is something that Milan really do well where they have their strikers pin the CBs like in the below image and the likes of Diaz would drop in between the lines to receive and carry the ball forward.
Milan must also be careful with Liverpool’s press when they try to play out from the back. Even in the reverse fixture, Milan struggled to play out from the back. Liverpool went with a 4-1-4-1 press and blocked the lanes very well.
Pressing traps were set really well by them especially in the central regions and when the only passing option for the deep midfielders is to send the ball to the wing. But Liverpool also keeps their full-backs in the right position to bait the player to pass out to the wing and then immediately jump out to press and retrieve the ball. We can see an example of that in the image below.
Liverpool generally defends crosses very well with their CBs having very good ability in the air as well as good communication and positioning between them. But they still have to be careful in dealing with Theo Hernandez’s crosses from the deep against the likes of Giroud in the box especially with the Frenchman being one of the best strikers in the air.
The fixture is very vital in deciding who progresses along with Liverpool from the group to the next round. A win for Milan would take them through provided Porto do not win against Atletico Madrid. It’s basically a must-win for them especially when even a draw would not help them no matter how the Porto-Atletico game pan out.