Saturday, 30 October 2010

Milan v Juventus

An excellent match in which Juventus won a tight game 2-1. The game was as noticeable for its absentees as it was for those who played. Milan were missing Ronaldinho, Thiago, Ambrosini, and Zambrotta. Juventus were missing Krasic, serving a two match ban for diving to win a penalty last week against Bologna, Buffon, Amauri, Iaquinta and Chiellini.

Milan opted for a 4-3-3. Gatusso played the holding role exceptionally. He has come under criticism for muted performances over the past year and his discontent was no secret last season. Today though he was excellent. Pirlo played as a deep lying playmaker. Boateng completed the midfield. Up front they played with Robinho behind a central pairing of Ibrahimovic and Pato without the ball. When they won the ball Robinho shifted over to the left and Pato to the right. They played with a lot of width going forward.

Juventus' formation was less easy to categorise. It was something like a 4-1-4-1 or a lopsided 4-4-2 with Del Piero dropping off down the lefthand side. Without the ball Aquilani and Melo played similar roles to Pirlo and Gatusso, though it was noticeable that in the early exchanges Pirlo was far more effective than his counterpart. Marchisio and Martinez also dropped into more central positions to limit the space that Milan had.

The start of the match was noticeable for Milan's dominance. They pressed extremely aggressively and were simply brilliant at moving the ball about from flank to flank. Pirlo was key in achieving this. They also succeeded in finding a lot of penetration. Gatusso and Pirlo won a lot of balls in front of the defence and moved the ball quickly and effectively through the Juve midfield. They broke quickly with Robinho, Ibrahimovic and Pato, all of whom are excellent ball at feet. 7 minutes in Ibrahimovic rattled the bar. It looked as though Juventus would be overrun and that it would be a matter of time before Milan broke the deadlock.

Juventus' only source of relief looked like coming down the lefthand side. De Ceglie got forward threateningly from leftback and Martinez drove forward towards the left wing with conviction a couple of times. Del Piero also dropped off into this space to create an overload. Pato did not track back. As Milan's shape was a 4-3-3 with Pato playing more narrowly when they lost the ball there was no cover. An interesting comparison can be made with the role Pandev and Eto'o had in the 4-2-3-1 their city rivals played last season. The forward's role there was to start wide so as to limit the threat from attacking fullbacks when they lost the ball, and then push inside when attacking. Pato did the opposite and so De Ceglie found himself with a lot of room when Juventus had the ball. The gap between Bonera and Pato was too great and it was exploited brilliantly.

To compensate for the 3 on 1 situation Bonera found himself in, Milan had to shift resources away from the centre and towards the rightback position. Papastathopoulos and Gatusso both found themselves pulled away from the centre. This left more space in the middle and from one such opportunity, Del Piero crossed only for Quagliarella to head over. Moments later Milan were not so lucky. A fantastic De Ceglie cross was headed home expertly by the same man, Quagliarella. Juve's supremacy in one part of the pitch allowed them to take the lead largely against the run of play.

If Milan could count themselves a little unlucky to be behind at this stage, they did nothing to help themselves. They looked deflated for the remainder of the second half and with 5 minutes to go they seemed like a team who couldn't wait for half time. The statistics going into the break told their own story. Both sides had had 4 shots on target but it had taken Milan twice as many attempts to force a save (10) than Juventus (5). A more clinical approach was needed. Ibrahimovic was typical of their wastefulness up front, squandering a number of opportunities from promising positions.

Injuries forced both sides into making changes. De Ceglie had to come off and so Pepe, a natural winger, slotted in at leftback. It looked as though Juventus would target the Milan right even more strongly as Pepe's natural tendency is to push forwad. Hoever Milan had to bring off Bonera for Abate. Bonera had played well considering the difficulty of the challenge he faced, but Abate provided far more going forward and immediately looked to take up advanced positions on the right handside. This worked well and largely curtailed the threat that could have been posed. Pepe looked unsure of himself and seemed to have been told, at 1-0 up, to think of defending before attacking. Juve's potency down the left was further deteriorated when ten minutes in Martinez, on a surging run out of defence, pulled up with a thigh strain. Sissoko was brought on. It seemed as though Sissoko, a defensive midfielder, would limit the amount of mobility Juventus would have in midfield and their ability to break away. Martinez had been key in transitioning from defence to attack. Sissoko is a robust player and Juventus would invite more pressure onto themselves having been forced into this change. The bianconeri switched to a more conventional 4-4-2.

Indeed as in the first half, Milan started brightly. The midfield was far more willing to push forward. Notice Juves abundance of forward arrows in the diagram above. In the second half it was Milan who looked to drive men forward in a similar fashion. Pirlo and Boateng often found themselves in the final third probing. Even Gatusso found himself beating a man down the righthand side. However this time it seemed as though Aquilani was more influential than Pirlo and he made a number of good challenges to disrupt Milan's fluency.

Football obeys eternal rules that are disregarded at your peril. Add strength going forward and you inevitably weaken your defence. This is exactly what happened. Milan's forward runs from midfield left a lot of room in front of the back four. Nesta got his team out of trouble with some desperate lunges on the half way line. Yet again Milan failed to head the warning signs and moments later the substitute Cissoko burst forward on the counter attack, and found himself unmarked as he burst into the Milan penalty area. With just the keeper to beat he went to strike the ball with his weaker left foot and fluffed it, falling over. He did well however to get back up and shield the ball, laying it off to Del Piero who made no mistake, striking it low and into the corner. 2-0.

Milan again looked deflated and looked flat for ten minutes. Seedorf was brought on for Boateng in a like for like swap. Allegri's lack of solutions tactically from the bench were a little disconcerting from such a talented young manager. Eventually Milan did pick up the momentum. Robinho looked effervescent whenever the ball was played out to him. Milan's failure to get him on the ball in more central positions where he could have hurt Juventus will be a cause for concern. Meanwhile Ibrahimovic seemed more concerned with showboating than showing the clinical edge Milan needed. At one point he chose to let the ball run between his feet when 12 yards out in a promising position. The ball ran to the edge of the area where Pato had to make an arced run to get a foot on the ball under pressure.

Milan did eventually pull one back, Ibrahimovic partially redeeming himself by heading home from a leftwing cross. With no Chiellini in the side and Juventus denying Milan space well, perhaps this approach should have been explored earlier in the game. It is notable that Pepe was caught on the wrong side of Ibrahimovic for the goal making life very easy for the tall Swede.

It was too little too late for Milan. They seemed to really believe in the final ten minutes but Juventus never looked too concerned. Both sides brought on an attacker in the second half and the difference seemed to epitomise the gulf in experience between the two managers. Allegri brought on Inzaghi for Pato (just before Milan scored). The two players are very similar and whilst his movement is very good the substitution never looked likely to change the game. Meanwhile Del Neri took Del Piero off for Amauri. Below peak fitness, his physical presence was in any event useful. His height and strength meant Juve could play long balls up to him. Immediately he latched onto a ball and held it up. A good tactical decision to kill the game and a fine example of how bringing on an attacking player can held you defend a lead.

A sign of champions is the ability to raise your game when thing go against you. Milan were heavily deflated after conceding both times, despite having looked promising moments beforehand. The squad is extremely experienced - Nesta, Pirlo, Seedorf and Gatusso have all played in big games. There are 7 Champions League finals, 3 World Cup finals and 3 European Championship finals between just those four and yet they seemed strongly reactive to the game. If Milan want to achieve any kind of success this season then they must not allow themselves to be so deflated when a goal behind.

There are three principle reasons Juventus won today. Firstly, they were able to show greater penetration than Milan were, exploiting a weakness in the Milan formation. Secondly, they coped better with a depleted squad and ensuing injuries than Milan did. Milan's injuries had no impact on shape. Juventus losing Krasic meant they were numbed down their right. Indeed winning at the San Siro with arguably their three best players out - Chiellini, Krasic, and Buffon - will be a massive boost for morale. Finally they were simply more efficient in the final third. Milan had 17 shots on goal and 7 on target. Juventus managed 6 on target from just 9 efforts. In big games, you cannot afford to be as wasteful and weak-willed as Milan were.

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