STADIO SAN SIRO (Milan) – In addition to being their first victory in a Champions League knockout round in 10 years, which already gives an idea of the magnitude of the feat, AC Milan’s 1-0 win over Tottenham in the first leg of their last-16 tie provided a number of signs of where the Rossoneri’s season could be heading next.
The Rossoneri’s brave approach, and against a side that possessed all the weapons to expose their weaknesses, proved that all the groundwork that Stefano Pioli has been laying in recent weeks is finally beginning to bear fruit.
Stefano Pioli’s tactical shift
The AC Milan coach’s decision to switch to a 3-5-2 system in the Derby della Madonnina played in early February was initially strongly contested as it seemed to deprive the team of their old certainties.
With several players looking uncomfortable in this new shape, Milan appeared unable to reproduce the kind of pressure that had made them one of the most difficult sides to play against in Serie A. Beyond that, the formation didn’t seem to fix their recent defensive vulnerability, allowing Inter to muster as many as 15 attempts, while also hindering their offensive play, as the Diavolo ended the game with no shots on target.
Everything takes its time, however, and this was definitely the case. At a closer look, the first game with a back three saw Milan concede just one goal, against Serie A’s second-best attack, after having conceded 14 goals from their previous four games across all competitions. The game against Torino came next and, despite a stuttering display, the Rossoneri were able to keep their first clean sheet of the year, arguably the first sign that things were about to change.
AC Milan’s encouraging signs against Tottenham
However, their Champions League meeting with Tottenham was the litmus test AC Milan needed to highlight their improvement. As things got underway, it was clear that the Rossoneri were looking a completely different side compared to their previous outings.
Even before Brahim Diaz‘s opener, which came after seven minutes, the team’s fierce approach and the players’ organised pressing of Spurs‘ ball carriers without leaving gaps behind them, made it clear that Pioli’s men were taking the instructions from recent weeks on board.
However, the way their defensive trio behaved was arguably the most impressive thing to note on the night.
Pierre Kalulu, Simon Kjaer and Malick Thiaw weren’t intimidated at all by the pace, strength and flair provided by Tottenham’s offensive setup, as the visitors repeatedly tried to tee up the likes of Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Dejan Kulusevski with direct plays in search of a spark.
Yet, with Milan‘s aggressive defence at their best, Spurs‘ most threatening players were never given the freedom to control the ball and opt for the better option, often making their play hasty and predictable. Furthermore, the Rossoneri looked fully aware that playing direct attacks right after winning back possession was the smartest way to give Tottenham’s own backline a headache, allowing the hosts to amass 1.88 xG and only conceding 0.55 xG to their opponents.
But despite all of this, it’d be fatal for the Stadio San Siro outfit to think that this kind of performance would be enough to secure a place in the Champions League quarter-finals when they’ll travel to London for the second leg on March 8.
What should AC Milan expect from Tottenham in the second-leg?
First of all, they should have scored more than once given the volume of play they created, but above everything else they should expect a much more combative Tottenham side, who could also benefit from the return of midfield keystones Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who would help Spurs to be more in control.
Also, while more than 75,000 roaring fans provided constant and decisive support for AC Milan in the first-leg, they should prepare to play in a hostile atmosphere at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, as the home fans will certainly make their voice heard to push Tottenham beyond the obstacle.
Spurs‘ loss at San Siro also saw a side coached by Antonio Conte fail to find the net against the Rossoneri for the first time since 2012, and it is reasonable to think that the Italian boss will carefully analyse their opponents’ vulnerabilities in order not to repeat that.
With the away goal rule no longer active, Milan shouldn’t settle for defending their tight lead, but rather try to further raise the bar and build on their first-leg display, developing a new awareness that could inspire them and lead them towards unimagined goals on their return to the Champions League’s knockout rounds.