AC Milan met a familiar foe in Atalanta at the Gewiss stadium on Sunday night and they were forced to settle for a share of the spoils as a 1-1 draw played out.
In many ways, some of the same frustrations from some games last season surfaced as Milan dominated possession and territory but fell behind thanks to Ruslan Malinovskyi’s deflected strike which propelled the hosts 1-0 at the break.
The Rossoneri were more than good value for the draw they ended up snatching at the end, and the equalizer came via Ismael Bennacer’s shot on the post. Here are some brief tactical points of the game…
Gasperini’s unconventional system
Gasperini in Italy was known for his pressing system with Atalanta. Using man-focused pressing and a high-intensity system, but for this game he completely ditched his usual plot and opted for a medium-low block system.
In this approach, he would have 10 or sometimes 11 men behind the ball to frustrate Milan’s passing pace. It worked really well to stifle the creativity and pace the Rossoneri like to get into dangerous areas, but it came at the cost of not having much joy in their attacking phase.
If you look at the average position map of the match, we can see how even in the first half, Gasperini only had Zapata beyond the halfway line, while he had 10 other players in the defensive position.
We talked in the analysis of the victory over Udinese on the importance of Milan causing confusion through the movement of their players and their rotation of position.
The example below shows how Milan set up from an attacking perspective at certain points in the first half when the build started from the right. Leao would come in and partner Rebic as a second striker, with Brahim drifting into space on the left and either Bennacer or Tonali pushing in a bid to make late runs into the box.
The example below is just another example of how Milan would try to break through a tough defensive line by having multiple runners at once to cause disorganization.
Theo Hernandez crossed the ball just past the halfway line but with so many players targeting the box it wasn’t handled well, drifting all the way to the far post where Messias arguably should have done better.
False nine failure
Rebic as a false 9 was a necessity that turned into a masterstroke against Udinese, but against Atalanta the wheels didn’t click.
The Croat was constantly moving to the wing which meant there was no target for him or his teammates to aim a cross towards. Junior Messias or Brahim Diaz often made late runs into the box that weren’t found, so Pioli’s move backfired on Olivier Giroud and Divock Origi both called up from the bench.
Weak in aerial duels
Atalanta targeted Milan in the air and it was Milan who failed to clear a cross that led to the opening goal. The ball ended up falling on Maehle who squared it to Malinovskyi, who took advantage of the available space to finish a shot and score.
In the second half, attacking midfielder Mario Pasalic timed well and found himself on the end of a cross with a powerful header, but he was thankfully knocked down over the bar by Mike Maignan.
Milan sit deep in the area and are caught off guard after failing to handle a cross properly. Maehle regains possession and the marking assignments are all lost, with three players standing close to Zapata, Toloi and Pasalic outnumbering Bennacer and Malinovskyi (circling) spotting danger.
Rather than push back, Tonali hesitates for a fraction of a second and Theo Hernandez does not follow Malinovskyi’s run. The result is that he gets a chance where he wants it: first time on his left foot on the edge of the box. Maignan is also blinded by a screen in front of him.
Quality on the bench
As the game progressed, the spaces started to widen between the midfield and the Atalanta defence, and it was the perfect opportunity for Charles De Ketelaere to show his quality.
Playmaking doesn’t have to be an art all the time, as just drifting in space, receiving the ball and playing into a runner is enough to open up a tiring or disoriented defense.
Theo opened the passing lane and rolled a ball past the Belgian, who turned and sent a perfectly weighted ball that met Tonali’s clever run, and it deserved to be an assist.
Finally, Tonali also showed his smarts to screen the defender knowing his midfield partner was looking for the far corner with his shot for the equalizer.
As mentioned in the intro, it was a game where things didn’t seem to pick up for Milan in the attacking phase despite all their territorial superiority. Pioli was right to mention that limiting Atalanta to just two shots on target was a big plus, but it should have translated into a win as well.
Pioli trusted Brahim Diaz, Rebic and Messias more after the game against Udinese, but the front four (Leao included) just never started. Saelemaekers, De Ketelaere, Origi and Giroud coming off the bench may be a sign of what will happen for the formation against Bologna.