A lot of has been made of late both on this Blog and in Serie A about "Plan Bs." Milan fans seemingly unhappy and a bit jealous, claiming that Milan doesn’t have one, while Juve fans are sitting smug at how efficiently their Plan B is working. Well it boils down to a simple factor for me and it has to do with the players.
If you look down Milan’s roster you see depth in all the wrong places, we have numerous strikers, we even have numerous defenders, but we what we lack seems to always be what we need; versatile midfielders. In order for a Coach to change formations on the fly he needs the sort of players both capable and comfortable of changing roles and responsibilities. Juventus has these types of players in spades, Milan has a few, but their flexibility seems to be borne more out of the fact that they are not excellent at anything, just adequate at a lot of things. Case in point Bonera, Antonini, Urby, and Abate are all versatile; playing in defense or in wide areas, but none can truly be deployed in an area on the pitch to make a real tactical difference outside of their own position. On the other hand Juventus boast the likes of Caceres, Pepe, Lichtensteiner, Paduin, and Estigarribia. All versatile players comfortable in any space or area on the wings, but in the same sense they can be just as vulnerable as they often can be caught out of position if they become over exuberant or uncomfortable in their role if they are asked to defend or attack too much.
To be clear, I am not jealous, not in the least. My experience has shown me that players respond better when they are comfortable in the formation. They think less about what the need to do tactically and more about what they can do technically. This comes with training and rhythm, which is why changing formation on the fly is never a good option. It is also imperative to understand that playing a player comfortable on the wings in different areas is a bit of a gamble, they require specific traits and without them you put the team at a disadvantage. A player like Pepe epitomizes versatility, and Juventus have a few them, but Milan really only have Abate and Urby who could be deployed up and down the sideline, but even then it makes them uncomfortable. With this roster Milan would even struggle to deploy a 4-3-2-1 because that would require additional CAMs, something we really don’t even have. So you begin to see why a Plan B is so difficult to execute. You cannot deploy a striker as a CAM or wing player, and hope for the best, the rigors of the game would destroy them, and in turn the balance of the team. In fact very few Milan players would truly be able to survive out of position for an entire match, fifteen minutes here or there, OK, but never the entire match. Milan’s players are specialists at what they do, hence their success, but in turn their lack of versatility.
For Juventus, they found comfort in playing with 3 at the back because of this versatility, but on the weekend Catania showed a bit of weakness in the formation. Conte decided to deploy the 3-5-2 with a few alternative players, most likely eyeing rest for some work horses. What this lack of continuity did early was give Catania a chance to bring their high energy and tempo into the match to pressure the ball, compress their formation, and break on the counter. The most vulnerable part of a 3-5-2 is the numbers game at the back and Catania showed you can break it a bit with some good pace and attacking the vacant space. This game plan looks eerily similar to what Milan did against Arsenal, coincidence? I think not!
Up to the last match against Juventus, Milan has had great success against teams who deploy three at the back. The common them in those matches has always been the tempo of the first half and attacking with pace. Milan came out slow against Juventus and while they possessed the ball a bit in the midfield early they never broke into the attack. This should change on the weekend and if it does Milan have a bit more success, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Conte goes back to a more traditional four at the back to meet the challenge. It will be an interesting tactical battle to say the least. Back Thursday with a bit more tactics for AC Milan and a preview piece.