AC Milan – Juventus: Headless Higuaín personifies toothless Milan in routine Juventus victory (0-2)
AC Milan’s manager Gennaro Gattuso stated prior to the match, that “a draw against Juventus would probably do”, that Leonardo Bonucci would be “the one to close down” and that Gonzalo Higuaín would need to “stay calm, because he gets irritated easily”. It did not quite go Gattuso’s way, as his defensive approach backfired within the opening ten minutes, Bonucci did not start and Gonzalo Higuaín did indeed lose his head as Juventus left San Siro with an easy win.
Compared to the starting eleven that was fielded against Real Betis, Gattuso made adjustments to almost half his lineup. His reversion to a back-four saw returns to the side for Samu Castillejo, Gonzalo Higuaín, Alessio Romagnoli, Ignazio Abate and Gianluigi Donnarumma.
In response to the dramatic defeat to Manchester United in midweek, Max Allegri made four changes to his lineup – Mario Mandžukić was finally deemed fit enough to start whilst Medhi Benatia came in for the aforementioned Bonucci. João Cancelo returned to right-back as did Blaise Matuidi into his usual role as a central midfielder.
Juventus’s flexible 4-3-3 formation against Milan’s 4-4-2 setup.
Milan’s stubborn 4-4-2 formation still no match for Paulo Dybala
Accompanying Gattuso’s calls to be more cautious, Milan switched to a 4-4-2 formation as the mobile Castillejo played slightly off of Higuaín. The duo was playing side-by-side out of possession, trying to block off passes to Juventus’ midfield.
What the hosts could not deal with was the numerical disadvantage posed by Dybala’s presence in the midfield. The Argentine was at the center of their front three, but certainly was not acting as a typical number nine. Just like Manchester United, Milan struggled to deal with this.
Whilst Ronaldo and Mandžukić hung out on the left and right wings respectively, Dybala would persistently drop into the channels of Milan’s midfield line, looking to create further options for the deep ball-holders.
The deep ball-holder tended to be Rodrigo Bentancur. He was the player afforded time and space with the ball as Juventus looked to build the majority of their attacks from the right to begin with. By swapping positions with full-back Cancelo and by letting Mandžukić position himself between Romagnoli and Ricardo Rodríguez, Hakan Çalhanoğlu could not step out to press the Uruguayan without leaving Cancelo free to play into.
It was in Bentancur’s absence from the midfield line that Dybala stepped in. Coming from behind the midfielders – meaning they had no real way of knowing where he was – the attacker could collect the ball or move in front to draw open angles into other midfielders. Sometimes he would draw in the attention of both Franck Kessié and Tiémoué Bakayoko, which would open the passing lane into Matuidi on the far-side.
Dybala’s free role played a key part in Juventus taking the lead inside the opening eight minutes. In a simple spell of possession, Dybala prevented Romagnoli from moving out to press Mandžukić’s movement towards the right flank. He then dropped away from the defensive line to provide a supporting pass across into Matuidi. Alex Sandro was gifted time and space on the ball on the far-side as well as an easy back post target.
If you say ‘Juventus cross to the second post’, you’ll probably say ‘Mandžukić’ after that. Last season, playing as a left winger, he was on the end of a lot of crosses from the right. On this occasion, it came from the left, the end result being the same: Mandžukić dominating his marker in the aerial duel and producing a shot on target. And in this case, a goal, as his effort was far out of Donnarumma’s reach. Juventus were leading after only eight minutes.
Juve’s congested setup leaves no room for Milan to infiltrate
Milan struggled to create chances from open play all game long. Juventus’ manager Allegri opted to use a 4-3-2-1 shape out of possession, and in a quite literal sense. With the midfield three sticking tight to one side, just ahead of the back-four, they could cramp Milan into one side. Usually, this would be the Milan’s right side, since Suso and Castillejo liked to come inwards from the right.
Juve frequently allowed Milan to play in and out of their defensive shape but never allowed them a moment to turn with the ball. The hosts typically managed to overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. the midfield line but Giorgio Chiellini, mostly, would be on their attackers’ backs within an instant. And, once they had been forced back and wide from whence the ball came, Matuidi and Sandro would aggressively step out to press them further.
As a result, Juventus’ defense did not allow a single open play shot inside their box all game.
Juventus forwards are used to trap Milan
Ronaldo, Dybala and Mandžukić were all positioned narrowly, just ahead of the midfield trio. Midfielders Bentancur and Matuidi would be the ones to press wide rather than any of the forwards. A risky approach on paper but one that paid off.
The main aim of the forward’s positioning was to block easy access into the midfield and to block entries into far-sided players. The smartest aspect of the forwards’ defending, however, was the trap they laid. Particularly in the middle third If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the middle third is the most central area. of the pitch, if an opponent was shaping up to play back across the defense, Ronaldo – the player furthest forward – would move to close the short option down but leave the lane into the far-sided player completely open.
By doing this, the hosts were now having to play high and long to escape Juve’s intense pressure. This, though, played into the visitor’s hands since the long ball gave time for their opponents to shift just as it enabled them to outnumber the receiver in their press. Because the fullback was receiving from a long-range pass, there were unlikely to be any short options, which made them much easier to press.
Juventus ploy to trap Milan’s fullback Ricardo Rodríguez.
Milan struggle in transitions but salvage a reward nonetheless
A lot of Milan’s issues were due to Juventus’ excellent setup. There was one aspect that was poor and truly self-inflicted, though.
The decision making of their players when transitioning into attack was very insufficient. In situations where the away side were at their weakest, the ball-carriers seemed too reluctant to take responsibility and produce a counterattack.
Good examples of this included Suso running into cul-de-sacs as he refused to release the ball, wanting to take on an impossible run himself. More frustration came through the decision making of the midfielders to play into already-marked forwards, rather than moving it into space.
Fortunately for Milan, one good thing did come from their transition play – a penalty. Suso, this time, had managed to find a clear path to drive down as he played an early, low ball that bypassed Higuaín, flicked up off of Benatia’s leg and bounced back off his arm. After a lengthy review process from the VAR, the penalty was finally given.
It was Higuaín’s chance to get an important equalizer but his effort was pushed onto the post by Juve’s goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny.
Missing their big chance to get a goal, the game continued like it had done for the majority of the second half, as neither side manufactured many chances. Juventus still held full control and a lead that meant they took their foot off the gas in terms of offense.
A dramatic end seals the deal for Allegri
Controlling their opponent for most of the second half, Juventus did manage to score their second goal. It is hard to piece together what Juventus did well to get it, because it was very scrappy.
A failed clearance by Diego Laxalt fell to Cancelo, whose speedy dart with the ball opened the angle for a shot. The save kindly rebounded back into the center of the box and none other than Ronaldo was there to smack it home. Game done and dusted, just after the eighty-minute mark.
Tempers flared shortly after as Higuaín was penalised by the referee for a needless challenge against Benatia. The Argentine lashed out at the official’s decision to book him, which led the referee to book him again, resulting in the attacker’s dismissal. Who saw that one coming, eh?
A big test for Gattuso and one that he failed. If this edges him out of the exit door, his side will have gone out with a whimper. They did not get a sniff at breaking Juventus’ defense all game, but, at the very least, they hold a European position heading into the international break.
Allegri, on the other hand, will be pleased with the attitude his side displayed here. Winning another match and convincingly, despite not having to create an awful lot. Much like against Manchester United, they limited their opponents to bare scraps, but this time were able to see out the game and claim the victory.
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