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Calcio tactics through time – Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan (2001-2009)

Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Calcio tactics through time – Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan (2001-2009)

Carlo Ancelotti – AC Milan (2001–2009)
  • UEFA Champions League: 2002–03, 2006–07
  • UEFA Super Cup: 2003, 2007
  • FIFA Club World Cup: 2007
  • Serie A: 2003–04
  • Coppa Italia: 2002–03
  • Supercoppa Italiana: 2004

Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan was perhaps one of the most unique tactical sides to have dominated the early 21st century. Under the eyebrow raising Italian, Milan won two Champions League trophies, tying Barcelona for the most Champions League trophies won in the 00’s. Milan made it to a third final, yes, Istanbul in 2005, but I’ll try to bring that up as little as possible.

Ancelotti’s reign spanned eight years, so it was natural his team went through several transformations. Arrigo Sacchi arguably had the biggest influence on Ancelotti’s managerial career. Sacchi emphasised the beautiful way of playing football. With an emphasis on possession, domination and attacking football, Ancelotti understood the importance of control. There is one ball in a game of football, if you have that ball, the other team can’t score, and they can’t attack. Playing in midfield under Sacchi, no player understood this better than Carlo Ancelotti. It was under Sacchi that Ancelotti began to grow his obsession for central control, something that would shape his Rossoneri sides.

There is another man that Carlo Ancelotti owes a great deal of debt to, Carlo Mazzone. The now retired manager coached Brescia from 2000-2003. Andrea Pirlo was sent on loan to Brescia (his former club) from Inter Milan in 2001, it was a meeting that would change Pirlo’s career. The Italian maestro was regarded as an attacking midfielder in his early career. Mazzone believed this to be a waste of Pirlo’s vision and passing range, not to mention the fact that his slight frame would only limit him. Mazzone deployed Pirlo in front of the Brescia back four, as a deep lying playmaker who would dictate play. Pirlo at first was confused regarding the position change but kept his trust in Mazzone. Pirlo only played ten games for Brescia during that loan spell but Mazzone’s transformation of Pirlo was something that would change Italian football as we know it.

In the same summer that Ancelotti became Milan manager (2001), Milan splashed €17m to bring Andrea Pirlo to the red side of Milan. Even then, Milan probably did not know that Pirlo would define Ancelotti’s teams.


The Milan team that started the 2003 Champions League final against Juventus.

My word. What an absolutely beautiful team. It’s not just the stars and big names that make this Milan side attractive, but from a tactical point of view, this team just worked beautifully like a well oiled machine. Pirlo’s ability to control the edge of the middle third was unparalleled in world football at the time. This meant Gattuso and Seedorf acted as wide midfielders to add width to the notoriously narrow 4-3-1-2. Of course, width in today’s game leads you to think of wide players, which Gattuso was not, but the width of Seedorf and Gattuso opened up the middle for Pirlo, and especially Rui Costa, to operate. It’s all about space.

The modern attacking fullback was just starting to become a focal point of the beautiful game, but against Juventus, Milan operated with a mainly flat back four. Costacurta covering at RB even though he spent his career as a centre back. You know how in science there are chain reactions? Costacurta not being a right back that could push forward meant Gattuso was emphasised as a vastly important player. An all round dominant central midfielder, and not the slow, defensive midfielder he became known as later in his career. Rui Costa would naturally drift over to the right hand side to account for a lack of attacking prowess down that flank due to Costacurta’s inability to bomb forward, forcing Seedorf to move into the occupied central space.

Speaking of Rui Costa, what a dream role he had. Playing behind one of the most dominant strikers in the early 21st century in Andriy Shevchenko, who was complemented by the poaching excellence of Pippo Inzaghi. Shevchenko’s mobility, movement and status (defenders would often prioritise marking Shevchenko over Inzaghi) meant when the Ukrainian was being bombarded by defenders, his Italian teammate was able to supply the goals. It’s still arguably one of the greatest one-two punches in European football.

The introduction of Jankulovski (2005) and Cafu (2003).

Brazilian right back Cafu and Czech left back Marek Jankulovski arrived in 2003 and 2005 respectively. Ancelotti was buying into the modernisation of the full back in modern football, and he bought the best right back in the world and an astute left back. This again evolved Ancelotti’s 4-3-1-2/2-1. The two midfielders accompanying Andrea Pirlo would not have as much wide responsibilities, only when the field needed to be stretched against compact teams. In fact, Gattuso (mostly) must’ve loved playing in front of Cafu.

Cafu was the definition of a shutdown player. There was little need for anyone to drift over to the right hand side, either to help in an attacking or defending sense. The Brazilian’s stamina, spatial awareness all around demi-God status made him an integral part to the narrow 4-3-1-2. Jankulovski himself was an incredibly underrated left back. Superb going forward in his time at Napoli and Udinese, he did not have to contribute as much in an attacking sense due to the all-round effectiveness of Milan’s attack.

Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree.


The 2004 Scudetto winning team.


The team that avenged Istanbul in 2007.


The famed Christmas tree formation (’cause it gets wider as you go down the field, god damn it, guys) is something that will forever be associated with Carlo Ancelotti. Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known as Kaká could be considered the catalyst for the Christmas tree formation. Arriving in 2003, Kaka cracked the starting line-up within months of arriving, playing behind Shevchenko, Inzaghi or Tomasson. Due to Pippo Inzaghi’s injuries during the 03/04 and 04/05 season, Ancelotti looked to utilise a one striker formation. He had a surplus of midfielders, and Rui Costa (Seedorf moved into his position after he departed in 2006) and Kaka began to feature behind Andriy Shevchenko.

Kaka was everything. There isn’t a single role that can define Kaka in his prime. The silkiest of enganches, the ruthlessness of a shadow striker, he was unstoppable. On the way to the 2007 Champions League final, Kaka scored 10 goals and assisted a further 5 in 15 games, his finest continental year. His performance at Old Trafford against Manchester United remains one of the most breath-taking games in the history of the Champions League.

With one of the best players in the world at their disposal, the midfield of the Christmas tree changed purpose. No longer did Seedorf and Gattuso have to do a staggering amount of running to help Pirlo facilitate and Rui Costa create. Kaka could do it all on his own. Now the midfield was focused more on control. It comes full circle. Milan won the Scudetto in 2004 and the Champions League in 2007 with their heavy control midfield, but of course, there’s one event we have to talk about. Sorry.

The failure of control in Istanbul.

Sorry. Sorry to bring this up. Some Milan fans may be thinking “Istanbul? I don’t recall.” Whelp. That’s probably because you’ve repressed the memory deep into your subconscious. Yeah, that’s why you wake up in cold sweats at night. It’s easy to just pass of the 2005 Champions League final as some kind of anomaly. Oh it was destiny. Oh there was nothing we could do. There is one thing a controlling midfield struggles with, and that’s momentum.

Space is the second most important thing in football, is momentum a real thing? Well, it’s not quantifiable. It’s a bit of everything, mentality, self-belief, fear from the side of the opposition. Liverpool seized control in midfield and thus seized the game, once the game was tied at three apiece; the trophy was never going to be heading to Milan.

As Johan Crujff says, every disadvantage has an advantage. Ancelotti noted Milan’s lack of defensive muscle in midfield with both Seedorf and Gattuso aging. Enter Massimo Ambrosini, who offered some defensive help alongside Pirlo and Gattuso, while Seedorf moved into a more advanced role in the 4-3-2-1. And of course, Milan got their revenge two years later in the 2007 final as an Inzaghi brace secured Milan’s seventh European title in Athens.

What was different about Athens?

For some bizarre reason, Ancelotti has been considered quite a rigid manager, but his tactical flexibility in the 2007 final is something to be admired. Milan played with the handbrake on due to events two years prior, but Ancelotti did his best to manage his men.



The team that avenged Istanbul in 2007.


The game started off in Ancelotti’s favoured 4-3-2-1, going up against Liverpool’s 4-2-3-1 with Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso sitting deep, providing excellent blocks against Seedorf and of course, Kaka. Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard was also given the responsibility of being the focal point of attack and pressing Andrea Pirlo to disrupt Milan’s control.

Liverpool’s intent was clear. Let Alonso and Mascherano sit back and launch counter attacks through Gerrard into wide areas occupied by Liverpool wingers Jermaine Pennant and Boudewijn Zenden. Liverpool knew if they went toe to toe with this Milan side, they wouldn’t be as fortunate as they were in Istanbul.


Ancelotti’s adjusted 4-4-2


Ancelotti switched to more a 4-4-2 shape in the defensive phase. While Seedorf and Gattuso aren’t exactly known for the defending in wide areas, simply having an extra body to beat for Pennant and Zenden limited Liverpool’s counter attacks. In the attacking phase Seedorf moved up the field to help Kaka break down Liverpool’s Masch-Alonso pivot.  It was little adjustments like this that helped Ancelotti overcome his team’s psychological deficit going into the game.

It’s worth noting how much of a role Oddo played, constantly bombarding the right flank to give John Arne Riise a torrid time. Not just Oddo, of course, but Pippo Inzaghi stuck just to the right of the defence like glue. The Norwegian left back was defensively suspect and couldn’t keep up with the Italian’s elite movement. Which is perfectly illustrated for the second goal – here.

A closing word

In today’s Italian game, we might not even see a manager last eight years at an elite club again. Carlo Ancelotti is one to be admired, only one Scudetto was delivered but Mancini and Mourinho’s Inter are nothing to scoff at. Three European Cup final appearances and two cups brought home is an incredible record in modern football, even more incredible considering it was three trips in five years.

In such a tactical league such as Serie A, space is at a premium. However, Ancelotti knew how important space was to domination and winning games, and he utilised it like his mentor, Arrigo Sacchi. The tactical evolution Ancelotti went through with reverting to focusing on two attacking midfielders supporting a single striker rather one attacking midfielder supporting two strikers. Ancelotti found the best way to utilise the control and domination his Milan teams had, the team needed extra penetration as teams became more and more compact.




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