AC Milan – AS Roma: well-organized Milan get deserved late winner

AS Roma had a lot of problems in their away game against a well-organized AC Milan. Both managers decided to change their formation at one point in the game. This made AC Milan – AS Roma an interesting match-up, which was decided in the last minute. 

AS Roma had started the season by gathering a last-minute win against Torino and a draw in a highly entertaining match against Atalanta Bergamo. AC Milan’s season opener against Genoa was cancelled due to the tragic collapse of the Ponte Morandi. They lost 3-2 to Napoli the following week, so with zero points in the bag, there was some pressure from the fans in San Siro to deliver a good performance.

Milan lined up in their usual 4-3-3 formation with Lucas Biglia as the defensive anchor in central midfield, while Franck Kessié and Giacomo Bonaventura played higher up the field. Roma’s formation came as a surprise, as the 4-3-3 that manager Eusebio Di Francesco used in the first two league games was binned. Instead Roma lined up in a 3-4-1-2. In this formation, marauding wing-backs Rick Karsdorp and Aleksandar Kolarov would be tasked with creating danger from the flanks. Top signing Javier Pastore acted as a traditional creative offensive midfielder and was charged with feeding the striking duo Edin Džeko and Patrik Schick from central positions.

The diagram below shows the position of all 22 players when Roma were playing out from the back in the first half. The ball is displayed at the feet of left central defender Iván Marcano.

Base situation of Roma in possession.

Roma’s offense in 3-4-1-2: not a lot to like
It was an even match in the first fifteen minutes, even though Milan had more possession on Roma’s half than the other way around. Both sides struggled to create anything substantial in terms of goal scoring chances in this period.

For Roma, these problems turned out to last the entire first half. The 3-4-1-2 was probably drawn up to get the most out of Pastore, but Roma struggled to get him the ball in the last 35 metres of the field. Especially holding midfielders De Rossi and Nzonzi were passing to the central defenders and wing-backs too often, instead of playing a vertical pass to Pastore or the strikers.

Wing-backs Karsdorp and Kolarov very incidentally played as wingers. More often, they could be seen getting the ball in deeper positions and passing it along the byline to Džeko or Schick. The strikers couldn’t create anything from those situations. All in all, an extremely ineffective offensive plan. In the first half, Roma’s only chance came from a rare Kolarov overlap. His decent cross was headed over the goal by Schick.

Milan control the first half
From the fifteenth minute until half-time, AC Milan were controlling the game. There were several spells where Roma could very seldom leave their own half. After losing the ball, Milan were usually quite fast in getting it back.

The home team attacked in a fairly modern 4-3-3 with Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Suso as wingers. They love to come inside with their strong foot and try to create chances. Especially Çalhanoğlu was giving his direct opponent Karsdorp a hard time. Roma’s right back was often seen doubting if he should follow Çalhanoğlu to the center or stay in line with his fellow defenders.

At times, striker Gonzalo Higuaín could be seen dropping deeper and distributing the play from one side to another. Contrary to popular belief, Higuaín is much more than a pure number nine that only scores goals. Against Roma, he was actively involved in constructing attacks and showed several passing moves and dribbles that showed he is still one of the best strikers out there.

Roma try to defend with seven outfield players
Roma’s defensive plan was better than their offensive plan, but still not very good. They defended with five defenders in line and De Rossi and Nzonzi as a block of two in front of these. With one of Pastore, Schick or Džeko only incidentally dropping back, Roma were defending with only seven outfield players behind the ball most of the time. Pastore was clearly tasked to be the first player to feed the ball to in transition and was relieved of defending duties. This is a fine trade-off if it works, but it rarely materialised into a dangerous counter-attack for Roma.

In transition from attack to defence, Roma did an okay job. Especially taking into account that only seven outfield players were actually thinking of defending in these situations. A lot of times, the first danger was stopped, but Milan could easily circulate the ball outside of Roma’s defensive organisation afterwards and wait for the right moment to strike.

In one of these moments, Bonaventura was able to play a through ball to left-back Ricardo Rodriguez, who crossed. Kolarov had one of his occasional defensive mistakes and left Kessié unmarked. The Ivorian got an easy tap-in and Milan got their thoroughly deserved opening goal seven minutes before halftime.

Change from 3-4-1-2 to 4-2-3-1: more defensive stability
Roma were outshot 11 to 2 in the first half and created only 0.11 Expected Goals while giving away 1.03. It’s fair to say the 3-4-1-2 was a total disaster. Di Francesco brought on winger Stephan El Shaarawy for central defender Iván Marcano at half time as a reaction. He also switched the system to 4-2-3-1, with Shick playing as a right winger with license to drift inside and act as second striker.

In the first place, this brought more defensive stability. A 4-2-3-1 usually transitions smoothly into a 4-4-1-1 when a team is defending. Roma also did this, which means they were trying to hold off Milan with nine outfield players instead of seven or eight. It’s safe to say the tactical changes made it a more even game, even though Milan were still the better team.

Roma did manage to play on Milan’s half more after the break and had a lot of passes around the box without actually playing the killer pass. It was telling that their biggest chance (a shot by Džeko from the edge of the box) came after a deep Milan turnover. Roma’s equalizer in the 59th minute also came unexpected. Frederico Fazio scored after a deflected corner kick.

Chaotic final thirty minutes
With 1-1 on the scoreboard, the last thirty minutes of the game were chaotic. Roma decided to ignore the fact that you can’t maintain a high defensive line if you don’t have pressure on the ball. This gave Higuaín a fantastic goal scoring opportunity, which he took. The video assistant referee correctly ruled him offside after a few minutes. Shortly after this, Steven Nzonzi also saw a goal correctly disallowed due to a hand ball.

Around the 80th minute, manager Gennaro Gattuso made two quick substitutions: winger Samu Castillejo for Çalhanoğlu and striker Patrick Cutrone for Bonaventura. This changed their formation to 4-2-4 in possession and 4-4-2 when the opponent had the ball. The game really could have gone either way at that point because there was so much space to exploit for both sides. Especially in transition situations, both teams could have been more effective to score a late winner.

Nzonzi, who saw a goal disallowed, turned from hero to zero in the 95th (!) minute. He lost the ball just in front of his own defense, which wasn’t the first time he did so. The ball landed with Higuaín, who proved for the umpteenth time that he can do more than just score goals. He found Cutrone with a great pass, who coolly slotted in the winner. The last touch by a Milan player ended up in the back of the net.

Gattuso was rewarded for the risk he took by playing with four attackers when the score was level. Focus points for Milan might be to create more high quality scoring chances. Even though the defence was solid in this match, it still remains to be seen if that is something structural. Only one week ago, AC Milan gave up 22 shots against Napoli, after all.

AS Roma has started the season with a loss, a draw and a win. The formation is not yet clear, the offense isn’t clicking and the defence looks slow and disjointed. A lot of work for manager Eusebio di Francesco and certainly a team to keep an eye on in the next couple of weeks.

Erik Elias (26) is co-founder and chief editor of Between The Posts. Dutch, so admires Johan Cruijff and his football principles, but enjoys writing about other styles as well. Former youth coach. Scout. 'Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.' [ View all posts ]

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