The tactics behind Stefano Pioli’s Milan Renaissance


Milan didn’t pick up their 16th point of the season until their 14th match of the 2019/20 campaign when Theo Hernandez scored the winner in the 88th minute against Parma. With just six games on the board this time around, the Rossoneri have already equalled that tally. 

Stefano Pioli’s men are the early pace-setters in Italy and are currently four points clear of title favourites Juventus. They’ve dropped just two points this term and that was during an epic 3-3 draw with AS Roma

They rank joint first alongside the Giallorossi and Hellas Verona for clean sheets while 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimović leads the way for goals scored with seven. Milan haven’t been in a title race since 2011/12 and the last time they finished in the top four was 2012/13. There’s, rightly, a belief that this current squad could take the seven-time European Cup winners back into Europe’s elite club competition. 

The Serie A league leaders have gone about quietly assembling a squad filled with quality throughout. During the delayed summer window, Pioli added Sandro Tonali, Jens Petter Hauge, Brahim Díaz and Diogo Dalot while also making Alexis Saelemaekers and Simon Kjaer permanent members of the team. 

These new additions have fitted in seamlessly. But perhaps the most important addition will be Tonali. The 20-year-old has appeared in five of the six league matches alongside Franck Kessié to give Milan an anchor in the middle third. Though the more diminutive Ismaël Bennacer has been the man starting alongside the Ivory Coast international, the long-term Milan midfield will definitely include Tonali. Alongside Kessie, Pioli has a duo with the potential to be one of the best midfield pairings in Europe and their styles complement one another. In many ways, they’re a throwback to the midfield duos of yesteryear.

Visualisations for Milan midfielder pair Franck Kessié and Sandro Tonali

Kessié is the all-action, box-to-box midfielder who pretty much does everything while Tonali is more of a tempo-setter. The dynamic is similar to that of Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso, though the Milan No.79 is much more of a goal threat than the Argentine ever was. The Ivory Coast international has scored twice and assisted once already in Serie A this season while also managing five touches in the opposition penalty area.

By comparison, Tonali is yet to venture into the box this term but has averaged 15 more passes than his midfield partner as well as attempting twice as many through balls. 

In fact, through balls have been a key part of the Rossoneri’s style this season. No team in Serie A have attempted more (77) than Milan with Roma, who rank second, yet to break the 70-barrier. 

Milan's shot assist map for the 2020/21 Serie A season

Milan’s shot assist map helps paint a picture of what they’re like as a team.  They operate in a 4-2-3-1 shape but their wide players aren’t traditional wingers.

Díaz, Saelemaekers, Ante Rebić, Samu Castillejo and Rafael Leão are all comfortable in central parts of the pitch. They’re all adept on the ball and prefer to cut inside to pick team-mates out rather than going on the outside and just putting crosses into the area.

It’s why we see a lot of shot assists originating from the Kevin de Bruyne part of the pitch, on both flanks. The wide forwards are aided by Hakan Çalhanoğlu who is being deployed as the attacking midfielder behind Ibrahmović.

Milan Average Positions

Their width comes from their full-backs. This shape is why they’re scoring so many goals in that central part of the box between the penalty spot and goal line. They’re able to commit numbers into the area with Leão regularly joining Milan’s very own Benjamin Button in the attack.

Milan's goal map for the 2020/21 season

The full-backs are able to attack knowing that the centre-midfield pairing are plugging gaps in wide areas when required. Furthermore, Kjaer and Alessio Romagnoli are both competent in aerial duels. Long balls are dealt with and Milan are able to keep the pressure on. The table-toppers rank first for aerial duels won (111) and successful offside traps (21), reiterating the fact they’ve mastered how to squeeze opponents and control the space.

There’s balance throughout the team and everything points towards this good form being sustainable. Milan are creating high-quality chances but not allowing the opposition to do the same.

All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.

If you’d like to learn more about our products or services, and how they might be able to help you, don’t hesitate to get in touch.