After a tough defeat against Juventus, AC Milan will look to rebound against Torino at home on Saturday. Torino’s head man is Marco Giampaolo, another former Milan coach who was reportedly in line to be fired before managing a win against Genoa earlier in the season. Giampaolo began the season playing his classic 4-3-1-2, but has switched in recent matches to a 5-3-2 and has found limited success with the new formation. Giampaolo’s 3-5-2 is similar to Giuseppe Iachini’s: he utilizes two versatile forwards, an attacking midfielder, a defensive midfielder and two wing-backs.
Much like the last two seasons, Torino’s offensive production begins and ends with its number nine, Andrea Belotti. The Italian striker is one of the best finishers in Serie A and uses his pace and technical ability to exploit opposing backlines. However, Torino has struggled to find a full-time partner for Belotti, despite having solid depth on paper. Simone Zaza is inconsistent but effective when in-form, Simone Verdi has been catastrophically bad over the last three seasons despite two moves over $24 million each, and Amer Gojak has managed just one goal and one assist this season, but has shown potential.
Behind Il Toro’s two strikers there are three central midfielders, all of whom have international experience: Pole Karol Linetty, Venezuelan Tomás Rincón, and Serbian Saša Lukić. Linetty, though he has solid pace and creative skill, is mostly a distributor. He rarely advances too far up the pitch and is able to help defensively. Lukić is Torino’s attacking midfielder and helps facilitate many of Torino’s attacks. The Serbian plays on the right side and often drifts out wide, overloading the right wing of the pitch alongside wing-back Wilfried Singo and whichever striker is playing alongside Belotti. This overload means that Torino ends up attacking down the right much more frequently than the left.
The first key to stopping Torino’s attack is obvious: shut down Andrea Belotti. The star forward roams all over the pitch, playing out wide or dropping into the midfield to allow other attackers to exploit the space in the final third. Simon Kjær will have to stay alert and not let the striker beat him on pace or on the dribble. Whoever plays at right-back, whether Davide Calabria or Diogo Dalot, will need to check their runs to be able to track Belotti and not allow him too much space on the wing.
Secondly, Milan’s defense will have to shut down Torino’s right wing. With Verdi, Zaza, Gojak, Singo and Lukic all possessing legitimate attacking ability, Theo Hernandez and Franck Kessié must be prepared for a defensive battle. Hernandez had a tendency to become too attacking-minded and has shown several times that he is not an elite one-on-one defender. It is critical that Milan’s defensive left does not get beaten by this trio’s pace and attacking prowess.
Torino’s backline has been nothing short of dreadful so far this season. It has allowed 32 goals in just 15 matches, 23 coming through open play. The defense is spearheaded by the Brazilian duo of Bremer and Lyanco, who play centre-back. When playing in the 3-5-2, they are joined on the backline by one either Armando Izzo or Nicolas Nkoulou, with budding star Wilfried Singo and Riccardo Rodriguez at the wing-back positions. Interestingly, Bremer, Lyanco, Izzo and Nkoulou all played significant minutes on last season’s Torino defense that allowed 68 goals. Lorenzo De Silvestri was allowed to leave on a free, but Torino’s front office failed to otherwise upgrade the centre-back position and now La Granata is suffering the consequences.
Torino’s biggest defensive issue has been its pressing and spatial awareness inside the box. Often, runners are lost or poorly marked, giving opposing forwards opportunities to take a shot from inside the box. Torino has allowed 14% of its shots against inside the six-yard box, by far the most in the league.
Watch just about any Torino highlights, and you will see a goal like this one by Lazio. All three of Lazio’s forwards are completely unmarked and have at least a yard of space to pass the ball or to shoot. Bremer and Lyanco both fail to track Vedat Muriqi’s run, and Milenkovic-Savic and Pereira are both uncovered on the right, leading to an easy Lazio goal. Dynamic, technical players who know how to play in between the lines tend to excel against this Torino side because of the space they can exploit.
The spacing issue is largely the fault of Torino’s centre-backs. Lyanco and Bremer are both young, talented individual defenders, but when playing together they often drift too far apart and lose track of diagonal runs. Rincón, another talented defender, is at fault as well. The defensive midfielder rarely drops in to track runs or cover for the wing-backs, leading to large gaps on the backline. Commentators and analysts talk a lot about defensive organization, and this Torino is a prime example of a poorly organized group that does not grasp its responsibilities.
The Rossoneri will be missing at least four starters on Wednesday, including Hakan Calhanoglu, Zlatan, Ismaël Bennacer and Ante Rebic, but the club will still have a significant talent advantage over Torino’s defense. Rafael Leão and Theo Hernandez will be essential to create chances given the inexperience of players like Jens Petter Hauge and Brahim Diaz, who will likely be forced into the starting eleven.
Despite its current position just outside the relegation zone, Torino is much better than its record indicates. Additionally, Milan’s recent history against La Granata (only one win in its last seven league matches) and its injury situation means that this match could be much more difficult for the Rossoneri than it looks on paper. However, Milan’s depth is much-improved this season, and its defense will be at full strength for the third straight match. There will be obstacles, but this should be the beginning of another winning streak for Milan.
Prediction: Milan 2, Torino 1