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Tactics Tuesday: Bypassing the Midfield

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What happens when a possession passing team like AC Milan suddenly bypasses the midfield in the attacking buildup? You get two consecutive draws in winnable matches, disjointed attacking threats and generally poor performances. Now I know injuries play a big part in this problem, with personnel not necessarily conducive to passing, but frankly I am tired of the excuses and it’s time to look at what can be done to resolve the issue before we this team drops anymore points and really blows this title race wide open.

Usually the simplest way to address issues with passing is to raise the percentage level of passes, high percentage passes typically find their target, are shorter in distance and played on the ground. Low percentage passes exceed 20 meters, are played in the air, and often sometimes require a good bit of touch from the receiver. High percentage passing is then directly related to team shape and compactness. Milan has done a fine job all season long of keeping the formation narrow through the midfield and giving defenders, as well as midfielders, a fair amount of simple passing targets to build the attack and keep possession. The issue the past few weeks however has not been one of width, but more of depth as the space between the defense, midfield, and attack has been stretched and the passing game has suffered.

The Lazio match was especially interesting because of the deployment of Tiago Silva in the midfield. While Silva did admirably well, his defensive tendency limit his vision in the passing game and often times he and his midfield teammates would win the ball and were immediately closed down by the likes of Hernanes, Ledesma, and Brocchi. This negated an opportunity to turn and face goal and forced back passes back to Oddo, Antonini, Yepes, and Bonera/Legro/Sokratis. The defenders would then hoof it forward because without the touch and intelligence of Nesta and Silva in the back line the passing never built from the back. Couple with the missing pace on the ball of Abate and suddenly you have a team typically capable of passing opposition to death looking very one dimensional and without any ideas on how to pass the ball intelligently in the midfield.

The Genoa match was no different and Ballardini did well to replicate Reja’s midweek tactics, but partial blame has to go to Allegri for choosing the wrong personnel from the outset and making it hard to exploit Genoa’s game plan. The passing was once again one dimensional as the midfield was often forced to pass back or lateral instead of into the attack to start building towards goal with numbers. The goal was a very slick display of passing but more or less a product of another long ball to Zlatan and knocked down into the box for a finish. A well worked goal, but a worrying pattern of play from a team who just a few weeks ago was passing opponents into the ground and attacking with clinical precision. The long balls are increasingly frustrating because outside of Zlatan the attacking trident, whoever it may be, is not tall or physical. Even if Zlatan can get a flick or a knock down Pato, Cassano, and Robinho have trouble winning the ball from hulking CB’s. This simply isn’t their game, and while Robinho has done admirably in that role, he often gets tossed around. Not to mention this type of play requires one of the two remaining attackers to orbit Zlatan at all times, this is has both positives and negatives as it frustrates teams that use zonal marking, but also makes it easier for teams to locate and defend if the attackers are not interchanging and popping up in all areas of the attacking third.

the killer passFinding a more compact shape will be simple, but it will start with the attackers coming back and checking to the midfield. Something that Zlatan has not done effectively in the past three or four matches maybe due to fatigue, and Pato has not done in three years. Robinho has been the most effective, but it is becoming more and more evident that his style of play is not instinctual like that of CAM, Cassano may be the better choice in the hole behind Robinho and Zlatan, but it is up to Allegri to make that happen. With the attackers coming closer to the midfield and the defense able to step up as well the space between the will shrink and passes will become simpler. If the defense clogs that space, which is very normal to see in Italy than the simplest of all passing patterns, short-short-long, can be employed to create chances on goal. There is no reason why this effective style of possesion passing which the team did so well before the winter break can't be used again to the same effectiveness to return the team to form, but most importantly keep things simple as new players get integrated and the team returns to full fitness.