Sadly I wish I hadn’t waited to post this tactics piece, but I will be brutally honest I knew Milan’s 4-3-3 was suicidal and the Napoli match case in point.
I am going to start with a quick discussion of the 4-3-3 and then I will tie it to the last two matches and how it CAN work but usually doesn’t. First and foremost the 4-3-3 is the quintessential footballing formation, it is easily the most widely recognized and easily understood of all the formations and the most turned to by youth coaches across the globe. The immediate quesion is why? It is quite simple, if you are teaching the game what better way to do it than to cover as much of the field with clearly delineated lines and positions. Three lines, easy to explain and easy to understand, but the youth coach quickly gets left behind when you apply a strong tactical perspective to the formation.
The 4-3-3 is really poetry in motion, dynamic, fluid and capable of reshaping almost immediately. The most widely recognized version of this was the Dutch system of “Total Football” and their on-pitch general Johann Cruyff. What made the Dutch system special and ultimately the 4-3-3 special is the way the formation seems to envelope the pitch and the opponents, allowing for defensive and offensive pressure on every turn of possession, but what makes this work is not truly the alignment, but the players in that lineup which is the biggest negative in the Rossoneri employment.
Ideally when employing the 4-3-3 you want players with versatility and a skill set in which they are able to defend and attack with the ball in their vicinity. These players must be fast, tactically aware, and have an excellent spatial sense to cover their designated area, be it centrally or wide. The ideal players in this formation would be akin to Michael Essien, maybe Lassana Diarra, or even Carlos Tevez, players that can play in every direction and not just North and South or East and West. Milan’s lineup is almost the polar opposite of versatility, stop for a moment and consider our wingbacks on track North and South, Dinho on a track North and slightly East if he moves and at all, while Pirlo only moves East and West, with my point being that the versatility required in the 4-3-3 to immediately be a defender or an attacker does not exist in the Rossoneri roster.
This lack of versatility did not seem to get exposed Sunday against Chievo, yes Milan took a fair amount of time to figure out spacing and get balls into attacking zones, but ultimately Milan had the lion’s share of chances Sunday and Sorrentino was really the difference maker and score keeper. Napoli however was a different story, physically the 4-3-3 is extremely demanding and with a such a short turnaround from game to game it really didn’t seem like an issue in the first 20 minutes or so. But as the game wore on and Napoli began to press it was only Dida, much to our surprise, that kept the two goal lead, which ultimately was lost in the dying minutes of injury time. The problem was not the draw, or when the goals were scored, for me it was Leo’s stubbornness to stick to the formation and not adjust to preserve the win.
As the game wore on exhaustion set in and Milan played deeper on the pitch, and while the Nesta injury may have been a problem sub, the inclusion of Flamini came too late and the striker swap was ultimately mind boggling. In the end if you want to defend for close to 85 minutes than reposition the squad to do so! Evolve the 4-3-3 into the 4-3-2-1 and get men behind the ball. Maybe it is Leo’s naivety or lack of experience but in the end we lived and died by the 4-3-3 and saw the good and bad in a three day span.
So it leaves us with Parma on Saturday and Real Madrid soon thereafter. Does Leo stick with the demanding 4-3-3 or does he shift? If he sticks with it, he will surely need to rotate a squad that is being overworked with Pirlo, Seedorf, and even Dinho seeing extensive minutes nearing the possibility of playing 360 minutes in two weeks. Not really what should be going on for players on the wrong side of 30!! Problem is there are little to no options otherwise and Leo will have to start to get creative and work with youngsters like Strasser, Zigoni, and Di Gennaro (when fit) into the lineup to take some work load off of the old men.