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Tactics Tuesday: Cracking a Ten-Man Defense

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For the past three matches Milan has been presented with the same tactical deployment from their opponents. The dreaded kryptonite of AC Milan, the ten man defend and counter. How can such a simple game plan give a team of "champions" such trouble? Conventional wisdom says a team with such good players, all capable of possession and passing, should be able to overcome such a simple defensive setup. The problem is not so much the ten-man defense for AC Milan, as it is the venomous counters sprung with pace into empty spaces vacated by slowish players making runs into the attacking third in an attempt break down the defense while exposing their own.

Before I talk about the best way to defend the counter, I want to discuss the way to attack a ten-man defense. Both patience and possession are key to breaking down this defense. It is imperative for the attacking team to maintain possession with the forwards, in our case the three man line, at the edge of the attacking third forcing the opposing team to pressure high and create a bit of space for runners. Once the ball is being moved left to right effectively, and the defense begins to shift their pressure to the ball; runners can now move into the newly made channels for through balls to feet or lofted balls to space. The ideal attacking scenario for Milan would be a pass to Zlatan's feet, whose back is most likely to goal, a switch from right to left or vice-versa and then a quick cross to an on running RB/LB or RM/LM. Now that is the simple recipe for creating space in such a compact defense, and while I am aware that it will never work so simply or easily, it is the foundation of the of pattern of play needed to find success.

The problem with this pattern of play is it requires quick, precise and razor sharp movements from deep positions forcing the defense to scramble and mark the runners; creating space for the attacking players in the process. For the current AC Milan roster these runs are being made by players that are not known for their ball skills or goal scoring prowess. There is little danger for a team to give Rino, Ambro, Flamini, Bonera, or even Antonini the space to make these runs because they will probably not make the killer finish. Now Boateng may be a different story, but until then we are stuck with three defensive minded midfielders and only one Prince. Instead the current problem is the by-product of these attacking runs works in favor of the opponent time and time again...

The moment Milan commit these deep runs into the attacking third, is the same moment the opponent recognizes the opportunity to counter with success. We have seen it time and time again, and done supremely well by Cesena only a week ago. But as teams like Bari, Parma, and Udinese come up on the fixture list it won’t be the last time the team is dismantled on the counter. Sadly, with the current roster there is little to do to solve this problem, but it doesn’t mean Milan has to keep doing the same thing over and over again looking for the same result. The XMAS tree is actually an effective formation in this sense because the team was more compact and stronger through the middle, the polar opposite of the current 4-3-3. Any system that gives numbers back, a compact midfield, and Milan’s own system of counter would be great, but to counter you need pace, and to counter you need a sense of direct play, and neither of those traits represent AC Milan.

As Allegri brings Milan out against Lazio he can most likely continue with the 4-3-3 and the result will continue to be a crapshoot, or he can make the hard change and present Lazio with a more compact countering team, how he does that with the current roster is beyond me, but maybe a 4-3-1-2/4-3-2-1? Or even more intriguing a potential 4-5-1 with Abate? and Boateng? on the wings, allowing Milan to run at the defense and not play so conventionally into the hands of the opponent.