1. Buffon / 7. Cuadrado, 15. Barzagli, 4. Benatia, 22. Asamoah / 6. Khedira, 5. Pjanic, 14. Matuidi / 10. Dybala, 17. Mandzukic, 11. Costa
99. Donnarumma / 2. Calabria, 19. Bonucci, 13. Romagnoli, 68. Rodriguez / 79. Kessie, 73. Locatelli, 5. Bonaventura / 8. Suso, 63. Cutrone, 10. Calhanoglu
Both teams shut down each other in the first half. As the game opened in the second half, Juventus’ superior quality emerged and killed off Milan when they found the chances.
Juventus shut down Milan’s build-up
Milan have always been competitive under Gennaro Gattuso. He has found the optimal tactic for them: Milan use Leonardo Bonucci’s, Lucas Biglia’s, and Alessio Romagnoli’s (an underrated passer) passing range to find Suso / Hakan Calhanoglu in the midfield. Davide Calabria / Ricardo Rodriguez or Franck Kessie / Giacomo Bonaventura will exchange position with the winger. Suso and Calhanoglu can dribble and turn inside to initiate the penetration, and everyone else plays off them (Bonaventura can do the same if he swaps position with Calhanoglu).
But Milan have a weakness; they only have one way to attack. Juventus found it from their last match-up a few weeks ago. Juventus started in a 4-3-3 but defended in a 4-4-2. In the first half, they pressed high and closed down Bonucci and Romagnoli during the build-up. Massimiliano Allegri worried about Bonucci’s passing range and used Mario Mandzukic, who is a better defensive presence than Paulo Dybala, to pressure Bonucci. Miralem Pjanic also pushed high to mark Manuel Locatelli. Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi stayed behind to protect the defense and guarded Bonaventura and Kessie. Juventus closed down every Milan player except their fullbacks:
Milan couldn’t find Suso or Calhanoglu in the midfield. They had to pass to Calabria and Rodriguez in the defensive third during the build-up. The fullback couldn’t move into the attacking position because he would need to dribble the ball all the way to the final third. He could pass to Suso or Calhanoglu, but he wasn’t able to move up and support the attack. They didn’t find a chance to position exchange, and Juventus’ players would close out Suso or Calhanoglu as soon as they received the ball. Milan didn’t manage to overload or confuse Juventus’ defenders. They struggled to create any meaningful opportunity from the build-up in the first half.
Juventus couldn’t break Milan
Milan couldn’t attack, but neither did Juventus. Milan contended to sit deep and held a low confrontation line. They have defended in a 4-5-1 this season, with Bonaventura or Kessie moving out to close out the opponent’s entry passer. Milan played more conservative than usual; the central midfielders rarely moved out to confront Juventus’ entry passer, usually Pjanic. Dybala had hurt Milan many times before. They aimed to minimize the space between the lines and prevented La Joya from attacking that area. Juventus had a hard time to find their attackers in the center:
Milan didn’t want to pressure Juventus during the build-up. Juventus was able to control the possession, and their players could transition into the preferred positions. Juventus attacked in a 3-5-2 / 3-5-1-1; Kwadwo Asamoah dropped on the same line as the center backs to form a three-man back line. Juan Cuadrado and Douglas Costa played the wingbacks. Juventus couldn’t attack the center, so they kept circulate the ball between the flanks.
Allegri might have predicted that Milan would sit deep to close up shop, and he made a surprising move to start Mandzukic ahead of Gonzalo Higuain. He wanted Juventus to stretch Milan’s defense and attack before Milan’s players could move into the defensive positions. Either they trapped Gattuso’s men in the transition, or they needed to play faster and more direct. Juventus rarely press to regain the possession, so they needed to rely on the long ball to bypass Milan’s midfield defense. They had to start Mandzukic; Bonucci and Romagnoli would have physically dominated Higuain. Juventus needed a strong target man to receive those long balls.
Juventus struggled to operate in the space between the lines because of Milan’s deep defense. They could only attack that area through the build-up when Mandzukic managed to direct Pjanic’s pass to Dybala. The Croatian also went close to score when he connected Cuadrado’s cross with a header. Juventus attacked mostly through the crosses from Cuadrado and Costa from the midfield. Although Milan cleared most of these crosses, Juventus always regained the possession in the midfield. Milan sat too deep and struggled to transition into the offensive phase.
Milan’s chance became Juventus’ chance
Like any final, both teams focused on the defense. The game only opened up when Juventus made a mistake during the build-up:
Juventus’ midfielders have always been prone to the technical error and the miss-pass. Gattuso planned to capitalize on these mistakes and counter-attack. Kessie and Bonaventura would move out of the midfield to join the attackers before Juventus’ players returned to the defensive positions. Milan created three dangerous chances from these counter-attacks. But to create these opportunities, Milan also opened up themselves; they had fewer defenders in the midfield and struggled to shut down the space between the lines. If Juventus regained the possession after Milan’s chance, they would generate an opportunity:
This play summarizes how Milan collapsed in the second half. Milan couldn’t play a punch for punch game with Juventus. They could defend and they could attack, but they couldn’t do both things well against the old lady in the same segment of the game.
Gattuso fixed Milan’s build-up problem in the second half; Bonucci and Romagnoli passed the ball faster than they did in the first half so that Mandzukic and Dybala couldn’t close them out. Bonaventura and Kessie also dropped from the central midfield to serve as the pass targets for Milan’s center backs. Juventus’ midfield also didn’t move up fast enough to maintain their pressing pressure (players always lose focus at the start of the second half). Milan could now transition into the offensive phase from the build-up.
Gattuso also felt that Milan had conceded too much possession in the first half. They switched to a high and aggressive confrontation line in the second half. But doing so meant that Milan left more space than they had done before. They no longer had the control of the space between the lines. Juventus now had access to that area. Dybala and Costa caused havoc as soon as they could operate there. You could argue that Juventus only opened the score with a corner, but they have done the same play all year: Mandzukic acted as a moving screen to rid Benatia of the marker.
Milan collapsed as soon as they lost the defensive pressure in the space between the lines.
Milan roster’s constraint prevented them from competing with the best team in the league. For now, Juventus’ domestic dominance continues.