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Woo hoo. Calcio is back. What a strange summer. Milan are heading into the season with a new manager! and have new ownership! But that ownership haven’t poured money into the club? I have no idea. No one has anyone idea. That’s the beauty of it.

Anyway, we’re hear for tactics and such. Vincenzo Montella was at the helm of the San Siro for his first competitive game in charge of Milan, whereas Siniša Mihajlović returns at the club he failed to do much of anything with last season.

Line-ups

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I really liked what I saw with Montella’s Milan. Their base formation was a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 but the fluidity between the front four gave them a lot of flexibility in terms of formation. Milan could shift to a 4-2-2-2, with Niang playing alongside Bacca and Bonaventura shifting to left. This was usually resorted to when Bonaventura was being man marked by Acquah. With Bonaventura shifting over to the flank, he could create some 2 v 1 situations with Antonelli (who had a brilliant game).

Milan could also shift to a 4-3-3, with Bonaventura offering technical and creative support to a rather drab midfield. Although Milan struggled to advance play without Bonaventura advanced up the pitch.

Another switch Milan used early in the game was Niang vacating the #10 space. Now, Niang has little to no qualities of the typical #10, but Milan used him well in those spaces when combined with long passes. Niang’s height and physicality meant he could knock balls on to his supporting teammates, and Milan can bypass the second phase and head straight to the final third.

As for Torino, Mihajlovic opted for a 4-3-3. Torino occasionally switched to a 4-4-2 when Milan began to emphasise their wing play, but as with Milan last season, their personnel really didn’t suit such a formation. The left hand side was interesting, with Molinaro providing width and Ljajic/Boye acting a secondary striker to Belotti.

Montella’s Milan – Conte’s italy? Milan’s first phase build-up

I covered Italy pretty extensively this summer (Belgium game, Spain game). One trend that we saw develop was Conte’s use of ball playing centre backs to initiate the first phase and complete the second, completely bypassing their midfielders. With injuries to their creative midfielders such as Marchisio and Verratti, Conte opted for runners in midfield, such as Giaccherini and Parolo. It would be up to the centre backs to begin attacks.

And Milan’s squad is a lot like that Italy squad. The lack of investment has meant Milan have acquired no creative forces in midifeld (it seriously can’t hurt to give Locatelli or Jose Mauri a run), and there’s a general lack of quality. This means Romagnoli is Milan’s best option to initiate attacks and Montella made no secret of that.

The young Italian was simply terrific. Who needs a regista when you have Romagnoli? Montolivo and Kucka essentially acted as deep lying defensive midfielders and held next to no creative midfield responsibility (with Bonaventura dropping deep as a third midfielder most of the time).

This really helped Milan’s spacing. As Monto and Kucka came deep, it allowed Niang/Bonaventura to receive these line splitting passes and receive the ball in an area with various options. Romagnoli’s over the top balls were also fantastic. Milan could essentially bypass most of the build-up phases and skip straight to the final third. With Torino’s man marking, the Milan midfielders would drag the Torino MFers and create space for a long ball into midfield. This is a superb way to create chances when you lack quality in midfield.

I would perhaps note this is not a way to create chances for a 38 game season. Milan relied on this heavily during this game and teams won’t allow such passes for nine months of the year. But hey, I don’t want ruin Milan’s party.

This a little sequence I really liked and there were a few examples throughout the game. The ball is with either Donnarumma or the defense, Bonaventura comes deep to receive the ball, dragging Acquah, the left interior, who was man marking him. This creates space for Antonelli on the left hand side and a long ball over the pressing front line gets the ball to Antonelli.

With Acquah dragged away, Antonelli has options. He can pass to Niang who will have vacated the #10 space, and opt for a 2 v 1 opportuntiy and overlap Torino defenders. He can try and take on Molinaro (and he did with some success). This is a real nice play that Milan used 2-3 times a game.

Milan’s midfield

Okay, so we established that Milan’s midfield was there for defensive protection. Or was it?

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Montolivo and Kucka often dropped far too deep when Torino were in their half with possession. This would not be all bad, if they could effectively press and cut off passing lanes. Unfortunately, Montolivo simply doesn’t possess the physical characteristics for such a role anymore and Kucka is having to do the pressing work of two midfield players, which is probably doing more harm than good.

Torino levelled up the score from this sequence, with Acquah being able to switch the ball over to Molinaro because he wasn’t pressed in midfield. Is this going to be an unpopular opinion? Yeah it is. But I think Montella would be wise to experiment with Bertolacci. The Italian had an awful season last year, truly, truly awful.

But we’ve established Milan are going to rely on Paletta and Romagnoli for their first phase build up. Milan already have one runner in midfield in Kucka and he did well but ultimately, he’s trying to do the work of two midfielders and it won’t work. Bertolacci could play the role of the second runner in midfield. He has some physical qualities that would make him an effective presser and he can’t be much worse than Montolivo.

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This came from a long ball but once again Milan are sitting off too much. Too often the half spaces and final third spaces were left completely empty. It’s the most dangerous part of the pitch and Milan’s lack of pressing when Torino were on the ball cost them two goals.

Bonaventura as a third CM

Now this was something I really liked from Montella. I’ve talked about Bonaventura dropping deep as a dummy to create space for Antonelli earlier in the article, but I actually liked when he came to receive the ball and acted essentially as the deepest lying midfielder. Bonaventura offered some great vertical penetration in these positions, distributing to Antonelli and Abate.

The only issue I had with this sequence was that it left very little central options. Once Bonaventura drops that deep, there’s no one he can really pass to centrally. Although Suso made some respectable movements to create space.

Some notes on Torino:

  • I liked their early pressing on the Milan backline, although this faded rather quickly, as with Mihajlovic’s Milan.
  • I wished their had been more adventurous with their midfield runners, Acquah and Obi. This Milan backline has been susceptible to over the top balls and Torino barely tested this weakness.

Conclusion

Some convincing signs from Montella’s Milan but still some work to do in the midfield department. But this of course operates under the assumption that investment will come along, which seems unlikely at this point.

Tactically, I can see how Montella wants his Milan to play. His Fiorentina side were criticised of horizontal and ineffective penetration, but the Italian has seemingly done his homework since those days. There was a lot of vertical penetration and quite a few attacking risks that paid off. If Milan can ease Locatelli/Mauri alongside Kucka and Bonaventura when he plays CM, there is definitely reason for excitement.

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