The first real test for the “new” Milan and they failed, quite badly as it happens. We spoke last week of the difference in quality of Siena and Inter, and the champions highlighted that gulf in class. The chasm that exists between the Rossoneri and their city rivals will not be closed this season unless the Nerazzurri’s performance levels drop dramatically, and that just will not happen with José Mourinho in charge.
We have to discount the second half of the match on Saturday if we are to examine Milan properly. With only 10-men on the pitch, and losing by three goals, it became something of a pointless exercise, both teams looking to see out the remainder of the game without expending too much energy. Even with half of the game ignored, the first 45 minutes provide more than enough to work with, and confirmed what most members of the tifosi already knew – that the team is not good enough to contest for the Scudetto in the current set-up. In the build-up to the match, this column highlighted how the 4-3-1-2 would suit Inter best, as their players are used to making this formation work, and they did not disappoint in giving a demonstration of this theory. The interesting point for Milan is that they did not play that badly, certainly not as bad as the score line suggests. They will play worse than they did on Saturday at some point this season, and come away with points. Quite simply, la Beneamata exposed the massive weaknesses in the team and their set-up. It is no coincidence that all three goals in the first half materialised from the left hand side, and it stretches further than Marek Jankulovski.
Let us compare Milan with their city cousins and Juventus, both teams also play 4-3-1-2. The key is, as ever, in the midfield. Leonardo has correctly identified an issue with the left flank – left-back Jankulovski was partly at fault for the first and third goals, and has been struggling defensively for a while now. To counter this, Mathieu Flamini has been given a slot in the team as Massimo Ambrosini is still injured, this is an attempt to give that left side some protection. The problem that has emerged is that Flamini is also responsible for getting forward and helping the attacking trident, unlike Gennaro Gattuso. Therefore, when Jankulovski presses forward, the two players responsible for covering the left side of the field are forced to sprint back once the opposition wins the ball. If you can then move the ball quickly enough, these two individuals will be caught napping, possibly from the short stint of fatigue, and you can gain opportunities on goal. Thiago Motta did just this, cantering past both Flamini and the Czech to score.
Juventus and Inter do not have this problem. It helps that the two clubs have better left-backs, but their midfield is more dynamic. Significantly, they do not employ deep-lying playmakers in front of their defence. Juventus use Felipe Melo, whilst José Mourinho’s man of choice is Esteban Cambiasso – both are defensive midfielders. Dejan Stankovic was in his place on Saturday, but you can afford that luxury when you have a younger, fitter, quicker team around him (as Milan did during the successful 2003-2007 period), and when the player himself is at his peak. Despite this, when the Argentine returns, he will reclaim his position in the starting XI. When Mourinho successfully used this system at Porto, Costinha was the player in front of the defence. The presence of such a defensively minded individual in front of the back line protects against a counter-attack, and offers defensive cover against teams who move the ball quickly.
Andrea Pirlo no longer has a young, fit team around him, especially in Gattuso, his midfield protector. Nor is the player himself at his peak. He may not be a defensive midfielder, but when he was at his best he was still quick enough to offer cover and make tackles. We saw an example of this in the derby, where he tracked Javier Zanetti to the goal line and made the tackle to concede a corner. This covering happened far more often as little as three years ago, but for whatever reason, the frequency of it has dropped. As a result, the Rossoneri can no longer get away with having a player such as Pirlo covering at the back. However, the No.21 is still an invaluable asset to the team, if used in the correct manner. Inter, Juve and even Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea side, all provide the solution to this defensive problem. That is, to switch Pirlo and Flamini’s respective positions, thus ensuring a defensive midfielder is in front of the defence. It is subtle, perhaps too much so for anybody to envisage it having an effect, but one only has to go back to last season to analyse the effects. We mentioned it in the season review Milan club focus at the end of the 2008/09 campaign, but the Italian was injured from September till December at the start of last season, missing 14 consecutive games in the process. Milan did not lose a single one of those 14 games, and won 12 of them. Without a direct replacement for Pirlo in the squad, Ancelotti used either Flamini or Gattuso in front of the defence.
The results were astonishing, and with Leonardo utilising two strikers, there is no reason why this switch cannot have the same effect. The team also benefits from Pirlo’s immense talents further up the pitch, and the full-backs can attack knowing greater security exists behind them. The Brazilian Tactician thinks new full-backs are the solution to the problem. Perhaps in the long term, they are, but right now the answer lies within his squad. It is up to him to discover it.