Pioli’s back three can help AC Milan, but not if it limits attacking stars like Leao and Pulisic

AC Milan's formation change did lead to a more solid defensive display against Verona, but it seemed to come at the expense of attacking effectiveness.


AC Milan‘s narrow victory over Hellas Verona came as a breath of fresh air for a Rossoneri side that had failed to win the two previous games across Serie A and the Champions League, with Rafael Leao scoring his third consecutive league goal to fire his team into second place with 12 points.

Although the Portuguese’s opener after only eight minutes undoubtedly paved the way for Milan‘s eventual win, Verona made things less simple than expected for the hosts. Building on their exciting start to the season, the Gialloblu weren’t scared to take initiative and keep the ball longer than they probably expected, and only a lack of quality in the final third prevented them from really troubling Marco Sportiello‘s goal.

On the other hand, Stefano Pioli‘s decision to switch to a 3-4-3 formation also played a role in limiting the visitors’ attack. Fikayo Tomori put in another solid shift and his contribution was crucial to his teammates Simon Kjaer and Malick Thiaw, even though the team’s overall cautious approach resulted in a diminished attacking display.

How AC Milan have benefitted from a back three

AC Milan’s Marco Sportiello and Fikayo Tomori celebrate. (Photo: AC Milan)

While AC Milan‘s starting line-up against Verona was clearly affected by a string of absences, with full-backs Davide Calabria and Theo Hernandez sidelined by injuries just like Mike Maignan and Pierre Kalulu, Pioli‘s choice to opt for a back-three sparked memories of a similar move earlier in the calendar year when the coach tried to address the defensive vulnerabilities of a sinking Milan outfit by switching to a 3-5-2 back in February.

That time, such a tactical tweak was just a temporary fix while waiting for the main players to regain their fitness and morale, but one that many asked to return in the aftermath of their 5-1 defeat in the Derby della Madonnina, a game in which two centre-backs Thiaw and Kjaer struggled to deal with Inter‘s attacking prowess.

It was legitimate to believe that the coach’s call to field a defensive trio could be an attempt to limit Cyril Ngonge, who had already proved one of Verona‘s most lethal weapons with his runs in behind this season.

The presence of three defenders allowed both Thiaw and Tomori, and sometimes Kjaer himself, to break the line and anticipate their opponent’s movements without the fear of opening big gaps at the back, as proved the case against Inter. It is no coincidence that Verona‘s biggest chance of the match came when Tomori was caught out of position and Michael Folorunsho could make a run into the box to connect with a cross.

Leao’s opener not enough to hide AC Milan’s attacking flaws

Christian Pulisic in action for AC Milan. [@acmilan]

However, the rearguard’s solid display wasn’t matched by the same brilliance in midfield and upfront – once again, the problems emerged when Milan had the ball at their feet as they didn’t seem to have a clear idea of how to attack after winning possession, often forcing frenzied moves that were never going to result in goals.

Although one of them resulted in Leao‘s opener early on, Milan had three of their four shots on target in the second half with Verona pushing for the equaliser, as the hosts visibly struggled to consolidate possession and set up their offensive players effectively.

As a result, the Diavolo ended up leaving the ball to their opponents as it seemed the only way to find gaps to exploit while keeping their defence tight.

In the coming weeks, Pioli will be tasked with reversing this trend which makes Milan look like a disjointed side at times. As much as a solid defence is instrumental in winning titles, it can’t come at the detriment of the chance creation of a side boasting the likes of Leao, Olivier Giroud, Christian Pulisic and many more.


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