FC Crotone’s return to Serie A play was not ideal, with the recently-promoted club falling 1-4 in the Luigi Ferraris Stadium against CFC Genoa. Manager Giovanni Stroppa deployed a defensive 3-5-2 in the match, attempting to play a direct, counter-attacking style of football. On the opposite end of the spectrum, AC Milan started the season strong, dominating Bologna on its way to a 2-0 victory. The Rossoneri will be without star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who tested positive for the coronavirus, but the club has plenty of offensive firepower and should be able to handle whatever Crotone throws their way.
Crotone’s backline played incredibly conservatively against Genoa and still managed to allow 4 goals. The club’s three-back formation is relatively standard, using three centre-backs and two wing-backs who run the outside channels of the pitch. When Crotone is out of possession, its formation compacts into two well-defined lines that defend deep in the defensive third of the pitch. The two wing-backs drop alongside the centre-backs, while the three central midfielders hold a tight, horizontal line 5-10 yards in front of the defense.
Despite the forward pressing Genoa here, this deep and compact formation typically will allow the team in possession plenty of time on the ball. In last Sunday’s match, Genoan midfielders often had ample time and space to find an outlet pass or to work in a cross. Against a dynamic attack like Milan’s, Crotone’s defensive structure will likely be even more conservative, meaning the Rossoneri should dominate possession and the flow of the game.
Genoa’s offensive outburst exposed many flaws in Crotone’s system that Milan should be able to exploit, primarily its weakness to diagonal runs. Genoa, with two strikers pressing high against the back three, was able to play several through-balls into space, a huge problem for Crotone’s slow central defenders. Though he just exited quarantine, the faster Rafael Leão could replace Ibrahimovic on Sunday, the Portuguese forward should stay high and look to make runs into space behind the backline. Ante Rebić could play as a second forward as well, giving Milan two swift options at the top of the formation. Staying high is key here, as it forces the centre backs to stay close to the forwards, which makes the forwards’ job of running into space easier.
Above is a snapshot of Crotone’s defense dealing with a fast break. In this scenario, the centre backs remain bizarrely pressed together, allowing the opposition yards of space on the wings. Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Rebić are particularly adept at creating chances on counter attacks similar to this; the pair often combine on the left side, allowing the Croatian international to look to shoot from inside the box. The pace of Milan’s midfield should allow them to spark several fast breaks, giving the duo opportunities to expose Crotone’s backline when it is at its weakest.
Missing Zlatan and having a midweek Europa League game are not valid excuses for Milan’s offense. The Rossoneri’s starting 11 is valued at around $300 million, according to Transfermarkt, while Crotone’s entire squad is valued at just $36 million. Milan should be able to create and convert several opportunities in this match, so look for Çalhanoğlu and Rebić to continue their impressive run of form.
Offensively, Crotone is somewhat competent, employing a direct, counter-attacking style of play. Emmanuel Rivière and Simy will start as their side’s striking duo, while Junior Messias will slot in as a creative central midfielder who can play anywhere on the pitch. Most of Crotone’s attacks run through Simy at some point, as the forward is a textbook hold-up player who often plays several yards in front of the opposing backline. The Nigerian’s modus operandi is maintaining possession of the ball and finding Messias, who then looks to play through-balls to Rivière and the wing-backs. Rivière, a Martinique player with ample experience in Ligue 1, is a more creative option than his counterpart. The 30-year old looks to create space and shoot, accounting for 2 of his side’s 3 shots on target against Genoa.
On the wings, full-backs Salvatore Molina and Antonio Mazzotta act as wide midfielders, looking to play in crosses to the 6’6” Simy. They frequently combine with the central midfielders, who play in fluid positions on offense. Typically two of the three will push forward, while one, usually Luca Cigarini, stays deep, covering the backline. Though the wing backs often join the attack, they lack certain freedoms due to their extensive defensive responsibilities. This means that Crotone usually focuses play through the centre of the pitch, while Molina and Mazzotta occasionally cross in long balls from well outside the box.
Even without captain Alessio Romagnoli, Milan’s defense should be well-equipped to handle Crotone on Sunday. Davide Calabria played one of the best games of his career against Bologna, and Matteo Gabbia proved that he can be a solid backup option at centre-back. Simone Kjær’s aerial abilities will help neutralize the threat of Simy on crosses, and the Danish defender should have no problem defending one-on-one against Rivière or Messias when they look to dribble the backline. The midfield pairing of Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer can shut down Crotone’s central-minded attacking, forcing the club to use the weaker attacking options of Molina and Mazzotta on the wing. Overall, Milan matches up well with Crotone, and it should be able to dominate defensively and force a second consecutive shut out.
The Rossoneri’s worst-case scenario for Sunday is to give up an early goal, allowing the home side to park the bus for the remainder of the match. That said, this is not a side that will strike fear into the hearts of Serie A clubs this year, and Milan should be big winners in Matchday Two. There is simply too big of a talent gap, and it’s not encouraging that Crotone has not brought in a significant transfer other than defensive midfielder Eduardo Henrique. Milan has earned over 2.5 points per match since the break last season, and Stefano Pioli’s team will continue to roll in style.
Prediction: FC Crotone 0, AC Milan 3