This post sets out to look at the tactical set-up of the double scudetto winners, AC Milan. Below you’ll see the players from the squad with hyperlinks to their metric radars – click on those to open a new window if you are interested in seeing them.
Goalkeeper – Sweeper Keeper (Support)
AC Milan academy graduate, Gianluigi Donnarumma, was the first-choice goalkeeper. Over the course of the season, he kept twenty two clean sheets out of a total of thirty three Serie A appearances – 0.67 CS/90. An 88% save percentage indicates his fantastic abilities protecting the goal, using his large frame and agility to prevent the opposing side from scoring. Of the shots he faced in Serie A, he held onto 63.28%, thus securing the ball for his side. 14.85% of his saves were tipped around/over the post/bar and 22.77% were parried (including rounding).
When it came to distribution, the sweeper keeper on support had the team instruction to play out to his back four to relatively safely establish possession of the ball, in part helping explain his 92% pass completion. However, using his passing abilities and the manager instruction to his players to be more expressive, he was willing to override this instruction so that he could be the instigator of a swift and direct counter attack by spraying the ball out to the wide attackers. When this happened, it helped overcome issues faced with deep lying defensive set-ups, not uncommon in Serie A, catching a team out when they have overcommitted players to their attack, leaving space for the wide forwards to exploit. An example of such a counter is shown below.
Right full backs, Conti, Palencia and Calabria all played in the attacking full-back role to provide width, with the added playing instruction to stay wide to stretch the defence of the opposition. With a narrow central fulcrum in midfield and an inverted winger in front who will look to cut into the box, the full back was a key asset within the tactical set-up.
The player often found himself overlapping his teammate, running towards the byline to put in a cross, as seen by the passes received by Calabria in the match analysis above against Perugia. In offering the forward option, they typically were afforded space whilst the left-sided defender was drawn in to cover off the infield run of the inverted winger. This gave them time to deliver a cross to the centre forward or the in drifting left-sided forward and provided goal scoring chances. Players playing in this role ranged between 1.24 to 1.75 completed crosses/90 over the course of the season.
With Donnarumma instructed to pick out any of the four defenders in front of him, if he opted for the right-sided full back this occasionally led to swift attacks, when they were in space to drive forward with the ball against narrow formations. This meant that counter attacks could be somewhat swift, if not necessarily direct to the attacking trident. Should the opposition have regrouped and adopted a narrow defensive formation, this then led to the full back having room in front of them to dribble down the right flank. Both Palencia and Calabria were above League average from successfully completed dribbles per 90. In part this signifies their attacking contribution to their side, by their willingness to take on defenders and commit their man.
When the opportunity for the cross wasn’t on, either because of a blocked crossing lane or a lack of credible options in the box, then the player needed to be proficient with the ball at their feet, so their passing abilities were also important to ensure that possession wasn’t squandered with the player being potentially out of position deep in the opponents half. Whilst the counter press was set for this AC Milan side, opposition sides could evade the press by going long down their left flank with the space vacated in this area, with the full back well forwards. AC Milan’s full backs in this role had a pass completion percentage upward of 85% – above the 82% League average for fullbacks. Equally, these players needed to be prepared to commit tactical fouls in order to stop the fast flow of opposition counters and allow the team to re-structure into their defensive arrangement. If the ball was lost away from their flank, they need to be prepared to run back and cover their position, so it’s no surprise that all three right backs averaged more than 12.7km/90 and Conti and Palencia committed above League average fouls/90 at 2.05 and 2.23 fouls/90, respectively.
On the left-hand side, the preferred role was the wingback on support – a role that Cucurella and Wöber fulfilled. This provided a little more defensive stability, only looking to go forward when the opportunity presented itself, otherwise hanging back if the attacking full back down the right had gone forward. Again, the provision of width to the team is a key fundamental principle of this role. The player must be available to deliver crosses into the box and help give defenders dilemmas about closing down their attackers. With the mezzala and inside forward on his flank, he can also often be afforded time to deliver his cross because of the overload created ahead of him.
Evidence of the overload in the left half-space and the importance of both full backs to provide width is seen in the below graphic. When in possession, this tactic can turn into a 2-3-3-2 or a 2-3-2-3 depending upon the speed of the transition and development of the play.
Yet whilst their attacking contributions were important, both full backs still had to be more than capable in their defensive skill sets. Whilst AC Milan have succeeded in winning the last two scudetti, there are still five other big clubs in the League and Champions League football to contend with. Only Wöber had fewer than 4 PAdj tackles/90, though he was in the top 10% for PAdj interceptions/90, so perhaps he preferred a more front foot approach to winning the ball back, using his anticipation to read the play. It’s also worth noting that only Palencia had a higher than League average 5.11 tackles/90 for full backs but is worst in the league for PAdj interceptions/90 – perhaps his style of defending was more reactive due to his poor positional play?
Club captain, Alessio Romagnoli, played on the left-hand side of the AC Milan defence, utilising his left footedness. Mattia Caldara and Mateo Mussachio rotated in the other centre back slot. Due to his inferior passing, vision and technique, Caldara played the less technical role of centre back whereas Mussachio and Romagnoli are both suited to playing the ball-playing defender role. Yet this did not seem to mean that Caldara’s passing network/distribution was any less risky than that of his central defensive peers, as demonstrated in the above passing network graphic against Fiorentina. Caldara played penetrative passes into the wide right-sided attacker, seemingly more so than Romagnoli did.
Caldara’s defensive output, using PAdj tackles and interceptions looks poor, and it possibly is but that is a harsh criticism for a player that played 1,915 minutes (21.3 90s) and was a part of a team that only conceded 15 goals in Serie A. Nonetheless, there may be room for an upgrade given Mussachio’s weaknesses too. It is interesting to note that Romagnoli led the League for headers won per 90 but neither Caldara nor Mussachio are anywhere near league average – Mussachio being at the very bottom of the League for heading percentage and in the bottom 2% for headers won/90. Perhaps Romagnoli took it upon himself to cover for his partners weaknesses – nonetheless this looks to be an area to address in the transfer market going forward. As to why none of these players stand out with regards to pressure adjusted (PAdj) tackles per 90 its hard to say, expect perhaps players further forward implementing a press as soon as the ball is lost meant they had fewer tackles to make and found themselves intercepting more long clearances.
When they were forced onto the back foot, I Rossoneri opted for a relatively standard defensive width. By not sitting to narrow to allow crosses to pepper their box, nor too wide to provide space for playmakers to enjoy putting their centre forward(s) through clean into goal, this helped to restrict the number of shots Donnarumma had to face. Additionally, given Mussachio’s seemingly perpetual aerial weakness, this seems to have been a sensible ploy – try to minimise the frequency of crosses arriving in the box without being carved open centrally.
In the central midfield triumvirate, the heartbeat of the team was the single pivot – the deep-lying playmaker, set to defend. This is the solid and reliable base of the trio, sitting back and dictating terms and the play. Offering himself to his team mates when the ball was won back either in defensive or attacking positions to find a pass. Italian playmaker, Tonali, was the primary pick for this position, playing just over 2,000 minutes. Completing 48.71 passes/90 with an 89% pass completion demonstrates his abilities with the ball. His key passes/90 statistic underline this further – the deep-lying playmaker is there to play the defence cutting pass if it’s on, otherwise, they’ll look to recycle possession.
This is very evident in the below passing map from AC Milan’s 4-1 victory over Cagliari. Here, Tonali offered himself in a central position to his team mates, either advancing the ball to his central midfield team mates, or, more frequently spraying the ball out to the left as indicated in the graphic. This ability to recycle the ball, maintain possession and look to pass the ball into space for his team mates to run onto allowed attacks to continue and placed pressure upon the opposing team. Here you can also see the long progressive passes that he made to quickly advance the ball forward, cutting out the Cagliari defenders.
The other squad member who performed this duty was Nicolás Domínguez. Whilst his passing percentage is lower, his key passing, and PAdj interceptions show that this role needs to be prepared to put in a defensive effort to shield the back four. Neither player registered significant goals/90 or assists/90, but this simply isn’t their role – they’re often too deep to provide direct goal scoring opportunities from their passes and similarly too far away from goal to have high percentage goal scoring chances. This is indicated by the fact that they registered less than one shot on goal/90 (Tonali had 0.55 S/90 and 0.96 S/90 for Domínguez) over the course of the season.
On the left, the mezzala on support offered a more attacking role to hit the half space and overload this area in combination with the left-sided attacker. Throughout the season, Calvin Stengs, Lucas Paquetá and Dani Olmo were the rotational choices for this position, using their superior dribbling and creative abilities and their eye for goal. Given that the attacking play can bypass them through the direct playing style with swift counter attacks, their goal involvements are not to be overlooked. Stengs’s first season in the Serie A was impressive, with 0.33 goal involvements per 90 (four goals and six assists) and 0.60 chances created per 90.
The right-hand side of the midfield trio saw a box-to-box role adopted. This runner, often fulfilled by Bruno Guimarães, Olmo and Nicolás Domínguez, provided support during both the offensive and defensive play, covering substantial distance. As Guimarães’s metrics show, this role requires a real all-rounder – someone who is capable of being creative but is also prepared to role his sleeves up and put in the hard yards, putting his efforts towards defending, breaking down the oppositions attacking phases. Guimarães is truly an exemplified box-to-box midfielder – his 0.36 chances created/90, 2.04 key passes/90, 12.4km covered/90, 3.67 PAdj tackles/90 and 1.80 PAdj interceptions/90 are stand-out, though his passing accuracy could be improved.
The speed of play that AC Milan exhibit meant that the central midfielders often looked to advance the ball quickly, either dribbling to put pressure on the defenders, or often opting for vertical forward passes. Further evidence of this is indicated in their passes completed over the season – AC Milan ranked only 12th in terms of the number of passes completed, despite having 52% possession (4th best). This is further backed up by the two graphics below – the central midfielders were expected to make high risk passes and as such, their metrics were lower than average for pass success. Perhaps this is further evidence too of their inability to pick holes in a defence once it has become entrenched.
Transition – defence to attack
The below set of graphics help to explain the link between the defence and the midfield, as well as help to show how their roles work within the tactical framework as the team transitions from defence to attack.
In the first instance, the AC Milan side have just won back the ball and Cucarella looks to advance down his flank. Here you see how advanced the right full back (Calabria) was, transitioning into an attacking forward position close to Suso. It’s also notable that Tonali dropped back into the gap between the two centre backs, acting as the single pivot, despite nominally playing in the central midfield strata. Roma elected to engage in a very light, almost meagre, press as most players looked retreat into their defensive set-up.
Cucarella choose to play a relatively safe pass inside to the supporting Paquetá who then dribbled beyond the half way line. As Milan’s defensive line moved up, it is evident how wide the two full backs were, providing the width as the two wide forwards were already positioned vertically along the edge of the 18-yard box. The central midfielders were also very narrow, but crucially there was verticality between them. As such, they had options to pass across the plains between themselves and also beyond them to the forwards.
As it is, Paquetá passed inside to his right to the box-to-box, Domínguez, as his dribble was cut shot due to the narrow, compact defence that Roma established. Since Domínguez was in space, he had the time to use his vision identifying that he could pick out Suso with a first time pass. Here you can really see the verticality of the tactic – within seconds the ball has quickly advanced from the defensive phase into the Roma penalty area.
Suso’s dribble was cut short due to a tackle from the Roma left back, but notice how far advanced the full back for I Rossonerri was, as the box-to-box player, Domínguez, holds himself back and Tonali has maintained his withdrawn position too. Should Roma win the ball back, as they did, AC Milan team had four central players covering the middle area of the pitch as the press began from the advanced players. This would allow others to potentially retreat, or catch the Roma players out as they look to advance believing they have a chance to counter if AC Milan are able to win the ball back.
As it turned out, Calabria’s advanced position actually saw him win the loose ball back. The two wide forwards maintained their advanced positions, but notice how the left-sided inside forward retreated a little to create spacing between himself and Roma’s right back. This allowed him time and separation to attack this full back at speed to out jump him should Calabria have looked to deliver an immediate cross.
However, instead, Calabria played a quick one-two with Domínguez, putting him into space where the left-sided full back for Roma had to re-engage. The cross was blocked and the play resulted in a corner for AC Milan but this gives you an idea of the transition and positional play that is typical within this tactical set-up for AC. The left-sided inside forward still had the critical separation to run at the opposing defender and note too that Piątek had not opted to be on the deepest defensive line so that he had space and just enough time to choose his area to attack the ball should it have come into the area.
The two right-sided inverted wingers are also two of the set-piece takers for I Rossonerri. As such, Buendía and Suso have somewhat inflated metrics for assists (Suso – 12, Buendía – 9), with eight goals coming from corners for AC Milan. Despite this, both players have outstanding metrics – with Suso totalling 0.48 non-penalty goals per 90 from 3.29 shots per game. Buendía saw something of a come down from his 2020-21 metrics, but perhaps he reverted more towards his mean metric output rather than dipped below it. His NPG/90 dropped by 0.21, despite his shots on target actually rising, and his passing accuracy worsened – in fact he was the worst in the lead amongst his peers. This is slightly concerning, but only slightly. He is in a position to make risky passes, as such it is expected that some of these will be cut out by the opposition, and clearly with 0.48 assists/90, behind only Suso’s 0.52 A/90 in the League, this is indicative of the creativity that came from the attacking right flank for AC. They must be prepared to take on defenders, dribbling at them at pace, and either lay on passes/crosses for the striker or the left-sided forward to score or create chances for themselves to score.
Here you can see how frequently the respective attacking wide forwards find the space to shoot, and also Suso’s out-performance with regards to his NPG/90. This clearly demonstrates the importance of the wide forwards in terms of their shot frequency – Hložek’s metric here is also stand-out but more on this below.
The same can be said of the left-sided inside forward too, yet these players, Federico Chiesa, Rodrigo De Paul and Adam Hložek did not reach the echelon that Suso and Buendía established. Originally brought in as a youth prospect, Hložek’s rapid development saw him rack up far more first-team minutes than originally intended. And his output shows promise – with more shots per 90 than both Suso and Buendía, demonstrating that he found the space to attempt a shot on goal, but perhaps needs to be more clinical/selective given his 8.5% conversion rate – far inferior to Suso’s 15%.
As demonstrated above, Chiesa’s first season has been somewhat disappointing, as it was hoped that he would be the player that readdressed the imbalance between the two outer prongs of the AC Milan trident. Perhaps, after more time at the San Siro, his talents will shine through and the Italian attacking midfielder will show the curva why the AC Milan manager sanctioned his purchase following his transfer listing at the end of last season. He will certainly need to be more creative, with only 0.11 assists per ninety and only 1.33 shots on target per 90.
Rodridgo De Paul’s poor form continued throughout the 2021-22 season, following on from his below par performance in the 2020-21 season after his transfer from relegated Udinese. As a result, of both this and Hložek’s faster than expected development, he will be moved on during the off season.
The centre forward, playing in the complete forward on attack role, led the line and looked to link up play where possible. Krzysztof Piątek is a somewhat selfish striker, not engaging with the build up play as much as desired, but his movement off the ball and finishing ability saw him once more land the capocannoniere. His numbers were marginally below the fantastic metrics of 2020-21, but he still found himself in position to register 4.23 shots/90, with only a 1% drop in his goal conversion. André Silva played Piątek’s deputy when the Pole was in need of a rest, and played some games in the Coppa Italia. The graphic below (including goals scored in all competitions) illustrates Piątek’s importance to the overall tactical set-up for AC Milan with his finishing skills. He may not have many touches on the ball in open play, but when he does find space in and around the area, he is deadly.
Piątek’s off the ball movement and the verticality of the play from the tactic can be seen in the clip below. If you watch his movement from the moment he comes into view, he makes a run across to the right-sided centre back dragging the left-sided centre back with him, presumably because he is instructed to man mark him. Piątek then catches him out of position by creating separation initially and then he ghosts in behind him. Suso lays on the perfect weighted slide rule pass for Piątek to run onto and the Polish striker does the rest, slotting it past the on-rushing keeper for the only goal of the game.
Hopefully this deep dive into the tactic enables you to have an idea as to the tactical set-up AC Milan utilised throughout their scudetto winning season. Any questions, please use the comments section or contact me on Twitter @afmoldtimer.
The next post will focus on the player sales and recruitment that took place over the off season in preparation for 2022-23 season.