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Can AC Milan Play With A Back Three This Season in a 3-4-2-1?

Stefano Pioli may need to adjust his preferred system for the upcoming season.

AC Milan Training Session Photo by Claudio Villa/AC Milan via Getty Images

This offseason, AC Milan has lost two major components of Stefano Pioli’s system in midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu and Italian international Gianluigi Donnarumma. The Rossoneri moved quickly to replace the young goalkeeper, acquiring Mike Maignan from Lille.

However, Milan’s front office has been unable to find a replacement number ten, leaving a major gap in Pioli’s preferred 4-2-3-1. Real Madrid loanee Brahim Diaz showed flashes of creative ability against lower level competition last season, but the 21-year-old is not yet ready for a starting role.

Despite keeping a vast majority of last year’s regulars, Pioli may need to consider a significant change of formation. One arrangement that could be successful is the 3-4-2-1: an uncommon, attacking-minded system that would enable the Rossoneri to keep their best players on the pitch in familiar positions. This change would be a relatively easy adjustment for the players and would circumvent the Calhanoglu-shaped hole in the middle of the pitch.

Pioli’s most-likely lineup for a 3-4-3

Defenders

Fikayo Tomori, Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjær are the obvious choices for the centre-back trio. All three are physical, imposing players who possess considerable defensive talent. Provided that they can stay on the pitch and avoid injuries, Milan should retain one of the top defenses in the Serie A.

Tomori and Romagnoli, would ideally lineup on the outside as they provide more mobility, while the aerially dominant Kjær would stay central and concentrate on his distribution and organizing the defense.

The biggest worry here is depth, as neither Pierre Kalulu nor Matteo Gabbia would be a viable longterm option should Milan lose one of the starters for an extended period of time. A young, consistent defender similar to Matteo Lovato of Hellas Verona could be an ideal depth option to help make this formation work.

Midfielders

The 3-4-2-1’s midfield is defined by two wing-backs and two central midfielders. Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria would play as the left and right wing-backs, while Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer would take up their usual posts in the central midfield.

To help facilitate play between the offense and defense, Franck Kessie would need to become more involved in the attacking third. The Ivorian, who proved to be Milan’s most valuable player last season, possesses a powerful shot and has the distribution to create more non-penalty goals and assists than he did last season.

Ideally, a typical attack would run through the midfield via Bennacer finding a wing-back in space. As the defender pushed the ball up the field, Bennacer would play deep while Kessie provides support. The forwards would be free to make runs into space and keep possession moving in a vertical direction.

Forwards

Of the three forwards, only the right-most winger is an obvious question mark. The left side would be filled by Ante Rebic, with Rafael Leao as a quality substitute, while the number nine spot would be taken by some combination of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Oliver Giroud, Milan’s big-name offseason acquisition.

Giroud is capable of playing between the lines like a false nine and could potentially fill the space that an attacking midfielder like Calhanoglu would occupy. The French international is also capable of playing high against the backline as a target man with quality hold-up play, similar in style to Ibrahimovic.

The 3-4-2-1 would greatly benefit Rebic, as it lessens his responsibility in the midfield. The Croatian would be able to switch between playing high and wide and drifting inside to his more natural second striker role. Theo Hernandez would also be freed from many of his defensive responsibilities that come with the 4-2-3-1, allowing Rebic a more open role as he drives play on the left wing.

On the right side, Alexis Saelemaekers could continue his role as a decent, functional player in Pioli’s system. He possesses quality technical abilities and provides decent offensive support, but he is not a dynamic threat like Rebic or Leao.

Strengths and Weaknesses

While Olivier Giroud should provide quality minutes either off the bench or as a starter, it is somewhat concerning that Milan’s two primary striker options are a combined 73 years old. The club’s signing of 35-year-old Mario Mandzukic was an unmitigated disaster, so it was interesting to see the club return immediately to an old veteran. Age aside, if Giroud can stay healthy, he could be one of the most underrated signings of the offseason.

The most glaring weakness is this formation’s right wing. Davide Calabria is a talented defender and has shown to have some offensive flair, but neither he nor Salemaekers provides the threatening presence of both Hernandez and Rebic. Milan would do well to sign a speedy, creative winger who can lessen Calabria’s offensive responsibility and lead a diverse, two-sided attack.

The formation also appears to restrict Brahim Diaz’s potential playing time. While the young Spaniard could move into a forward position, he is most comfortable in the absent attacking midfield role. Diaz could take the pitch in place of Bennacer or Kessie, but this change would greatly alter the fundamental playing style of the team, and Sandro Tonali, another young talent, would seem to be a better fit for this system.

One benefit of the 3-4-2-1 is that it presents a difficult matchup against other three-man backlines, pitting an equal number of forwards against the defenders. There is a tradeoff, however. The multitude of strikers leaves the midfield exposed to formations like the 4-2-3-1, which can overload the centre of the pitch, cutting off build-up play and allowing for dangerous counter attacks.

The 3-4-2-1 would allow the Milan to mimic last season’s basic tactics, while simultaneously allowing for a more open, fluid attack and keeping their three best defenders on the pitch. Losing a player the calibre of Calhanoglu means that Stefano Pioli and the rest of the Rossoneri staff need to be ready to innovate to make a legitimate run at the Scudetto.