Milan’s 2-2 draw with Palermo in their Coppa Italia semi-final first leg on Wednesday night was a rather unwelcome return of the early season version of the Rossoneri. Despite controlling the vast majority of the game, there was the old vulnerability defensively and an alarming susceptibility to the counter-attack that characterised Massimiliano Allegri’s first few months in charge.
It is perhaps no coincidence the game also saw the return of Andrea Pirlo to the role in front of the defence, one he has made his own over the years, but also one Milan no longer seem able to sustain. Indeed, Allegri practically admitted as much earlier in the campaign, when he was scrambling around attempting to bring some balance to Milan’s midfield. Part of the solution was to remove the work-shy Ronaldinho, but the other part was to stick Massimo Ambrosini in front of the defence instead.
This role change only came about with the rather extreme reaction of deploying three defensive midfielders. Nevertheless, Allegri was satisfied with what he had seen, stating Ambrosini gave better protection to the defence than Pirlo, which was no real surprise considering the wildly different characteristics of the two players.
With his usual role taken, Pirlo was simply moved to the left side of the central midfield trio, and despite struggling at first against Brescia (not helped by the apparent ‘relay’ occurring between him and Ambrosini, where both switched roles throughout the match) he did produce a fine performance against Bologna, which suggested he could quite easily adapt to something different.
Pirlo’s subsequent injury problems, although preventing further examination of him in a different role, have actually removed a potential selection headache for the Coach. Massimo Ambrosini, until he got injured, was untouchable in front of the defence, with Mark van Bommel continuing to provide a wall in the midfield in the No.23’s absence. Allegri has even managed to continue the use of an attacking player on the left side of the midfield three by deploying a mixture of Alexander Merkel, Clarence Seedorf and Kevin-Prince Boateng, such was the success of the shielding presence of Ambrosini or Van Bommel.
That success makes it all the more strange Pirlo reprised his old role upon his return from injury, as opposed to the different position he had before his lengthy lay-off. Although Milan had 60% possession against Palermo, doubtless helped by his presence, the Rosanero at times looked the more threatening team.
They were able to exploit Pirlo and his defensive shortcomings – Mauricio Pinilla parked himself almost perfectly in the centre of Milan’s half to play his pass through to assist Javier Pastore’s goal. Abel Hernández was able to pick the ball up in similar positions, turn, and play forward passes on at least two separate occasions. And Josip Iličić took advantage of the space in the centre and lack of pressure on the ball by starting the move which led to Hernández’ goal – and this was during the very brief moment when Clarence Seedorf was in Pirlo’s position.
In short, one of the army of defensive midfielders in the squad was perhaps better suited to taking over from van Bommel for the night, considering how successful it has proved to be. The others may not have the Dutchman’s effective use of the ball (or Ambrosini’s for that matter), but they can replicate to some degree the defensive effort Pirlo cannot. This was a lesson Allegri appeared to have learned way back in November, perhaps now it will finally sink in.