AC Milan head to Udine on Sunday to square off with Udinese for a clash of in-form versus out-of-form. The Rossoneri have played well throughout their first five matches, only dropping points to Roma in what was one of the worst refereeing performances in recent memory. Udinese is on the opposite end of the table, losing 4 of 5 while being shut out three times. The Little Zebras should not be overlooked though, as the club’s xGoal difference of +3.1 suggests that it has outperformed its recent results. Luca Gotti’s side runs a defensive 3-5-2 that relies on two forwards and a number 10 for its offensive output, while the remaining seven outfielders provide functional defensive options.
Despite Udinese’s horrific goalscoring record last season, the club boasts three formidable attacking-minded players. Kevin Lasagna, Stefano Okaka and Rodrigo De Paul combined for 68% of Udinese’s goals last season, and the trio is valued at an estimated $45 million.
Lasagna is known for his speed, often playing high against the opposing backline, looking for through-balls, though he can also drift out wide and play on the wing. Okaka, a career journeyman, provides hold-up play and a large, physical presence. However, he lacks the speed of his partner and struggles with finishing, managing to place just 32% of his career shots on target.
De Paul, who was nearly sold to Leeds over the offseason, is far and away Udinese’s most talented and dangerous player. The number 10 is incredibly creative through dribbling and passing, providing 77 key passes last season, good for 6th in Serie A. The midfielder is largely free of defensive responsibilities and is able to roam the pitch, looking to create chances.
De Paul’s positional freedom allows him to combine with players all over the pitch, especially on the right wing where he frequently pushes forward past right winger/wing-back Hidde ter Avest. His constant movement means that his fellow centre-midfielders, typically Tolgay Arslan and Roberto Pereyan, have to remain locked in behind the Argentine international to cover the defense. The wings are supported by ter Avest and Thomas Ouwejan, though both usually remain further back, allowing De Paul or Lasagna to get into position to cross the ball.
The key for Milan to stop Udinese’s lackluster attack is to shut Rodrigo De Paul. Milan’s 4-2-3-1 is ideal for stopping the midfielder, who thrives against three-man backlines. Kessié and Bennacer’s position is crucial, as they should be able to restrict De Paul’s space in between the lines, as well as blocking channels for potential through-balls to Lasagna. At left back, Theo Hernandez will need to play more defensively than usual, as his defensive zone on Udinese’s right wing is where many of the side’s attacking chances come from. 17 of Udinese’s 26 key passes have come from crosses this season, and Hernandez’s positional responsibilities are incredibly important if Milan wants to avoid a shock upset.
Udinese’s defense, which kept the club from being relegated last season, has not been able to replicate its results so far. Mental errors have largely been at fault, and the club’s xGA of 4.7 is well below its actual goals allowed of 9. Crucial mistakes have included leaving Nikola Milenkovic and Andrey Galabinov unmarked on short crosses, a significant deflection on a long-range Hernani shot, and Galabinov running free on goal after all 10 of Udinese’s outfield players were in the box on a last-minute corner kick. While these goals still count, it is not Gotti’s defensive system at fault, but rather individual mistakes and random flukes.
Udinese’s defensive strategy is typical of a 3-5-2, with three centre-backs, two wing-backs and two central midfielders who can operate in box-to-box roles or provide defensive protection ahead of the defenders. The wing-back positions have rotated between ter Avest, Oujewan, Nahuel Molina and Marvin Zeegelaar. To be blunt, none of these players are particularly talented and do not make much of an impact, either on offense or on defense. They play almost as defensive outside midfielders rather than wing-backs, playing deep when Udinese is stuck in its own half, but otherwise the outside defending is left to the centre-backs. Brazilians Rodrigo Becão and Samir typically flank the most central defender. Both are extremely mobile and are quality tacklers, having the range to move wide to protect the flanks from oncoming wingers. This mobility can be dangerous though, as stretching the trio out will create huge gaps on the backline, requiring a midfielder to drop in to help defend the space.
Fiorentina’s third goal on Saturday exploits this weakness out wide. Molina, dropping to defend, stays much too central, allowing Biraghi plenty of time on the ball. The defense is disorganized when he cuts inside and finds Castriovilli, who is also given too much space despite being in the box surrounded by Udinese players. The midfielder makes a great feint and easily curls the ball into the net, confirming La Viola’s victory.
Udinese’s weakest defensive link is central midfielder Arslan, who plays behind De Paul alongside Roberto Pereya. The German is reckless and quite poor at tackling in one-on-one situations, winning just 12.5% of tackles against dribblers, according to fbref.com. Milan should look to press Arslan when he is in possession of the ball, as he is prone to turnovers in the Udinese defensive third. Arlan’s presence can be a detriment to an otherwise solid defensive group.
AC Milan’s 4-2-3-1 has worked very well against 3-5-2 formations, and it matches up even better with Udinese’s roster. Hakan Calhanoglu should have plenty of space to create between the lines, Ante Rebić should be able to run rampant on the left flank, and Milan’s midfield pairing of Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer has the ability to shut down the talented Rodrigo De Paul.
With an offense showing signs of life, Udinese may well be a solid mid-table team this season. However, AC Milan has proven so far that it will not falter against clubs with lesser talent. The Rossoneri will be welcoming back Rebic from injury, while Hakan Calhanoglu, Kessié and Theo Hernandez were all rested during the midweek Europa League fixture against Sparta Prague. After a disappointing result against Roma last week, look for Milan to rebound with a convincing win over a lesser side.
Final: Udinese 1, AC Milan 3