As the new Serie A season begins to take shape, Milan look to continue their highly impressive form at the end of last season post-lockdown, which they have shown strong signs of at the start of this season, winning every league game so far. Spezia, on the other hand, are newly promoted to Serie A, and were looking to try and get something out of a confident and free flowing Milan side, led by Stefano Pioli. Spezia managed to get a great result away from home against Udinese in their previous game, winning 2-0. Those are the kind of results that could see them stay in the league this year. Milan were looking to continue their good form with what many would see as a routine win.
In this tactical analysis, I will be observing the tactics of Stefano Pioli and Vincenzo Italiano in this Serie A game, with AC Milan coming out the unsurprising victors in a solid 3-0 win, with Rafael Leão showing impressive form in the place of Zlatan Ibrahimović whilst he continues to quarantine following his positive coronavirus test result. This analysis will look to analyse what both teams aimed to do to achieve points in this game, and how Milan’s tactical set-up continued to give them results whilst Spezia struggled to find their place in the game.
AC Milan (4-2-3-1): Gianluigi Donnarumma: Theo Hernandez, Matteo Gabbia, Simon Kjær, Davide Calabria: Sandro Tonali, Rade Krunić: Rafael Leão, Brahim Díaz, Alexis Saelemaekers: Lorenzo Colombo
Milan looked to rest a couple of key players, with Tonali and Rade Krunić getting starts in place of Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer, who started the game on the bench. Lorenzo Colombo starts for the first time in place of Ibrahimović, whilst an in-form new signing in the form of Brahim Diaz starts in place of Hakan Çalhanoğlu. The back four remains the same as Alessio Romagnoli continues to miss games through injury.
Spezia (4-3-3): Rafael: Jacopo Sala, Martin Erlić, Julian Chabot, Riccardo Marchizza: Giulio Maggiore, Matteo Ricci, Tommaso Pobega: Daniele Verde, Andrey Galabinov, Emmanuel Gyasi
Spezia have seen 7 different starters to the back four in their first two matches of the season, with Martin Erlić and Jacopo Sala returning to the side following their drop to the bench in the last game. Club captain received a red card in the Udinese game, and so missed this game. Tommaso Pobega is on loan from Milan but was allowed to start this game. Spezia hoped Galabinov would continue his good goalscoring form so far this season, scoring all of the team’s goals in the league so far with three.
Milan’s unique and clear identity under Pioli
Stefano Pioli has identified an aggressive, attacking style of play for his Milan side, with the aim being to dominate possession across the pitch, in order to generate goalscoring opportunities, which they did so effectively in this game, with 62% possession and 17 shots to Spezia’s four. Milan often play short passing systems wide and centrally, looking to build up play at pace and interchange the ball between a group of players that overload a zonal area on the pitch. This is often seen on the left side of Milan’s system, with Theo Hernandez being a keen overlapping, attacking full-back, making darting runs wide and cutting inside when required.
Milan also rely on the unique and impressive talents of individuals in this side, notably Zlatan Ibrahimović and Hakan Çalhanoğlu. Ibrahimović is an excellent at holding the ball up, winning long balls aerially, bringing it down and finding one of the other forward players making a darting run to advance the play further up the pitch. Çalhanoğlu’s specialities are his impressive goalscoring ability and chance creation from long balls and long shots, and his ability at set pieces, scoring some excellent free-kicks over the years and creating goalscoring opportunities from set pieces as well. In the below figure, we see Çalhanoğlu doing this once again in impressive fashion. He whips the ball across the box, finding Rafael Leão who makes an impressive run, showcasing his improving ability to position himself effectively in the box.
Milan are, however, not reliant on the impressive talent of key players such Çalhanoğlu and Ibrahimović and have a wealth of talented players and attacking options that frequently get involved in goalscoring opportunities, making them unpredictable and tactically versatile when attacking. Hernandez, as mentioned previously, is a clear example of this being the case.
Imperfect defending from both Milan and Spezia
Milan were, however, rather fortunate at times defensively, as they did provide Spezia with a couple of decent opportunities and half chances to score that could easily be avoided. A noted weakness at times in Milan’s backline, is the full-backs, with Calabria and Conti struggling to impress on the right, leading to the recent signing of Diogo Dalot from Manchester United, and on the left gaps are left wide open by the advancing attacking runs and attacking play from Hernandez. In the below figures, we can see this being exploited by Spezia.
Hernandez is caught out further up the pitch, and Spezia have made a quick counterattack, finding one Spezia player in acres of space wide on the right, leaving Hernandez struggling to track back. Milan are fortunate that a team of better quality did not face them when making mistakes like this, as soon enough this will lead to unnecessary goals being conceded at a potentially consistent rate.
However, it was clear Spezia were slightly out of their depth in terms of the aggressive pressing play that you find frequently in top sides like Milan, and Milan showcased this throughout the game. The below figures are a clear example of this, with Krunić driving through the Spezia midfield, with Spezia struggling to press effectively, allowing Krunić to bring the ball almost into the final third, before playing a smart ball through to Saelemaekers, who then makes a good cross into the Spezia box. As you can see in the last figure, Spezia’s defence is also playing far too deep a defensive line, allowing the Milan players to arrive late and attack the cross as it comes in.
As mentioned previously however, a perceived weakness in Milan’s side in their remarkable post-lockdown form has been their right-back position and this was showcased clearly in this game. In the below figure, Spezia find themselves in space on the right wing to make an attacking run, with the Milan players struggling to implement the zonal pressing system they have done so effectively in Pioli’s tactical system. This allows Daniele Verde, an ex-Roma player, the opportunity to play a through ball cutting through Milan’s defensive line. Whilst Spezia were unable to find the ball following this, Calabria struggles under the pressure of the opposition and almost strikes the ball into the back of his own net, with Donnarumma having to make a good save to avoid this. Calabria’s decision-making will have to improve if he wishes to continue to play in front of Milan’s other defensive options.
Milan’s ability to counter effectively
Milan, however, have become highly effective on the counterattack, with their high pressing system ensuring that when they win the ball, they can counter at pace to overwhelm the opponent, and create more goalscoring chances and on many occasions, goals. A player who has benefited hugely from this system, and did so again in this game, was Theo Hernandez.
In the below figure, we see this being the case, with Hernandez pressing hard and at pace on the opposition player, winning the ball back before making an impressive darting run towards the Spezia goal, before finishing impressively past the Spezia goalkeeper, adding to his impressive goal tally for a left-back, with 7 goals and 4 assists in his 36 Serie A games for the club.
The pace Milan have on their wings also means they benefit greatly from a counter-attacking system, with Saelemaekers and Ante Rebić often making darting runs on the overlap with Hernandez, in order to provide options out wide or centrally. Ibrahimović also positions himself fairly high when this happens, ensuring he can get involved in the quick, counter-attacking play even with his limited pace and acceleration.
AC Milan once again put in a dominant display in this game, playing some impressive attacking football whilst providing solid minutes to players that don’t typically start, showcasing an improved strength in depth this season. Spezia will be ruing, however, their clear-cut chances and opportunities to score, with Milan still looking a little too vulnerable at times defensively. This will need to improve if Milan hope to continue to progress as impressively as they have under Pioli. Spezia will look to pick themselves up from this game and continue to gain points in games such as the way they did against Udinese, whilst Milan will hope their impressive form continues into their Europa League group stage games.