Milan tighten grip on 4th spot, Gattuso outwits Gasperini in Bergamo

Saturday nights under lights in Bergamo hasn’t been a welcoming sight for most Seria A away sides in recent years. Beaten only by Napoli out of the other top 7 teams in Italy, sporting the best second best offensive record in the league, looks like a daunting task indeed. Well, up step Rino Gattuso and his Milan squad I guess.

Atalanta set up in their regular high and man-orientated 3-4-1-2 pressing structure, whilst Milan were out in Gattuso’s preferred 4-3-3 with star boy Piatek leading the line once again.

First half

Game started off in a relatively familiar and expected tempo, with Atalanta pressing high and aggressive, quickly taking control of the ball, whilst Milan dropped into a settled 4-5-1 defensive shape. The script was set out yet Gattuso and his boys had other ideas.

The Milan wide players had fairly contrasting defensive roles, with Calhanoglu staying deeper, protecting the vacated space once Paqueta went out to press, thus assuring Milan congest the central areas, retain vertical and horizontal compactness and in particular make it tough for Atalanta to find star man Ilicic in between the lines on the right side. Suso on the other hand would stay higher, depending on the position of the ball either engaging Atalanta’s right-sided CB or marking their right-sided CM Freuler. This was very much an efficient way to avoid Atalanta creating a 4 vs 3 numerical advantage on that side, with Gomez often dropping out of the opposition block to receive the ball. And additionally meant Suso was in a higher position in case of offensive transitions.

Calhanoglu blocking the vertical passing lanes after Paqueta engages the CB, whilst Suso retains a higher position, congesting the far side in case of a switch of play and having a great starting position in case of turnovers.

From around the 10th minute Milan started breaking Atalanta’s man-orientated 3-4-1-2 pressing shape on a regular basis, hugely thanks to some neat positional rotations with the ball-side CM dragging his marker upfield, allowing Suso/Calhanoglu to drop in and receive in space. This of course allowed Milan to regularly use switches of play from an overloaded to the underloaded far-side, creating 2vs2’s and 1vs1’s.

Kessie and Bakayoko pin Freuler and Gomez, Calabria drops deeper dragging the Atalanta wing-back to press, whilst Suso is able to drop in and receive, forcing the CB to vacate his zone in the process. This sequence would often be followed by a switch of play as shown in picture 2, leading to 2 glorious chances for Kessie within 3 minutes.

Whilst Milan were finding beating the Atalanta press relatively easy, creating 2-3 good chances along the way, Atalanta failed to adjust both defensively and offensively. Having the lion share of possession did them relatively little favours as their wing-rotations were static and failed to trouble a disciplined and aggressive Milan defensive structure.

De Roon (ball – near CM) fails to make make a run upfield to drag away his marker, which would open up space for Gomez to drop in and receive. Instead the WB has little options, with Milan blocking the passing lanes well, which inevitably leads to a poor pass to Ilicic (bottom right of the screen) out of play.

Naturally, as it happens very often, this entire analysis has to go out of the window when Atalanta finally find a way to disorganize Milan’s defensive shape with a series of wide rotations and runs, finding a good crossing position and scoring to take the lead against the run of play. The beautiful game huh.

Kessie needlessly goes on the press, vacating his zone, allowing De Roon to make a run, making it impossible for Bakayoko to cover swiftly enough, which eventually puts Ilicic in a great crossing position and allows Gomez to fire past Donnarumma.

Instead of turning the game on it’s head though, the goal had little implications on both teams performances for the rest of the game. Atalanta continued to struggle to press and attack efficiently, Milan continued to defend well and build well in the first 2 thirds of the pitch and eventually got their rewards in the Atalanta final 3rd. Piatek scoring a an outrageous goal after 2 consecutive switches from overloaded to underloaded side meant Milan found an equalizer at the perfect time.

Second half

The second half began exactly as it finished, with Atalanta finding no immediate decisions to their problems, allowing the game to become even more chaotic. And whilst Milan’s poor decisions and execution in the final 3rd in the first half was a saving grace for Gasperini and his men, no such luck was there for Bergamaschi based side this time around. Two swift goals inside less than 15 minutes assured Milan wouldn’t allow their superiority to go fruitless for another 45 minutes. And yeah, i’m not analysing the goals because they were a result of an individual moment of brilliance and a GK error and it would be silly.

Paqueta receives on the turn, once again dragging the left-sided CB out of his zone, plays a lay-off to Bakayoko and allows Milan to have a 4 vs 4 in the final third, leading to a blocked Piatek effort. Atalanta hadn’t adjusted at all.

3-1 up Milan sat back in their 4-5-1, at times resembling a 5-4-1 with Calhanoglu playing as a situational WB in order to diligently mark Atalanta’s RWB and prevent his side from being stretched on that side. Atalanta moved Castagne ( a left-footer) at RWB but aside from 2 tame shots after cut – ins from that side Milan were comfortable and saw out one of their best performances of the season (or at least as far as i’ve watched admittedly).

Calhanoglu (far side) dropping deep to mark the RWB, allowing LB Rodriguez to step out and mark Ilicic if found between the Milan defensive lines.

Conclusion

A Gattuso masterclass and 3 crucial points for Milan in the hunt for top 4, winning away to a direct rival at a stadium where Lazio, Roma, Inter and Juve have all struggled this season. Mind you, with Milan’s form picking up, this could well turn into a fight for 3rd. Gattuso meanwhile has quieted speculations about his future in some fashion over the last few weeks. Tutto bene, Rino ( alright, i’ll see myself out.)

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