Less than a decade ago, AC Milan dominated European football. They won the Champions League twice, in 2003 and 2007, and reached the 2005 final too. This was before the rise of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona who would go on to take over from Milan as Europe’s dominating force. Milan slipped into a period of decline and after their Serie A title in 2011, the club hasn’t been close to competing for the Scudetto. They’re not this season either, but lately the team has consistently impressed under the leadership of Sinisa Mihajlovic.
Mihajlovic was appointed last summer and immediately went about trying to implement a similar style to the one he had successfully employed at Sampdoria the previous season. Milan were very inconsistent at the start of this campaign, and Mihajlovic tried both a 4-3-1-2 shape as well as a classic 4-3-3. Some results were decent, but others, like the 0-4 loss at home to Napoli was nowhere near good enough. A few months into Mihajlovic’ reign and there was already questions about whether the Serb was about to be dismissed. In November though, the coach changed to a 4-4-2 with lots of energy and aggressive pressing. Results have come Milan’s way following this change, and the clubs has only lost once since the defeat at Juventus in November. Here we take a look at the way Mihajlovic’ has gone about changing the Rossoneri’s fortunes.
Milan’s system is nothing revolutionary. They defend in a classic 4-4-2, as can be seen below, with two attacking full-backs and two wingers looking to cut inside on their stronger foot.
In the derby against Inter, the line-up read: Donnarumma; Abate-Alex-Romagnoli-Antonelli; Honda-Montolivo-Kucka-Bonaventura; Niang-Bacca.
The midfield four is circled in yellow here.
The midfield again, obvious to see how narrow they are when Niang and Bacca start their pressing.
So nothing we haven’t seen before in terms of the shape when defending. Mihajlovic is a very aggressive individual, so perhaps it’s not surprising to see Milan defend with very aggressive pressing. They press high, and consistently stay compact while showing their opponents wide. When the opposition has been forced wide, the full-backs are very aggressive and stand up against their opponent to win the ball back and look to counter-attack.
Narrow midfield four, with Antonelli out pressing his winger. Bonaventura and Kucka covers the left-back, which allows Romagnoli to stay centrally.
Bonaventura shows Santon outside and not allowing the pass on the inside. As the ball goes out wide to Perisic, Antonelli is already on his way to press the Croatian, as can be seen below.
In the game against Roma, a team that even more so than Inter tries to build from the back, Milan employed similar tactics. Bacca and Luiz Adriano forced Roma to one side, where the winger would then press from the center which would force the the full-back in possession to play the ball along the sideline where Milan’s full-back would be ready to win the ball.
Florenzi gets the ball and Bonaventura is already on his way. Florenzi will play the ball down the line, where Di Sciglio easily regains possession for Milan, as can be seen below.
The below sequence is one which perfectly highlights Mihajlovic’ pressing ideas. Centre midfielders joining in too, and when the ball is won Milan have a great chance to attack.
Bacca, Adriano and Honda starts the pressing move at the halfway line and the ball is played back to the goalkeeper.
The three of them is joined by Bertolacci in pressing Roma, and their positioning limits De Rossi to only one option which is to try and find the left-back Digne (just out of shot).
When the ball is played there, Abate is already there and wins the ball back for Milan who can now attack with lots of players between Roma’s defence and midfield.
To play high-pressing you need defenders who pushes the defence line up when needed and who are comfortable in stepping out of the defensive line to press. Milan has this type of defender in 20-year-old Italian Alessio Romagnoli. He joined from Roma in the summer and is a leader in the Milan defence, despite his young age. A classy defender on the ball, it’s still his defending that stands out and he is always pushing the defence up when it’s required.
Typified in this picture where Bacca initiates a pressing move which sees Zapata and Romagnoli push up and leave three Roma players offside. Also note the positioning of Bonaventura on the left of midfield who straight away is ready to press the right-back, should the ball be played there.
Mihajlovic has trusted the quartet of Honda, Montolivo, Kucka and Bonaventura lately in his four-man midfield and they have delivered. Left-footed Honda starts on the right but drifts in, with right-footed Bonaventura starting on the left but drifting in. This leaves space for the full-backs to attack. Bonaventura in particular has perhaps been Milan’s outstanding creator this season, and looks destined for Italy’s Euro squad. In the centre, Montolivo and Kucka complements each other well with the Italian’s tranquility and class on the ball combined with his intelligent positioning allows the more dominant and powerful Slovakian to drive through the pitch with powerful runs or aggressive pressing. When Kucka goes away pressing or running with the ball, Montolivo is tasked with balancing and controlling the midfield as can be seen below, something he does splendidly.
Kucka has been pressing high and been overplayed, but Montolivo is there to balance.
Again, Montolivo (yellow) controlling the midfield with Kucka slightly higher after his pressing forced Inter into a long ball. They complement each other well and Milan dominated the midfield against Inter, largely thanks to Kucka’s power and Montolivo’s intelligence.
Below we can see the positioning of Bonaventura and Honda when in possession.
Here, Honda cutting in with Abate supporting wide.
Above everything, football is a team sport. Therefore Mihajlovic will be delighted to see occasions like this one below. Eight players in their own box defending a cross.
That kind of team spirit is what Milan now seem to have in their side. With the workrate of the entire team, the well-drilled and organized pressing system, the creativity of Bonaventura, Honda and Niang and of course, the goalscoring exploits of Carlos Bacca, Mihajlovic’ Milan has come on leaps and bounds in the last few months. While reaching the Champions League again is a step to far, a return to European football trough the Europa League seems well within their grasp. If they can continue to improve, who knows where they might be in a few years? Maybe Mihajlovic is the man to re-install Milan as one of Europe’s true heavyweights.