- Donnarumma / 11. Borini, 19. Bonucci, 17. Zapata, 68. Rodriguez / 79. Kessie, 21. Biglia, 5. Bonaventura / 8. Suso, 63. Cutrone, 10. Calhanoglu
- Sorrentino / 29. Cacciatore, 14. Bani, 40. Tomovic, 2. Jaroszynski / 27. Depaoli, 19. Castro, 8. Radovanovic, 17. Giaccherini / 9. Stepinski, 45. Inglese
After getting knocked out by Arsenal in the Europa League, Milan have to focus on the league to enter the Champions League next season. They fielded the default 4-3-3. Fabio Borini and Cristian Zapata replaced Davide Calabria and Alessio Romagnoli.
Chievo needed to stop bleeding. They have been poor and won only once in the last 14 games. They dropped their diamond formation and opted for a classic 4-4-2 with Emanuele Giaccherini and Fabio Depaoli as the wide midfielders
Milan in control
Milan dominated for the opening period. Chievo sat deep and looked to counter-attack, so Milan controlled the possession. They relied on Suso to create chances. Chievo could not contain him. The Spaniard’s technique was too good for Jaroszynski. In the early season, Suso often ball-hogged, and the defenders could crowd him. He needed to use multiple dribbles to free himself from the defenders and delayed the attack. Gennaro Gattuso has since fixed this problem with precise players’ movement and positioning. His players didn’t simply pass him the ball and let him dribble past multiple defenders. When they found him on the flank, his teammates would time their overlapping run to support Suso. Borini or Franck Kessie would overlap on the flank. If Jaroszynski followed the runner, Suso would be 1 vs. 1 against Mattia Bani. If Jaroszynski closed him down, Borini and Kessie would have the freedom to surge to the byline and cross:
That area in the outside channel (between the center back and the fullback) between the lines is a key to Milan’s offensive scheme. You always see Kessie, and sometimes Cutrone, occupying that position. Once there, the defenders need to mark him. If a fullback does that, Suso will have one fewer defender to deal with when he receives the ball on the sideline. If a center back comes out to engage Kessie, he leaves a gap in the defense that Milan’s players can exploit:
Chievo couldn’t defend these plays. Ivan Radovanovic and Lucas Castro didn’t block the passing lane toward Kessie or Suso. Jaroszynski and Giaccherini also didn’t close out Milan’s players fast enough. Even if they did, Suso’s technique was too good and often got past multiple markers.
Chievo stayed deep and compact, and Milan often needed to stretch them using the switching pass between the flanks. When Milan built up on the right flank, Calhanoglu would move all the way to that side to try to overload Chievo’s defense. They didn’t always succeed, but Calhanoglu’s movement would drag the defense toward the ball-close side and create space on the left flank. Giacomo Bonaventura and Ricardo Rodriguez enjoyed plenty of freedom down that channel.
Chievo struggled not only in defense but in offense too. After they intercepted the ball, they couldn’t transition into the offensive phase. Milan’s players were quick to attack the loose ball after the lost the possession. Gattuso’s side had had the game in control until after their first goal.
Chievo’s tactical advantage exposed Milan’s problem
Milan’s tempo dropped after the opening goal and allowed Chievo to get back into the game.
Chievo’s 4-4-2 had a tactical advantage over Milan’s 4-3-3 on the flank; the wide midfielder and the fullback could create a 2 vs. 1 leverage against Milan’s fullback. Suso and Calhanoglu needed to support their teammates, but they rarely did. Even without a numerical advantage, Milan’s defense on the right flank was weak because Borini wasn’t a natural defender:
Milan’s defense has improved because of their work in the midfield. When defending in a 4-5-1, one of Kessie or Bonaventura will move out of the midfield to press the opponent’s ball handler. The movements must be coordinated between players so that their teammates can cover them. Their midfield’s defense was brilliant when they visited Roma last week.
But Milan midfielders were awful in defense in this game. They did not cover the fullbacks when they moved out to engage Chievo’s wingers. Therefore, Chievo’s crosses could reach the center and put Milan’s center backs under enormous pressure:
Milan couldn’t generate genuine chance through build-up. But their aggressiveness on the loose ball bailed them out, and they equalized. With a stagnant offense, Gattuso gambled to try to win the game. He introduced Andre Silva and changed Milan to a 3-5-2 with Suso and Calhanoglu as the wingbacks.
The extra forward provided more pass targets. Milan now found more vertical passing lanes, and they could advance the ball in a faster and more direct way. The two strikers also presented more opportunities for Milan to capitalize the crosses Suso created. It was a risky approach because they now played two forwards as wingbacks and their defense on the flank worsened.
But the change didn’t work as planned. Suso was able to create many crosses because Borini always supported him and diffused the opponent’s defensive focus. Once switched to 3-5-2, Suso had limited support and Jaroszynski and Giaccherini could focus on him. Milan played faster, but they also sent less dangerous crosses. Chievo couldn’t take advantage of Milan’s weakness on the flank because they didn’t have a fast winger. Had Rolando Maran introduced Valter Birsa during that period, Chievo might have been able to score. Silva did score the go-ahead goal, but it was more of a fortunate incidence than a Gattuso’s masterpiece.
Milan need to fix their midfield’s defense problem if they want to win the Champions League qualification spot. Their margin of error is small with five points away from the fourth place, and they need to act fast.