This season, I’m going to try and take a tactical look at each of Milan’s upcoming opponents, and give you my take on what to expect. It may get pretty technical at times, so definitely reach out through the comments or on Twitter if anything doesn’t make sense!
Also, for now, I’m just going to be taking a look at defensive and attacking styles of play, so just open play — set pieces alone deserve as much time as I’m spending on this so I don’t want to shortchange that, but I may add some in in the future.
The Rossoneri are due to open the season this weekend against the black and white of Udinese. Le Zebrette were not particularly impressive last season, finishing 12th with a -14 goal differential and, perhaps unsurprisingly, changed managers a total of three times. Eventually, they landed on Igor Tudor as the man to solidify their ship last season and lead them into this new one.
Let’s take a look at what we can expect from Udinese this weekend.
What’s their defensive style?
I subscribe to the idea that you can learn more from a team’s defensive shape than most anything else, so we’re going to start there.
Tudor likes to employ a pretty standard 3-5-2 formation for Udinese, which defaults into a 5-3-2 shape in defense with the wingbacks falling back to form what should be a pretty wide backline with the centerbacks.
But as we’ll see, that... is not always what happens. Watching Udinese, it’s very obvious that they know what they should be doing, that just isn’t always what happens.
They defend with two blocks, a low 5-3 block and a higher 2.
Nothing too interesting here. They employ a bit of a high press as soon as they lose possession or when the ball is cycled back to the goalkeeper, but once possession is established the plan is to get into shape and absorb space.
What’s noteworthy, for our purposes, is something sort of relevant in the above picture — they aren’t great at maintaining their shape. Check out that backline — the right wingback is almost directly in the center of the pitch, with no one on the right side to provide any sort of cover whatsoever. This comes from that lack of organization — once the ball is turned over, the team tends to run around like a chicken with their head cut off and it takes a bit of time for them to gain their shape. This could hopefully be an advantage for Milan.
We’ll come back to this.
How do they attack?
Note: I’m not sure that I’ll be able to provide video for these, so this is the part where you’re going to have to trust me — that said, I won’t be writing about anything on which I haven’t watched the video, so give me a shout with any confusion on that.
In attack, the shape reflects more of the standard 3-5-2 — the wingbacks push up to provide spacial width and hopefully pull opposing midfields out wide.
Udinese have centerbacks that are very comfortable on the ball, and make use of them, going back to cycle around the backline often as they look for space to open up. The preferred method of attacking is through the middle, but this rarely happens — outside of Rodrigo De Paul, the Udinese midfield is severely lacking in players with the skill to break through a solid defense.
As a result, the most common plan of attack is over the top, with the centerbacks often lobbing passes to a running wingback right in the middle of the opposition’s defensive block. This puts the wingbacks with possession into the wide areas of the attacking third, and the decisions aren’t as creative as you’d hope — looking at the last two games of last season, you can see that most shots didn’t exactly come from in front of goal, and when they did they were from outside of the box.
This is a result of what’s, in my opinion, essentially the Italian-equivalent of putting your head down and running to the corner. They don’t really get to the corner, but the ball makes its way there either across the box to the other side or to a trailer who’s standing near-side but outside of the box, and an ineffective shot is taken.
The gist is that Udinese tend to take what they can get — they don’t have the skill in the midfield to play through the middle, so they keep it wide and fire the ball as far upfield as they can get. When it finds someone, their options are slim and as a result they don’t exactly take high-danger shots.
So what do I watch for?
Milan’s fullbacks in the defensive third.
As mentioned, the vast majority of Udinese’s chances go through the wide spaces. The middle of the pitch is no man’s land for them - they don’t have a variety of midfielders that are strong on the ball, and especially given Milan’s compact defensive midfield, that won’t be an option for Udinese’s attack.
Look for Udinese to use their wide wingbacks to attack along the touchlines, going up against Davide Calabria and Ricardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez is very defensive solidly — he isn’t quite a blackhole in his own end, but I wouldn’t be expecting any big chances to come from his side.
But, while I love him, Calabria is considerably less solid in the defensive third — as seen a few times throughout preseason, Calabria has yet to become truly comfortable defending, and gets turned around quite often. This may not be as big of a problem against a team like Udinese — their wingbacks don’t take on their man as much as much as try to get the ball to the other side — but I would expect to see Udinese try and attack Milan’s right side.
Udinese’s defensive solidarity through the middle of the pitch.
We’ve established Udinese’s defensive philosophy — pull the wingbacks back, pack the low block and don’t give up the big chances. But take a look at that still up in the defensive section more time.
Look how far left the entire low block is — they pretty much don’t have a defender on the right side of the pitch. This is a result of the “chicken with its head cut off” reference I made earlier, where once Udinese give up possession of the football, it takes them a bit to settle in defensively. Sometimes that manifests as the entire low block shifting over to the left, sometimes it really is just players running around not looking like they know what to do.
The first opportunity here obviously comes from those former issues — watch for Udinese to commit too far one way, the switch will be available with pretty much an insane amount of space on the opposite side.
The other opportunity is the more interesting one, in my opinion. We know from preseason that Marco Giampaolo will be implementing what looks to be a pretty active press for his Milan side this year — given Udinese’s general lack of spacial awareness immediately after giving the ball away, look for Milan to exploit this with quick counterattacks originating both in their own third and in the attacking third.
In a word - Suso.
The biggest question coming into this season is likely Suso. Rumors have been swirling for weeks about whether he will be sold, and it seems Giampaolo has changed his mind three or four times as to whether or not he will work as the trequartista in the midfield diamond.
Given that Milan have not bought another 10 to play in that role, Suso’s creative ability at the tip will be imperative for Milan in possession. For Giampaolo, that player is absolutely crucial in both creating and exploiting space, with attacking chances flowing through him.
Udinese like to clog the middle once they’ve gotten into their defensive formation — most of the defenders themselves are low, but the 5-man backfield provides enough cover for the middle centerback to step forward and provide additional pressure in the middle of the field if need be. If Milan are going to succeed in attack (and with possession), Suso will need to find a way to avoid that pressure and keep the ball moving to one of his release valves.
Sound off in the comments below! How do you think Milan fair against Udinese?