After a fifth-place finish last season, Gennaro Gattuso has resigned, and AC Milan changed the management, finding in Paolo Maldini and Zvonimir Boban two great reference points for the new season, even if the team will not take part to Uefa Europa League due to some economic problems.
Despite that, the mood in the club is not pessimistic, and the new coach, Marco Giampaolo, brings a new style of play to San Siro, similar to the one used by Carlo Ancelotti when he was in Milan, winning the Uefa Champions League two times.
We will begin this scout report with a tactical analysis of Giampaolo’s style of play, finding some strong principles that he’ll try to teach to Milan’s players. Afterwards, we will compare the former Sampdoria and Empoli coach with Gattuso, and then look at how players from Milan suit Giampaolo’s tactics.
Giampaolo’s build-up and the importance of the defensive midfielder
In the last four seasons spent in the Italian top flight, Giampaolo has adopted a 4-3-1-2 formation, centring his tactics on the dominance of possession even with a small club like Empoli. AC Milan’s new coach uses the overload tactic to keep possession, but he tends to use it peculiarly, in the middle of the field: his teams focuses the possession in the centre to use the wings before later going on to put in crosses. The key to his play is the diamond-shaped midfield, with the defensive midfielder that is crucial in possession, and in defensive situations.
In his first year at Empoli, he discovered Leandro Paredes as a defensive midfielder (before he was an offensive midfielder), using his geometries to give rhythm in possession. Then Giampaolo moved to Sampdoria, and for two years he had the talented Lucas Torreira before he left for Arsenal, so Giampaolo had tried with success former SV Hamburger player Albin Ekdal in this role.
AC Milan had just signed the best player of the African Cup Of Nations 2019, Ismael Bennacer: the former Arsenal and Empoli player had played last year as a defensive midfielder in a diamond shape midfield, not so different from Giampaolo’s one, and he has got some similarities with Torreira, looking perfect for this job.
The offensive midfielder stays vertical from the defensive one, while the other two pieces of the diamond are going wide, to create space in the centre for a verticalization on the strikers.
But when it’s possible, the midfielders use themselves as a wall to play “ball forward – ball behind” to give possession to a player who is facing the opponent goal and can scan the attacking position to play a vertical ball, and repeat this ahead with strikers and the offensive midfielder. This is Giampaolo’s preferred tactic, a sort of trademark, aiming to control the centre of the field and the tempo of the game, permitting his players to receive facing off the goal to become a serious threat to the opponent.
In AC Milan, players like Lucas Paquetà or Bennacer are perfect to see those movements and serve the attackers. At least one centre-back confident with the ball is required, and Alessio Romagnoli is capable of giving those laser-like passes that are the trigger for this mechanism.
Attacking combinations with the diamond
Giampaolo isn’t focalized on only one way of attacking the opponent’s goal, but he has changed many attacking themes in his last years. In Empoli, he exploited Saponara’s offensive skills, with him being a sort of shadow-striker while the two real strikers often opened themselves on the flanks to give him space.
The offensive midfielder will attack in-depth if the strikers are moving wide, or will stay between the lines if he can receive facing off the goal thanks to a “wall-play” with an attacker.
While Quagliarella was the star during all the three years with Giampaolo at Sampdoria, being able to receive and finish in every situation becoming the top scorer in the last year with 26 goals, his partners were different. Muriel, Schick, Zapata, Defrel, Gabbiadini are players that are comfortable with fast combinations to open space and then attack the opponent’s goal; while Muriel, Zapata, and Defrel use their pace to come over the opponents, Schick and Gabbiadini attack in a different way, with their long shots and some combinations and rotations. The two strikers are required to be aware of the play, move out wide and into depth depending on the different situations.
Players like Piatek will be an excellent finisher for Milan, like Quagliarella, while Suso and Cutrone may be in trouble with Giampaolo’s tactics.
When Giampaolo’s teams are in the last third of the pitch, the width is granted by one of the full-backs at a time aiming to put inside crosses for the striker who attacks the goal, usually Quagliarella. The other full-back remains cautious, waiting for an eventual defensive transition, and the midfielder of the weak side often grant the width, arriving late in the area for the cross, or attacking the goal when the play is switched.
This can be reworked in AC Milan thanks to proactive full-backs like Andrea Conti and the new signing Theo Hernandez, and thanks to midfielder with a good sense of spacing like Hakan Calhanoglu or Lucas Paquetà, and even capable of attacking the weak side like Franck Kessiè.
Defensive play: positional defending and high pressing
Giampaolo’s teams always defend in a 4-3-1-2 shape, with a pure positional defence, similar to the Sarri’s one, doing a very proactive pressing high on the field, blocking the center, being narrow with the diamond midfield, and forcing opponents to play the ball on one flank.
When this happens, the team slips compactly on the flank, overloading the zone trying to recover the ball in a high zone of the field. To do this, the back four stay very high, leaving space behind them, trying to play the offside trap as much as they can.
Giampaolo’s back four always defend looking at space and not at the man, trying to maintain compactness and distances between men and lines.
Making a tactical analysis of the good things of Giampaolo’s defensive tactics, we can spot the main problem; with a 4-3-1-2 defensive shape, his teams are going to suffer on fast switches of play, forcing the wide midfielder to cover large parts of the field to press, and opening spaces for 2vs1 against the full-backs. Even the high pressing has its weaknesses; if the opponent can break the pressure, the four midfielders aren’t good at recovering, leaving the back four alone. As seen above, the weak side was in numerical inferiority, becoming a risk for the goal.
Comparison with Gattuso
There are some similarities between Gattuso and Giampaolo. They want to build from the back using the back four, raising the full-backs only later in the attacking phase, and they use a defensive midfielder to help the build-up. The main changes are in the attacking phase, switching from winger-play to a centre-orientated play with two strikers and an offensive midfielder overloading the centre, changing combinations and mechanisms.
Even in the defensive phase, there are some changes to be made; Gattuso likes to defend low on the pitch, using man-marking in the positional defence, being narrow in a 4-1-4-1, while Giampaolo, as we have seen above, uses a pure positional defence and high pressing. Those changes probably will lead to seeing Milan concede some goal as the defence must get used to Giampaolo’s new ideas.
How does Milan’s squad fit these tactics?
Until now, AC Milan did not sell anyone of the key players, starting from the goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, one of the best players according to his age.
Milan are trying to sign a centre-back to pair up with captain Alessio Romagnoli, a very good player for Giampaolo’s ideas, with 91.2% passing accuracy, but also a good defender; is an aggressive defender, and in March was one of the two players, alongside Virgil Van Dijk, who had not yet been dribbled. Other centre-backs are Mateo Musacchio, the injured Mattia Caldara, one of the best Italian prospects before his problems, and the youngster Matteo Gabbia.
On the flanks, there are good options as full-backs; on the right, there is a competition between the conservative Davide Calabria and the more offensive Andrea Conti, while on the left there is Ricardo Rodriguez coming back from two uninspiring years, and the former Real Madrid player Theo Hernandez, who had started scoring in the opening friendly match against Novara.
As a defensive midfielder Bennacer – back from a season at Empoli – is expected to start the season as a starter, with the expert Lucas Biglia as the main competitor. Bennacer is a proactive midfielder, excellent in defensive stats (he averaged 2.9 tackles, he suffers only 1.9 dribbles, and he is the player with the most balls recovered in the last Serie A, 312), but also good in the attack, averaging 2 dribbles, and 86,5% pass accuracy.
Kessie will likely be the starter as a right midfielder, with the task of protecting the defence and attack as a box-to-box midfielder. As a competitor, Milan have signed Giampaolo’s old friend Krunić from Empoli. The left midfielder will be the more creative of the trio, and this role fits perfect to Paquetà, an offensive midfielder reinvented as a “mezzala”. Paquetà is one of Milan’s stars, and he can play even as an offensive midfielder, leaving space for Giacomo Bonaventura, who is stopped by a muscular injury, and former Leverkusen player Hakan Calhanoglu, who was one of the most present players in the last season, as the left midfielder.
The “trequartista” role is fundamental in Giampaolo’s style of playing, and he will see if Suso can fit the role properly; Suso is a right-winger who loves to cut inside on his left foot, but he doesn’t have some of the trequartista’s skills required by Giampaolo. He is static when he receives the ball, and he hasn’t got Saponara’s pace to exploit space opened by the strikers, although he has got a good shot and great technique. This is an area where Milan need to have clear ideas, and there is a crowd of good competitors: Paquetà, Calhanoglu and Bonaventura.
As a striker, the star is Genoa’s former player Krzysztof Piątek after 22 goals in the last Serie A; the Polish attacker will be the main finisher of the team, and he will follow Quagliarella’s footsteps in Giampaolo’s tactics. Alongside him, Milan needs to strengthen himself; Samu Castillejo, Patrick Cutrone, and Fabio Borini aren’t good choices for this role, while Andrè Silva is ready to be sold. So Milan are trying to sign a good striker who can partner Piątek: the main choice is Angel Correa, and he will likely be signed soon.
For AC Milan this is a new “year zero”; new management and a new coach with different ideas from Gattuso. Milan haven’t got to play European games so they can focus on Serie A, to take the fourth place and return to the UEFA Champions League after nearly a decade. Players like Paquetà, Donnarumma, and Piątek are still there, and with the help of new signings like Bennacer and Theo Hernandez, they’ll try to bring Milan back to where they belong. This season preview analysis says that if Giampaolo’s tactics will be absorbed in a small amount of time, and if some players will be signed in some key roles, AC Milan’s fans can look forward to an exciting season.