Despite a sell-out crowd in the stands and a deafening roar welcoming the players’ entrance on the pitch at the Stadio San Siro, it was difficult not to get a strange feeling as the lineups of AC Milan and Juventus were read out minutes before the start.
The lack of names such as Mike Maignan, Theo Hernandez, Paul Pogba, Danilo and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, all ruled out for one reason or another, made many think that the level of the match would be inevitably affected, all the more so with Federico Chiesa and Dusan Vlahovic initially kept on the bench by Massimiliano Allegri.
However, the countless injuries and suspensions across the two teams didn’t diminish the importance of a game that remained crucial for both sides, as they were urged to keep up with an Inter side that had regained the Serie A top spot on Saturday.
In such an improvised situation, Juventus‘ pragmatic football, coupled with their ability to cope with adversities, ended up making a difference in a tight contest, leaving Stefano Pioli‘s men wondering whether they could’ve been more focused and less hasty against a side that did not possess many attacking weapons to hurt them.
Juventus rewarded by their resilience
Juventus‘ strategy was only partially affected by their absences – while Chiesa and Vlahovic would’ve certainly added to their dangerousness on the counter, Allegri was well aware that the key part of their plan involved preventing their opponents from attacking in open spaces, in which the likes of Rafael Leao and Christian Pulisic could’ve thrived.
The full focus and total dedication of the Bianconeri players were immediately visible as they defended as a compact block inside their own half, always ready to double up on Milan‘s ball carriers or foul them as soon as one of them tried to show initiative, which resulted in a slower pace than the hosts probably wished.
An in-form Leao was still able to cause havoc down the left flank in the opening minutes of the first half, setting up an early chance for Olivier Giroud. After Wojciech Szczesny denied that initial opportunity, the Rossoneri found it more and more difficult to pose a threat to the Bianconeri’s goal.
While Juventus played far from attractive football, their focus on effectiveness was exactly what the match required. Their basic offensive strategy, which mainly involved direct balls towards the strikers, eventually resulted in Malick Thiaw‘s red card, but apart from that the Bianconeri seemed very aware that keeping their sixth clean sheet from nine Serie A games was instrumental to leaving San Siro with the points.
It eventually took a stroke of luck to score the opener through Manuel Locatelli‘s deflected shot, but their resilience and ability to get tight wins in such challenging situations could make a huge difference in the long run, arguably keeping them in the Scudetto race until the end.
Should Pioli become more flexible?
AC Milan‘s tendency to not give up on their fast-paced and aggressive football style was already evident in their 5-1 defeat in the Derby della Madonnina, which saw Stefano Pioli‘s tactical choices backfire and pave the way for Inter‘s domination.
Similarly, the absence of key players like Maignan, Hernandez and Loftus-Cheek should’ve probably encouraged the Rossoneri to adopt a more cautious approach, especially against a team that has often proved toothless when it comes to creating chances.
Instead, the hosts ended up falling into their opponents’ trap, taking hold of Juventus‘ half through long periods of possession that bore no fruit, while also exposing themselves to the Bianconeri’s counter-attacks.
The feeling in the early stages of the match was that, with less frenzy and more patience, Milan could’ve simply kept things in the balance whilst waiting for a moment of brilliance from one of their most prominent players, be it Leao or Pulisic. Pioli‘s stubbornness in trying to impose his side’s supremacy in the usual fashion, regardless of the constraints in place, is something the coach will need to reflect on – sometimes, proving flexible enough to adjust to specific situations is the smartest thing a team can do.