Better late than never on this tactics post I guess…
We have had some pretty good discussions this summer regarding the need for “creativity” in Milan’s midfield, and I while I can understand the need to have a player with some vision, I don’t believe it is as imperative a need as some have made it out to be. It certainly is not the key to winning the Champions League, and in some respects may even be a detriment.
Allegri’s system was built upon the strength and grit of the three man bull dog midfield. With this setup he is able to play three strikers, even utilizing Robinho to some success in the CAM role. When he employed a grittier presence in KPB he was able to employ a more playmaking role at the LM spot, this was effective because it made it hard for opponents to key into that player in such a strange location on the pitch. What Allegri really needs and craves is a player with a sense of balance who can defend and work off the ball, but also have comfort on it. So while creativity is certainly a trait to this role, it is not the end all.
Against Inter, it was evident in the first half that when Rino or Van Bommel won the ball in the midfield there was little space for them to turn and pass, but also challenging to find Seedorf to feet. This was due to the fact that Gasperini had clogged the midfield, but also a byproduct of playing square passes in the midfield. For those that don’t know, a square ball in the midfield is suicidal because it is easy to intercept and even easier to read. When Gasperini loosened the midfield and moved the extra body into defense, he opened up space for Seedorf, but also allowed KPB and the strikers some room to check back to the ball. It was not so much a lack of creativity that burdened Milan on this day, but a lack of space. In football space equals time, and time allows anyone to be creative because they can pick up their heads and spot a proper pass. So the question becomes how do we create space in the midfield, and is creativity really the answer?
Creativity would help to an extent, but when a team relies on a number 10 to create plays, it tells the opponent who to mark and how to mark them. By employing that creative player and giving him the burden of dictating the attack it opens the door for the opponent to double team and mark that player of the game, rendering Milan’s attack useless. So why not have players capable of smart short passing and allowing the strikers more freedom to roam, less responsibility to defend, and more time with the ball at their feet closer to goal? It makes logical sense because losing the ball closer to the opponents’ goal is always safer, and then it unleashes the bulldogs to win the ball back higher up the pitch. So now that we can cope without creativity, and cope well, because of the likes of Pato, Cassano, Zlatan, and Robinho, how do you create space?
Possession is always the sure fire way to create space, and while some see a back pass for possession as counter intuitive, it is the best way to tire out an over exuberant pressuring opponent. By passing the ball back it forces pressure on the ball and disjointing of the compact midfield, creating space in the midfield and allowing some time to get the ball in more advanced positions. There is no need for a player like Pastore, Fabergas, Ganso or Ozil in Allegri’s CAM role because it disrupts the balance, and not to beat a dead horse here but when Zlatan, Pato, and Robinho all have 14 goals apiece, wouldn’t you rather the ball at their feet, than a CAM putzing around at 20 meters away from goal??
So if we don’t need a true #10, what do we need? Simple, well balanced midfielders capable of a pressuring the ball and smart short passes, players in the mold of Asamoah, Essien, but also more attainable targets, Italian targets, like Aquilani, Montolivo, and Poli. It is these traits that will benefit Allegri’s Milan most. Watching Aquilani and Montolivo operate against Spain was a testament to their willingness to work and their ability to make the smart passes for players like Cassano to exploit the defense. Simply put Allegri proved he didn’t need Pirlo’s raking 20 meter passes, not with the firepower of his strikers, it was a luxury that at times exposed the defense. Instead he needs players capable of possession, to read the game and get the ball to where it matters most, closer to the opponents goal. This doesn't always mean a pin-point through ball or a 30 meter lob, sometimes the quickest way to goal is a few short combinations with the ball on the ground at pace. For those who have played the game, watching an opponent knock the ball around while you chase it is simply infuriating!
So while creativity can take you somewhere, it is not the end all and key ingredient to success. In fact it could be a hindrance just the same. I like what Allegri’s doing here, I admire his tactical balance and player selection, so why not continue to give him the tools he needs most? Today's Milan is tough, resilient, but more importantly dynamic, and difficult for an opponent to mark and read. At any time you can be beat by a Zlatan miracle, a Pato run, or a Cassano combination. I rather this jack in the box attack, then one with a set rhythm through a creative player, I like having options, and right now Milan has a few.