Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Classic Matches: AC Milan 3 - 3 Liverpool

First in a series of tactical analysis on some recent 'classic' matches.  

Liverpool set out in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Gerrard and Alonso in midfield, no Hamann, while Kewell played off Milan Baros. Milan set out in a 4-4-2 diamond formation with a narrow midfield and Crespo and Shevchenko up front.

Paolo Maldini got a goal inside a minute for Milan from a Pirlo free kick so Liverpool were already behind. The main plan for Liverpool seemed to be an attacking one with no 'destroyer' in midfield and with Harry Kewell hoping to cause problems for Milan's backline, with Gerrard and Alonso providing cutting passes in midfield. Unfortunately for Liverpool it never really turned out that way.

They had a number of problems tactically. First of all in midfield. Gattuso and Seedorf, the wider players, were very narrow. They were in fact mainly playing centre midfield roles with Pirlo in the holding role and Kaka in attacking midfield. Therefore Alonso and Gerrard were completely surrounded, - they had to cope with four midfielders in the centre.

The wide men, Riise and Garcia, did try did come inside to help out as did Kewell on Pirlo but as soon as the ball went out to Cafu or Maldini the wide men had to go out and close down the full back and then there was yet again space in the middle.

Milan's diamond midfield. Gerrard and Alonso don't know who to pick up

Gerrard and Alonso close down poorly and get caught out of position - both Seedorf and Kaka are now able to run at the defence after a simple pass by Seedorf.

Kaka now has the option to slip in either striker or even Seedorf. This was a pattern for the whole of the first half; Kaka getting in behind the space vacated by Alonso and Gerrard and being able to run at the defence.
Another example:

Pirlo has too much time to play the ball and not enough pressure from the attacking midfielder. Gerrard and Alonso are unaware of Kaka in the space behind and are instead concentrating on Gattuso and Seedorf.

A simple pass is played through to Kaka, taking Alonso and Gerrard out of the equation. Carragher has to come out and close down Kaka and then Seedorf, leaving space in behind him.

Kaka now has space to play in either Shevchenko or Crespo, cutting in from out wide.

This was the main problem for Liverpool in the first half. It's no coincidence that Kaka had such a big influence on the game - he always found space behind Alonso and Gerrard who were really poor and he then got the chance to turn and run at Liverpool's defence.

Here you can see that even when the wide men, Riise, Garcia and later on Smicer, came inside, Liverpool's midfield still had troubles with the Milan midfield especially with Cafu and Maldini pushing up and down the flanks.

Riise and Garcia (circled) have come inside to help out in the centre yet Gerrard and Alonso have still left Seedorf and Kaka in space behind and Cafu and Maldini both have plenty of space for the outball to the flanks.
Both Gerrard and Alonso were completely overcome in the middle. Sometimes they'd push up, sometimes they'd stay deep. The problem was that it was effectively 4 vs 2 at points in the middle and Milan were picking Liverpool off on the counter attack when Alonso and Gerrard moved forward.


The biggest problem for Liverpool's back four was not only having Kaka running at them but also the movement of Crespo and Shevchenko. Both made lots of runs in between the full backs and centre backs which caused all sorts of problems. The fact that Liverpool also pushed up made it harder for the back four who had no real pace and were in big trouble against the Milan front line.

As Pirlo looks to play the ball over the top, Shevchenko and Crespo are making runs between the full backs and centre backs. There is plenty of space in behind for them to run into.

The ball is played to Shevchenko while Crespo has already beaten the other defenders for pace.

Shevchenko has the option to play it for an easy finish in the centre for Crespo and it takes a good tackle from Sami Hyypia to stop him doing just that.

The second and third goals were also great examples of their movement. For the second goal watch how Shevchenko runs over to the right for the through ball by Kaka. As he does that, Crespo moves over to the left behind Carragher. This stretched Liverpool and Carragher ball watching left Crespo too much space to finish the counter attack.

Again there, Gerrard and Alonso had been sucked into closing down the midfield and had left Kaka a lot of space to run at a shaky defence.

The third goal:

As the ball is played to Kaka, Crespo and Shevchenko are level. Carragher and Hyypia are close together and there isn't much gap between them

As Kaka recieves the ball and flicks it past Gerrard, Shevchenko stays deep and pulls across, moving Hyypia along with him. Meanwhile Crespo is sprinting between Finnan and Carragher

As Kaka plays the pass between the gap created by Shevchenko, Crespo has the pace to sprint between the full back and centre back to poke past Jerzy Dudek.

This movement also helped out in a defensive sense. Finnan and Traore had no direct marker so they would have been a good outball for Liverpool but because of Crespo and Shevchenko playing between them and the centre backs, they were more reluctant to go forward and when they did, they left lots of space for Crespo and Shevchenko to exploit.

In this formation, the problem could have been overcome by playing very narrow and compact. The problem there was that Cafu and Maldini were really pushing high up and stretching the play on both sides, meaning Liverpool couldn't afford, to just soak up the pressure tightly; they would have been broken down easily.

Liverpool's attacking play

Liverpool's attacking play initially after the first Milan goal was positive. They had a couple of half chances as they forced Milan back, with Hyypia and Carragher staying up even after a corner and players getting into the penalty area waiting for crosses to come in. Their best chance of the opening peiod was a Hyypia header from 12 yards out that went straight into Dida's arms.

However Milan soon took control of the game and Liverpool struggled to build on any heavy pressure. Part of the problem went down to what was mentioned earlier - that Gerrard and Alonso were outnumbered in midfield. Milan simply got numbers back and stayed compact. This meant Gerrard and Alonso stayed deeper but didn't have any options with a lack of dynamic full back play and the sheer organisation of the Milan midfield and back four. Milan were happy to allow Liverpool on to them but Liverpool struggled to open them up or get in behind their defence. In fact the controversial handball by Nesta in the build up to the second goal was the first real time Liverpool had got behind the defence.

Most of Liverpool's play was slow and laboured and there wasn't much tempo to it. The orginal idea according to Benitez was that they would press Milan up the pitch and take advantage of the lack of pace of their back four. As noted even before the final, PSV Eindhoven, Milan's opponents in the semi finals, had caused them all sorts of problems with a high tempo game that got at Milan. But because of the early goal from Milan, they could afford to sit deeper and Liverpool were forced into a change of tactics.

One of Liverpool's main patterns in attack was to knock it long for Baros into the channels. He would then keep hold of the ball and players like Kewell, Gerrard and later Garcia could come from deep to support him. With this tactic, it cut out the Milan midfield and tested out their aging back four as Baros was able to drag one of the centre backs with him leaving space in the middle.

The problem was that the support wasn't good enough. Garcia did cause a couple of problems in the middle but he couldn't do much to support Baros and Gerrard was often crowded out and was also slightly more restricted because of his central midfield role.

Other than that there wasn't much bite going forward for Liverpool. They tried to move Milan about with some slow short passing which showed (they had 55% possession in the first half) but they couldn't break a Milan who soaked up the pressure well and then hit them on the counter attack.

There did seem to be a couple of other little tactics going forward. When they got into the final third they did try some direct balls into the box for the forwards to head down - Kewell, a very good headerer of the ball tested out the 5 foot 9 Cafu on a couple of occasions in the air while Liverpool did have 2 or 3 shots on goal from knock downs but it was all a little bit hopeful rather than incisive.

When Garcia moved into the middle after Kewell's injury, he often, like Baros, had the ball played into his feet with his back to goal to turn and lay it off to other midfielders. But overlaps and runs from deep were again limited and didn't cause too much problem for Milan.

Second half

Rafa Benitez had a lot of work to do after his team's poor first half in which they were outclassed and so set about making the tactical changes necessary, to, what in most people's minds, save Liverpool's pride and dignity.

On came Hamann for the right back Finnan and from there came a change of formation as shown below.

The change meant a whole host of things. Liverpool moved into a back three of Traore, Hyypia and Carragher. This added an extra man in the middle of defence so they could afford to track one of the strikers should they go out wide, knowing that there was cover in the middle. Meanwhile Smicer and Riise played ahead of them as wing backs, though in slightly different roles. Riise mainly stayed wide on the left, knowledgable of the more attacking Cafu on that side, whie Smicer often came into midfield, with Maldini slightly more reserved than Cafu.

In the centre, Hamann coming on made the world of difference for Steven Gerrard. Gerrard has always struggled positionally in the centre of midfield, often neglecting the space he should be covering and not always concentrating on what is behind him. This was plainly evident in the first half when him and Alonso allowed Kaka far too much space behind them to roam. In the second half, Hamann's presence shored up that area of the field meaning Gerrard could get further forward and attack more convincingly than he did in the first half along with Luis Garcia.

As the second half got under way, the difference was clear in the centre however nerves still seemed there in the Liverpool players. Dudek flapped at a simple cross, Traore gave away possession thus letting Kaka run with the ball as he did in the first half and win a free kick in which Shevchenko forced a good save off Dudek.
However it became more evident that Benitez's changes were working. 9 minutes into the second half, Gerrard headered a Riise cross into the right hand corner of the net. It was a great header yet without Hamann coming on, Gerrard would not have been as committed to get that far forward into the penalty area.

Garcia's role is often not mentioned in the second half yet he was quietly excellent. His positioning was causing Milan a lot of problems. He drifted between playing attacking midfield with playing a supporting striker role, between Pirlo and the centre backs. Thus sometimes a centre back would have to pick him up, and sometimes Pirlo would pick him up. He he had some neat little ideas and made some terrific runs forcing Milan players out of position. Also, the fact that Smicer was making runs into the centre allowed Garcia to move further forward because he wasn't needed as much in midfield.

Vladimir Smicer scored the second goal with a strike from just outside the penalty area and suddenly Liverpool were back in it. They were closing Milan down in possession and forcing them to give it away. Gerrard and Garcia were getting around Pirlo on the ball and cutting Milan's supply line. Pirlo had been dictating the play in the first half yet he couldn't in the second half; he isn't a physical player and he wasn't mobile enough to deal with Gerrard and Garcia harrying him and closing him down.

Seedorf was being forced further and further back while Alonso was dictating play from deep. When Liverpool had the ball  Alonso moved deep, especially when the centre backs had it. This meant he was far more involved in the game and could be played in by a short ball and control the play from there with his excellent passing.

It also allowed Carragher to get forward as Alonso came across to cover his position and also pick any return passes up.

Alonso drops deep, looking for the ball

As Carragher recieves the ball, Alonso comes over to the right

Carragher now moves forward down the right because of the cover from Alonso

Meanwhile, Kaka who had been the biggest problem for Liverpool in the first half had been silenced. It's widely thought that Hamann came on and shut him out by tightly man marking him. The fact was that Liverpool kept him under wrapped, zonally there because there was always one or two players in that area of the field and so there was less space. In fact at points it was Alonso rather than Hamann following Kaka.
Kaka's supply line from Pirlo had also been stopped by Gerrard and Garcia.

The build up to the third goal was a mixture of many of the things already mentioned plus a tactic that Liverpool had tried in the first half:

Alonso and Smicer (circled) are inside and deep, leaving space and cover for Carragher to get forward.

As Carragher charges forward, Garcia, playing in a higher role than in the first half, is high enough to attract Jaap Stam following him

From there on, comes a tactic that Liverpool had used in the first half, with balls into Baros with his back to goal to lay off. The difference here is that Hamann has come in and added the extra cover defensively, allowing Gerrard to get forward. In the first half, only Kewell or later Garcia would have been able to support Baros. Here Garcia and Gerrard have supported Baros. Baros and Garcia have dragged both Stam and Nesta across, allowing Gerrard space to run into.

Gerrard recieves the backheel from Baros and wins the penalty that gives Liverpool the chance to get level

Xabi Alonso stepped up to take the penalty and converted the rebound after a great save from Dida.

Liverpool had provided one of the greatest comebacks in history. Yet there was still half an hour to play when the third goal went in. They made the decision to sit back and keep it tight instead of going for it.

It therefore became even tighter in the middle. Liverpool had Milan numbered in midfield and were keeping compact there. Thus players who had had so much space in the first half, Seedorf, Pirlo and Kaka were finding it difficult to regain that space. Therefore the wide positions were becoming more important.

Liverpool's midfield of Hamann, Alonso, Gerrard and Garcia, lnked by the blue, making it a lot tighter for Milan's midfield of Pirlo, Seedorf, Gattuso and Kaka, linked by the orange.

It has to be said Ancelotti made some clever changes. On came the left footed winger Serginho for the more centrally inclined Seedorf while Jon Dahl Tomasson came on in place of Hernan Crespo. Meanwhile Djibril Ciise came on for Milan Baros, an inevitable move - Baros was becoming frustrated and tired up front and Ciise could make use of his lightning pace against an aging and tiring Milan backline on the counter attack.

Extra time

Serginho was a problem for Liverpool. As already said with Liverpool sat back a lot more compact, the wide positions were becoming more and more important for Milan to break them down. Serginho had the tendency to stay wide on the left hand side whereas Seedorf was drifting inside a lot and allowing Maldini to roam down the flanks while he cut into the middle. With Liverpool's formation change in the second half, this initially favoured Liverpool with Smicer as the right wing back only having to deal with Maldini. When Serginho came on, Liverpool had to bring one of the central players out there to help out on that side. Not only that but Smicer, not a great defensive player, was up against the fresh legs of Serginho. And with Smicer's attacking movements more centre inclined in the second half, he was leaving more space out wide for Milan.

Rafa Benitez therefore moved Gerrard, who had played right back a few times early on in his career, to the right hand side while Smicer moved into the middle. Gerrard could therefore use his physical abilities and his strong tackling better than Smicer could. Of course this could have been seen as negative but with Serginho becoming a big influence on Milan's attacking patterns, Liverpool couldn't afford to let him have space to make forays down the left hand side.

Meanwhile the change of Tomasson for Crespo added something extra in the midfield area and surprisingly not from Tomasson himself. Jon Dahl Tomasson was more experienced than Crespo in a deeper role behind the striker and with Liverpool proving to be tough to break down, the ability to circulate the ball quickly in midfield was becoming more important for Milan. However though Tomasson could do that, it was Shevchenko who was dropping deep and getting involved with the play, trying to outnumber Liverpool's midfield as well as move them about and create chances for Milan. This left Tomasson up against three centre backs at points but meant he could be a target man, a skill that he could do better than the Ukrainian.
Shevchenko (red) has dropped short looking to help the circulation in midfield and cause Liverpool problems in that area. Meanwhile Kaka has come out wide because of a lack of space in the middle with Liverpool's two holding men.

In this example, Serginho is looking to get a cross in. Notice Shevchenko again dropping deep while Tomasson has got behind Traore looking for the cross.

However when Liverpool had the ball, it was Tomasson who dropped deep and Shevchenko who stayed up front. In this position, Tomasson had better positioning and defensive experience than Shevchenko. Shevchenko was also higher up the pitch, so he could use his speed to close down the centre backs quicker than Tomasson could and also, should Liverpool give it away in defence, use his pace to take advantage of that.

Tomasson in the blue has dropped deeper into an attacking midfield position, leaving Shevchenko up against the centre backs.

As extra time moved on Ciise's pace was being used, not as an attacking threat, but mainly to give the rest of the team a short break and force the Milan backline deeper so that the transition from defence to attack took longer.

Liverpool's wing backs were being pushed further and further back, to the stage where it was becoming more and more of a back 5 as shown here
Liverpool's back five, with Gerrard and Riise not showing too much ambition to get forward.

In the second half of extra time, it was becoming more and more defence vs attack. Liverpool weren't showing too much ambition because they were so tired and they were struggling to move up the pitch. Rui Costa came on for Gattuso to add some more creativity to Milan and to try and help Cafu on the right hand side.

Milan's play was not desperate, they weren't hitting it long every second ball but they were passing it around on the ground pulling Liverpool from one side to another and because of Liverpool's tiredness they were dropping deeper and deeper. Therefore Milan got more time in midfield and it was effectively like a training ground exercise; one side attacking on side defending.

One criticism of Milan's attack was possibly not using Maldini further forward like he had been in normal time. This would have meant that Liverpool would have had to pull an extra player from the centre out to the right and added an extra dimension to Milan's play. However tiredness may have been an issue for Maldini, like most of the other players on the pitch.

It has to be said, Milan didn't create too many clear cut chances in extra time. There was a ball over the top where Tomasson got free but he miscued, while several good crosses were put in by Serginho which caused Liverpool problems in particular Carragher who had to block several of the balls in despite having severe cramp.

The biggest chance of extra time fell just 3 minutes before the end of it.

Liverpool held on for the next few minutes and the game went to a penalty shoot out.

And there it was. A game that wasn't end to end with lots of chances but a game which was controlled by the midfields - Milan's in the first half, Liverpool's in the second. Liverpool then had to cope with several tactical problems in extra time, but dealt with them by sitting back and though riding their luck at times, got through extra time and won in an unbelievable penalty shoot out. It was tense, it was gripping and it brought out the best from not just the players but from the tactical minds of both Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez. In the end Liverpool came out top.

Some additional tactical comments from Rafa Benitez about the game (very interesting)

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  1. incredible incredible analysis

  2. By the way, if you didn't already know, this is one in a series I'm going to do. Please recommend me some more matches to do, I've got plenty of time over the summer.

  3. The work here is quite extraordinary, especially as you say, you're 16 yrs old. Well done.

  4. Really good stuff. A great though perhaps less heralded match was the 2006 world cup semi-final between Italy and Germany. The best nil-nil in normal time I ever saw.

  5. Fantastic! As for recommendations, another CL Final - MU vs Bayern Munich in 1999 - was very impressive too.

  6. Enjoyed reading that mate. Nice one.

  7. Thanks for the compliments and suggestions guys. Much appreciated.

  8. Thanks lankyguy top draw that.

    May I recommend you do a Valencia V Liverpool when Rafa was the manager of Valencia I want to see how the crushing machine works in tactical analyses also some Barcelona ones would be interesting maybe how they destroyed the mancs in the final Hahaha

    Thank you.

  9. one game wld be liverpool vs arsenal(08/09) (4-4) draw

  10. awesome analysis mate. really insightful

  11. the most detailed analysis i have ever read,u can do analysis on copa america games coming up or the u-21 euros

  12. you should do Barca vs Liverpool (1-2) champians league

  13. cams to the Barca vs Pool. it will be interesting to see how liverpool stopped Ronaldinho back then...


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