San Siro under the lights provided the platform for AC Milan to begin their sprint down the back straight of an exciting Serie A season. Milan have stuttered in recent weeks, winning only one game in their last eight across all competitions. A recent costly defeat to Torino saw the Italian giants leapfrogged on the table by the Turin side. Gattuso’s men needed to begin the home stretch with three points to continue their campaign for a Champions League spot.
Bologna, on the other hand, arrived on a hot streak, avoiding defeat in their last four matches. Despite not mathematically safe, the Northern Italians can breathe easier due to their recent upturn in form. I Rossoblu were looking to reverse their fortunes against Milan, having only beaten them once in their last 18 attempts.
In this tactical analysis, we review how both teams faltered tactically leading to a game fuelled more by fire than ability.
Gattuso lined his side up in their preferred 4-3-3 formation, a shape they’ve played over 2000 minutes in this season. Notable absentees included Caldara, ruled out for six months, alongside the suspended captain Romagnoli. The impressive Suso and Hakan Çalhanoğlu continued in the starting eleven, joined by their returning joint league goal-scorer Krzysztof Piątek.
Bologna started in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape, a formation in which they achieve an xGp90 of 1.78 in the league. Attacking midfielder Soriano and right-back Mbaye were missing due to suspension. Top-scorer Santander continued to start on the bench, as Palacio took his place as the lone striker up front.
The match started frantically, with no team able to wrestle any dominance of the football. Four fouls in the first two minutes set the early tone in the game as both teams pressed and bothered each other out of possession. After a while Milan found some rhythm, creating some big opportunities they couldn’t capitalise on. Suso eventually put the home team in front after 37 minutes with a fine individual finish rifled into the bottom corner. Despite the balance, Milan went into the break ahead.
The tempo of the match continued into the second half. Fouls and chances littered the timeline, until a rebounded finish from ex-Liverpool man Borini put Milan two up after 67 minutes. Bologna responded diligently, where five minutes later Destro gave the visitors some hope after some suspect defending from a corner put him clean through on goal. Like throwing fuel on a fire, the game then exploded. Three red cards followed in a final fifteen minutes saturated with scuffles and poor challenges, as the home side scrapped to a 2-1 victory.
During the patches of the game not proceded by the arm raising of a referee, Milan used their superior quality on the ball to find weaknesses in the Bologna system.
Milan exploiting the 4-2-3-1
Milan used Abate to advance down the right, supported wide by Suso. Kessié, who played as the more offensive midfielder in the three, pulled across to support attacks on the right. This occupied one of Bologna’s midfield two, which in turn created a potential passing lane into the Milan front man.
Kessié continued his run into the channel, which is tracked by Poli. This left Pulgar isolated in the midfield with no chance of blocking any passes through the midfield structure. Suso is able to pick out Çalhanoğlu who has cleverly moved into the space vacated by the Bologna midfielders.
By the time the pass is played into Çalhanoğlu’s feet, Bologna’s shape is too distorted to recover. Their midfield pairing has shifted too far into the lateral spaces and now cannot get back across to cover in time.
To prevent this, midfielder Orsolini should have tucked in alongside Pulgar as he was dragged into the lateral spaces. Whether it was lack of communication or an attempt to counter by Bologna, this lateral shift of their shape left them wide open to attacks.
Bologna find joy against 4-3-3
The away side found success of their own as attacking play continued to identify defensive instability.
Kessié, who we identified as a key figure in Milan’s attacks, was also part of their demise in their tactical approach. The freedom given to him in attack cost Milan structure in defence, as Bologna continually exploited his position.
Bologna played the ball out from the back, which Milan attempted to press. Kessié joined the attackers three to prevent an easy way out for the visitors.
A simple pass out for Lyanco cuts through Milan, leaving three players beyond the ball. Bologna can easily advance into midfield spaces vacated by Kessié.
Once beyond the press, Bologna advance on Milan’s back-four who are vulnerable. Biglia moves across to challenge the ball and cover his struggling teammate. In doing so, this leaves plenty of space behind him in the centre of the pitch.
The ball is played square into the space vacated by Biglia in central midfield. This pass created a 3v2, which Bologna use to good effect, creating a shot at goal. This situation occurred repeatedly as Kessié continued to move forward to assist the Milan attackers.
Bologna will leave with the feeling they should have got something out of the game. Their hard work and clever movements led to some big chances that on another day would have been finished off. Wild tackling and ill-discipline took away from their positive pressing game, as fouls continually sacrificed possession. If Bologna can remove the franticness in their play and play with more control, they will certainly avoid the drop.
A greatly needed three points will take the spotlight off of Milan and keep them in contention to chase Atlanta for 4th spot. The issues off the field will continue to be kept at bay if the team can keep finding victories. The concern for Gattuso is the ease at which teams are finding gaps in his 4-3-3 system. A decision will need to be made in the final few games whether it’s team-players or raw ability which will get the job done.