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Exploring the 4-2-3-1: Should Milan Switch Formations?

It’s never too early to talk formation changes!

AC Milan v Hellas Verona FC - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

It is no secret that Gattuso is most comfortable utilising the 4-3-3. It has served him well last season, bringing stability to a group of players that still needed to understand how to play alongside each other. It was used against Napoli and it worked for about two thirds of the match. But we must note a few simple takeaways from the game:

- Calhanoglu did not play

- Higuain did not score

- Biglia forgot how play

- We conceded three goals

That being said, we should always remember that when discussing formation tactics we must consider (a) the players at our disposal, viz. their strengths, weaknesses, etc, and (b) how feasible a change of formation would be.

Now let’s go into full Occam’s razor mode and see how Gattuso can possibly solve a few of the issues AC Milan faced by adapting a 4-2-3-1 formation. We’ll examine who plays where in this formation, what this formation will mean both in attack and defence for Milan and whether or not we have the players to support such a switch.

4-2-3-1: Who Goes Where?

Up front, Higuain remains the main target man

Calhanoglu was missed against Napoli. Having a player of his attacking calibre at our disposal now means Gennaro Gattuso can use the Turk as a bona fide #10.

Making up part of the attacking press on the wings we have the Giacomo Bonaventura / Fabio Borini option on the left and Suso / Samu Castillejo on the right.

The double pivot in the midfield would consist of Franck Kessie (the regista) and Lucas Biglia / Tiémoué Bakayoko (the CDM).

At the back we have DIego Laxalt / Ricardo Rodriguez and Davide Calabria / Abate as the full backs who would help out the wingers with the CB pair of Musacchio/Caldara and Alessio Romagnoli to round out the defence.

Possible IX

Implications of the 4-2-3-1

Such a formation could add quite a lot to Milan’s attacking threat. Higuain’s biggest problem against Napoli was that he did not get enough balls into the box. Oftentimes he would have to fall deeper in the pitch where he would hold up play, only to be left isolated with too much to do.

Switching to a 4-2-3-1 would make it possible for Higuain to play off Calhanoglu. Provided the opposition plays with two centre backs, either Bonaventura or Suso can flood the attacking spaces from the wings, leaving only a single CB to mark either Higauin or Calhanoglu. In other words, if Higuain is closely marked, Calhanoglu will have more freedom to attack and vice versa.

AC Milan v AC Chievo Verona - Serie A
The Key to Unlock Higuain?

Further down the pitch, expect Kessie and Biglia/Bakayoko to play much deeper as they would be the link between defence and attack. Gattuso loves to build up play from the back so it would not be surprising to see either Romagnoli or Musacchio/Caldara as a distributive CB. In turn, having a CB who plays slightly higher up the pitch would mean that Biglia/Bakayoko would have to cover the defence at times.

Sounds complicated right? Well it sort of is but let me try to make it as simple as possible here. Imagine this is commentary that is taking place in a Milan attack under the 4-2-3-1: Slow build up from the back. Donnarumma passes it to Romagnoli, Romagnoli sends it up to Suso. Suso is under pressure and passes it to Higuain who is being marked closely. But wait, Calhanoglu finds some space and collects the ball. Higuain breaks free, plays a one two with Calhanoglu and GOAAAAALLLL!!!

In theory it makes a lot of sense to play a 4-2-3-1 since you get the most out of the side in attack. But the most important question remains...

Can Milan Play a 4-2-3-1?

The short answer is no. Not right now at least. We just don’t have the players that are strong enough defensively. If Milan are to employ the 4-2-3-1, Biglia/Bakayoko would need to step their game up significantly.

Remember, in this formation Biglia/Bakayoko would have to be the cover for either of the CBs in case of a turnover. Going by form, Biglia isn’t the same player he once was. Against Napoli, the Argentine was woeful, not hustling the opposition nearly enough.

SSC Napoli v AC Milan - Serie A
Is Bakayoko Good Enough?

Then there’s Mr Tiemoue Bakayoko.Gattuso summed the lad up perfectly when after the Napoli game he said, “Bakayoko has to learn how to get the ball.” Gattuso also added that the Chelsea loanee “has defects”. So yeah, as of now, Milan are one CDM short. If only we had someone like a young Italian who came in through our academy and showed raw potential...

Oh Locatelli. Sigh...

Added to that, with Kessie in a less advanced position it would mean less powering runs up the pitch for the Ivorian. The link up play between Kessie and Suso would also not be featured as much as the former would have more playmaking/defensive duties.

Even if Milan takes a chance and Biglia/Bakayoko has the game of their life, Milan still needs to sort out their CB partnership. Until Gattuso decides who he wants to play alongside Romagnoli, the safer option would be to form that solid partnership first, then adjust the midfield. By doing so, it would allow room for errors in the CM, knowing that our CBs have the defence covered.


Ultimately, the 4-2-3-1 will definitely make Milan a better attacking force. The flipside is that the Rossoneri will be much more vulnerable against counter attacks unless some of our players improve their game.

Perhaps a good compromise would be to try the formation against weaker opposition. Maybe we should play it safe against Roma and give the 4-2-3-1 a try against Cagliari instead. Give Bakayoko some easier games and let him form a partnership with Kessie. We already know Higuain and Calhanoglu are quality players and it would be exciting to watch them play together.

Just know that whatever formation Gattuso decides to use, he knows his players better than any of us “keyboard coaches” do.

In Gattuso we trust!