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Tactics Thursday: Goals from the Midfield

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Incredible that even after an exciting two weeks the man in charge, Max Allegri, continues to get questioned by fans and pundits. A classic comeback against Udinese, a thrashing of Arsenal, the domination of Cesena and a Juventus result still up for debate, and all this despite the lengthy injury list, suspensions, and lack of form and fatigue from many of the starting eleven. So if for some reason you still can't get behind him, I am going to give you another.

It all started in the summer; Allegri had a vision for Milan's midfield and attack. The first step was making the controversial move to not resign Andrea Pirlo, not a Club Legend per se in the ilk of Maldini, but a great player who enjoyed many a successful moment in the Milan shirt. Allegri decided that instead of having Pirlo in the midfield as a focal playmaker, he preferred to change the player type entirely in his three man midfield. By moving away from Pirlo, Allegri thought it would give the opponent less to key in on, and give him greater flexibility in deploying his tactical game plan. With Pirlo gone, Allegri made two midfield moves that were accepted with minimal fanfare, in purchasing Nocerino in the summer and Muntari in January. Box to box midfielders known for their tempo and work ethic more than their technical and tactical qualities, but Allegri says no worries. Gone is the static Pirlo reference point, and in its place two hard running midfielders and a holding defensive presence.

This midfield choice now ties directly into the attack. Without a true creative central attacking midfielder on the roster, Allegri had to adapt this role as well. The CAM for Allegri is not a classic number ten, as many fans know it, but instead a laterally moving force that pressures the ball and links the holding player to the attack. Not the most glamorous or traditional of positions, but one of incredible importance to the attacking engine that is AC Milan, the most prolific goal scoring team in Serie A mind you. Bossed by Kevin Prince Boateng, Urby Emanuelson has also grown into the role of recent and Alexander Merkel seems to be the heir apparent as well, meaning Milan and Allegri are well manned in this hybrid position despite fan's beliefs that we still need a true CAM.

The final piece of this puzzle is the strikers. With three hard charging midfielders able to make runs into the box and do a bit of defensive dirty work, it requires a bit of adaptation and evolution of the strikers. We saw it last year in Cassano and Robinho, and it has been completely reborn in Ibrahimovic this season. No longer are the strikers simply target men, or off the shoulder strikers, they are complete players and when on form just as effective off the ball as they are on it. The strikers no longer make their runs towards goal, but instead in a checking fashion, towards the midfielders, forcing defenders to recognize and potentially mark or leave free; in turn creating space for midfielders to burst into and take chances on goal. No surprise then that the midfielder with most minutes, Antonio Nocerino, has 8 goals with Prince not too far behind and Muntari and Urby getting in on the action as well. With Muntari making an almost immediate impact.

By using the strikers as checking players it opens up the space and makes the most out of their quick and decisive touch. They can lay off or combine, but most importantly continue their runs to goal to clean up any rebounds or missed chances. When it works effectively, it is a defender's nightmare. Who do they mark? Who tracks the midfielders, and where does the opposing holding midfielder go? Do they cover the strikers? It creates a laundry list of questions for the opposing Coach to answer, if he doesn't? Devastatingly successful results for Milan as evidenced against Arsenal, Palermo, and a host of other teams. Sure it isn't always successful against team who defend deep with numbers, simply because of a lack of space, but if deployed a bit differently it can work then as well, but that is a topic for another day.

Simply put, Milan's goals from the midfield are not a serendipitous occurrence. They are a carefully calculated attacking phase game plan from a great up and coming tactician. I would expect in the future we will continue to see the evolution of Milan’s play and players away from traditional strikers like Pato and specialized midfielders like Pirlo, and into an era of versatile midfielders, and complete strikers to continue this game plan working effectively. So when you question player purchase, substitutions and lineups, stop for a moment and think about the “game plan.” Think about what is making this team successful and how, and your questions may be answered easier than you think. Why didn’t we keep Pirlo? Why doesn’t Pato fit? What does this team see in Muntari? All questions we have seen numerous times in the comments, and all of them answered relatively simply by Allegri’s new tactical attack.