When Stefano Pioli took over at the club in October, Milan had made a difficult start to the season under Marco Giampaolo, obtaining only nine points from their first seven league games at the start of the 2019/20 Serie A season. Milan acted fast, looking for someone to stabilise the club throughout the rest of the season. Pioli was seen as a short-term answer to this problem, providing an impetus for a Milan side struggling to find their identity, something they have struggled with for the past couple of years. Milan’s remarkable post-lockdown form thrust them up the table, eventually ending up in 6th place, securing Europa League football for next season, as long as they get through the qualifying stages of the competition.
The greatly improved form and clear structure and identity have caused AC Milan to drastically change their plans heading into the new season, giving Pioli a two-year contract extension, rather than appointing Ralf Rangnick to the post. This decision surprised many due to the deal for Rangnick being reportedly lined up as early as January, but Pioli’s team’s remarkable upturn in form has deservedly given him the opportunity to prove himself as a long-term option.
As we look to preview next season, we will look to see how Milan have improved their play, in what way this may continue and how they go about continuous improvement to mount a challenge on the Champions League spaces next season. This tactical analysis will look at Pioli’s tactics so far at AC Milan, predominantly post-lockdown when he seemed to find his style of play, formation and tactical ‘recipe for success’. We will look to discuss what has gone well this season for Milan but also where they could look to improve, with suggested areas of improvement as they head into the delayed new Serie A season.
Pioli’s ‘post-lockdown’ 4-2-3-1 system
AC Milan look to play energetic, committed and pacey football in a 4-2-3-1 formation, looking for dynamic players that alternate their play to find attacking solutions. They rely on the creativity of players such as Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Zlatan Ibrahimović and the energy, forward play and defensive contributions of players such as Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer to begin their attacks.
AC Milan typically stick to a 4-2-3-1 under Pioli, with the same group of players being used frequently towards the end of the season as they continued a good run of form. They typically line up like this:
Simon Kjær’s position is less certain but his recent decent run of form has solidified his position there. Davide Calabria seems to be the preferred option at present, but rumours suggest they are looking for a new right-back heading into the new season. Alexis Saelemaekers has performed excellently since coming into the side and has made this position his own in the absence of Samu Castillejo to injury. Tactically this was a smart decision for Pioli, with Saelemaekers offering the energy, creativity and commitment he was looking for in his wide players. Whilst Ibrahimović has yet to commit for next season, he is likely and expected to do so.
In terms of typical strategy in each game, they look to build up possession by pressing intensely to win the ball back and try to do so as much as possible in the opposing side’s half. They look to get the ball over the top to Ibrahimović but are also tactically versatile by building attacking moves through creative playmakers such as Bennacer, Çalhanoğlu and even Ibrahimović when dropping deep. This tactical versatility makes them unpredictable for their opponents, and this unpredictability has made them a force to be reckoned with heading into the new season.
Milan’s creativity in build-up, positioning and pressing
In terms of build-up play, as previously stated, Milan look to build through their creative players such as Çalhanoğlu and Bennacer, with these players often dropping deep to win the ball back or be ready to build a play if the defenders win the ball back. Milan look to build from deep and have creative defensive players such as Alessio Romagnoli and Bennacer in central areas to do so. This, in turn, forces the attacking players of the opposing team to press high, leaving space and greater opportunity for headers to be won and used to progress the ball largely through Ibrahimović. The image below showcases Bennacer and Kessié dropping deep, providing the Milan defence with options to push forward from the beginning of an attacking move.
In this high press, however, teams often press deeper to prevent the long ball to Ibrahimović, and so Milan counter this with higher numbers and pressing play in the central areas behind Ibrahimović, in order to overwhelm the opponent when counter-attacking. Again, this versatility makes them difficult to understand and react to tactically.
To follow on from this previous point, it is clear that Milan look to press and overwhelm opponents who have a deeper press with creative players who create options through numbers but can go more direct and play longer balls through to Ibrahimović when teams press higher in order to win the ball back sooner. Another positive of going long to Ibrahimović is his ability to drag a CB with him when the ball is played directly to him, leaving gaps in the opposition defence whereby smart and creative Milan players can take opportunity of these gaps, as showcased in the image below, with Ibrahimović dropping incredibly deep to push the ball forward.
Milan typically attack through the right channel, with Bennacer being the more creative, ball progressive and attacking of the two playing in the double pivot CDM positions for Milan, with Kessié becoming more defensive and less roaming under Pioli’s tactics. Bennacer will typically start an attacking play from deep on the right side of the pitch. This overload of play on the right leaves potential gaps for Hernandez on the left to progress the ball forward. Hernandez has been performing excellently in attacking play this season, showcasing himself as one of the top, modern attacking full-backs around.
This reliance on Hernandez is complimented by the fact that Milan confuse opposing sides by playing so compactly and narrowly on one side. This style of play is also useful for Milan as they don’t have to rely on Hernandez to build attacks, with short and quick creative combinations, especially if the opposition is counter-pressing. Once Milan do expand their attack, the opposition often cannot react quickly enough to the change in style of play in terms of attacking build-up.
Hernandez also provides Milan with a versatile attacking option, as he often moves into gaps across the pitch in order to provide Milan with that additional option that the other team simply cannot react to without man-marking Hernandez. This is showcased clearly in the images of two separate matches below, with Hernandez using the overload of players on the right-hand side of the pitch to his advantage.
Milan’s increasing defensive solidity
Under Pioli, the decision to start Ibrahimović has forced Pioli to adapt tactically in order to fit him into the side. Whilst this may seem problematic, Pioli is aware that Ibrahimović can offer so much in creativity and attacking play that he is willing to adapt his system to make it work. Milan seek to disrupt the opposition by blocking them from playing the ball past the first third. Whilst Ibrahimović is unable to press highly and with any intensity, his presence and the presence of Çalhanoğlu and Ante Rebić to name a few often puts the opposition under pressure to make a decision and potentially a mistake.
This pressure in the centre of the pitch, often through the defensive midfield of Kessié and Bennacer, forces the opponent wide in order to create opportunities. This then moves Milan into a touchline press, looking to increase their numbers zonally in order to force a mistake from the opposition.
One cause for concern for Milan is that the pressure made by their defensive midfielders higher up the pitch, either centrally or wide, often leaves gaps in the centre of the pitch, allowing sides to find opportunities due to gaps in the zonal marking system deployed by Pioli. This high press also leaves gaps in the defensive line, with the fullbacks such as Hernandez often pressing so hard and high that they leave gaps in the defence. This weakness in Hernandez’s style of play is only minor, but potentially damaging, as showcased in the image below, with clear open and wide gaps being left by both Milan full-backs when the opposing team are on a counter-attack.
Pioli looks to go for high numbers and zonally in pressing, rather than man-oriented marking and pressing seen under Gian Piero Gasperini at Atalanta. They follow the movement and play from the opposition and adapt to this tactically, looking to press but not with the high intensity you find in sides such as Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. They look to limit passing options and size of the pitch to play a ball through. This may seem to be a relatively vague tactical system, but this is intentional of Pioli as he looks to adapt his defensive style of play based on the individual opponents attacking style.
Replacing the experienced heads
In terms of areas for improvement, as noted previously, Milan may want to focus on defensive reinforcements in order to consolidate this area for next season’s busy schedule, with the addition of the Europa League potentially complicating their focus of aiming for a Champions League spot in the league. They could do with an alternative to Ibrahimović but with Rafael Leão and Rebić on their books, their focus will likely be on a solid DM option to alternate with Kessié and Bennacer, a solid CB partner to Romagnoli, which they hope to find at least in the short term with Kjær and a solid RB option as they seem to have little faith in Calabria and Andrea Conti as their current options.
Pioli has rightly relied on the experience of Ibrahimović and energy and commitment of his younger players such as Saelemaekers, who covers Ibrahimović in the pressing with his high work rate. Milan may look for a target man who is talented creatively and, in the air, to prepare for the departure of Ibrahimović, when that day comes.
Milan’s main area of improvement is ensuring the high press from their midfielders and full-backs do not leave the Milan centre backs alone and vulnerable on the counterattack. They will need a pacey, strong and tactically nous pair of centre backs in order to prevent this from becoming a long-term problem. Kjær’s conservative role in this current defence has solidified Milan when pressing higher, but this is an option it seems Pioli knows he cannot rely upon long-term. Injuries to the other centre backs in Mateo Musacchio and Léo Duarte may force Pioli into the market.
Milan fans should be excited about the new season as this analysis shows. Pioli has found an exciting, attacking style of play that compliments his players well. Pioli clearly worked out the best system for the players at his disposal during lockdown and to great effect. Milan will largely be looking to make smart investments in this summer’s market and push on from their recent form to mount a challenge on the Champions League places next season.