Empoli – AC Milan: Milan Capitalize, But Conviction is Needed (2-4)
The dream of the Scudetto is clear for AC Milan, eleven years on from their last title. Against Serie A’s latest maverick, Milan made important ground on those beneath them, but to challenge the top will take a lot more conviction.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
Stefano Pioli has established Milan as a top contender once more, but taking them to the next step has proved to be difficult. Having won just two of their last five league matches, Milan desperately needed to head into the winter break with a win, to stay attached to the leading pack. Defeat to fellow chasers Napoli had put them four points behind their city rivals and in danger of losing their footing against Internazionale for the second season running.
Their final hurdle to the halfway point would not offer easy pickings. Newly promoted Empoli have exceeded expectations to potentially push their way into European places. Aurelio Andreazzoli’s men have slain various goliaths throughout the campaign, which include Juventus and Fiorentina, but most impressive of all coming away to in-form Napoli. Now they had the chance to alter the race for the top spots once more.
Andreazzoli may be one of Serie A’s oldest managers, but he boasts one of the youngest squads in the division. They started in their usual 4-3-1-2 formation, with three changes to the team that drew to Spezia. Simone Romagnoli came in for Lorenzo Tonelli at center-back, whilst Nedim Bajrami was added to the midfield. Patrick Cutrone also returned to the starting eleven, to partner next to Andrea Pinamonti upfront.
Milan made four changes to the side that lost to Napoli. Theo Hernández returned from illness, whilst Ismaël Bennacer came back into the midfield, which meant there was a more advanced role for Franck Kessié in Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 system. Alexis Saelemaekers came in ahead of Rade Krunić, whilst Zlatan Ibrahimović was not available, so Olivier Giroud started in the striker position.
On ball but disconnected
Empoli was the team in control of the possession, with Milan residing in their usual 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 medium block; which had singular pressing triggers from the strikers, whilst the players behind maintained their shape. In the diamond shape, one would expect a lot of vertical passes and fullbacks providing the width, but Empoli’s buildup shape is a lot more curious.
Their shape resembled more of a 4-1-3-2 formation, with passive fullbacks rarely breaking past the halfway line and Samuele Ricci being the closest forward option for the center-backs. Andreazzoli’s team were able to circulate the ball around the opposition block with a lot of freedom, the classic M-shape being formed, but connecting play to the offense was a challenging task in this system.
6th minute: Having carried the ball forward, Luperto was able to find Henderson inside of Milan’s 4-4-2 medium block, with ease. Despite this lane being exploited a few times throughout the half, the disconnect between the back five and forward five was significant.
There were still moments when Empoli was able to break lines effectively. Sebastiano Luperto consistently moved the ball to Liam Henderson, positioned behind Junior Messias and Sandro Tonali. Down the right, Szymon Żurkowski attempted to turn and carry the ball forward more, which worked on occasions but struggled when the space to turn was not available.
Milan’s medium block wasn’t heavily compact but wasn’t threatened when Empoli was exchanging the ball because the distance between the midfielders was so large. More threatening moments came at the start of the game when they went more direct, whether that would be from long balls towards the wide strikers, or crosses from deep positions when Pinamonti or Cutrone had made a run towards the box. Nevertheless, structural issues resulted in Empoli not imposing themselves on Milan as much as they should have.
Loose Milan find a bow
When on the ball, Milan targetted Empoli by going more direct, straight towards the front four. Their formation split into more of a 4-2-4 formation, with very few patterns of play to build through. Empoli man-marked against their shape, Ricci and Samuele Bajrami on the same line to occupy Milan’s double pivot, whilst the wide center-midfielders occupied the fullbacks. As a result, their shape resembled more of a scattered 4-4-2 system.
Milan attacks were spearheaded by the wide spaces made available to them on the counterattack, but these moments were more individualistic as there was a lack of movement to pull their defensive line out once more and saw Milan players consistently carry the ball into dead ends.
However, Pioli’s team found more flexibility and final third threat on the left side of the attack, which drew the sword to Empoli’s defense. Milan took the lead on the eleventh minute, as they played through their opponent’s high set-up and exposed their heavy man orientation.
11th minute: Buildup to first Milan goal. Hernández drops into the same line as center-backs, whilst Bennacer’s run drags Ricci out and opens angle for Kessié to drop and receive, as Żurkowski steps to press the left-back.
Empoli’s high block did not compensate for a third man joining the center-backs, as Theo Hernández dropped after the ball was played back to Mike Maignan between the posts. A lane between the left-back and Kessié opened, and despite Simone Romagnoli fouling his marker, Kessié played the ball quickly before a two-versus-two was created on the left. Hernández’s underlapping run opened the angle for Saelemaekers to produce a low cross, smartly laid back by Olivier Giroud and fired home by Kessié – this time Giroud was in an onside position when he hit the deck.
It didn’t take too long for the hosts to respond, as a delayed reaction from the corner’s second phase cost Milan. Henderson was afforded too much space to receive on the turn, and although his chipped ball towards the back post was flicked on by a Milan head, it fell perfectly for Bajrami to hit a low, bouncing ball, into the far corner.
Poor transitions are not enough
The rest of the half was defined by both team’s being open on the transition, but neither attacks having the connectivity or even the technical quality to make attacks link. Empoli was given spaces to play through, as Milan’s counterpressure was fragmented and lacked cohesiveness.
When pressing forward, Pioli’s team could be way too drawn towards the ball, whilst the winger on the farside was also stepping up. Milan had phases where they would counterpress high up the field, with the midfield line being way too flat, whilst Ismaël Bennacer or Tonali were a lot deeper. As a result, this lead to Henderson or Żurkowski open to receive a vertical pass, but Empoli did not make use of these situations, whether it would be from a lack of movement from the forwards or poor shot selection.
The Milan attack also provided very little other than poor shots, especially on the right. Nevertheless, it was a combination down the left that would once again deliver the goods. Kessié drifted towards this channel, with Hernández’s dummying the pass towards Kessié and Saelemaekers overlapped as the Ivorian received the next pass further down the left. Kessié got the ball back and fired the ball through the goalkeeper’s legs just before half-time.
Hapless control gets punished
The hosts regained more control at the start of the second period after Andreazzoli made an important switch with his fullbacks. Petar Stojanović was replaced, with Fabiano Parisi being switched to the right, whilst Riccardo Marchizza came on to the left. Both men started to move into positions higher up the field, which did encourage Milan’s wingers to track their movements.
46th minute: Buildup to Bajrami chance. Luperto was able to break the lines again, with Milan midfielders too far apart and Henderson able to receive in the middle of the field.
Once again, Luperto’s line-breaking passes offered the most threat, and when combined with hard runs on the defensive line, Empoli created the closest chance they had to an equalizer. Henderson shifted into a more central position to receive and as Alessio Romagnoli stepped too far forward, space was created for Bajrami to sprint into. Shifting the ball back onto his right foot, his shot cracked the crossbar.
Empoli moved the ball better and sat higher up in the opposition’s half, but the slight tweak to the fullbacks was not enough for them to create consistent chances. Both the fullbacks and wide center-midfielders got into positions where they could turn and move the ball forward, but the hosts were only afforded to move the ball into decent crossing positions. These moments came few and far between; once Milan sat in a more compact rest defense, then Empoli struggled to get the ball anywhere near the penalty area.
Their more dominant spell of the game was finished by their wrongdoing. A sloppy pass put Simone Romagnoli under pressure and fouled Saelemaekers on the edge of the area. Milan’s own wall perfectly collapsed and Alessandro Florenzi’s shot curled right through it to nestle into the bottom corner.
The fourth goal came not long after, as Milan bypassed the counterpress with ease and slowed down their attack on the left, for Saelemaekers to cross to Hernández at the far post. The attempt of an Empoli comeback was not existent and the match fell back into the fruitless affair we had witnessed towards the end of the first period. Andrea Pinamonti’s penalty teased a resurgence, but Milan saw out an important win ahead of the winter break.
Aurelio Andreazzoli has an interesting young squad at his disposal. A team that presses high up the field, but a structure on the ball that is disjointed and only reaps the benefits when a team presses high against them. Whether they can keep up with the likes of Lazio, Fiorentina and Roma would be remarkable, but they will remain sticky opposition for the Italian elite nevertheless.
This was an important victory for an out of form and injury-stricken Milan, made the sweeter by Napoli and Atalanta dropping points. Stefano Pioli would be all the more interested to make a four-horse race into two, but if they are to take Internazionale to their limits, they will need a lot more persuasive performances.
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