AC Milan vs Tottenham: A formation change might get the most out of Rafael Leao in Champions League showdown
Have Milan stop the bleeding? The start of 2023 has been difficult for the reigning Scudetto champions. In fact, the Rossoneri have won only two victories since the World Cup, first against Salernitana January 4, their first game after the break and then against Turin on Friday. Meanwhile tied with AS Roma And Lecce and lost against Lazio, Sassuolo And Inter Milan. Stefano Pioli’s boys also lost to Torino in the round of 16 of the Coppa Italia and Inter Milan in the Italian Super Cup final in Riyadh. But after this nightmarish stretch, it seems that dawn may come at the end of the tunnel before the Champions League round of 16 match against Tottenham (see all events only on Paramount+).
The negative results are obvious to everyone, but Pioli recently decided to make a major change and play with a three-man centre-back for the first time since taking over in 2019. He made his debut in a new look against Inter Milan in a 1-0 defeat in the Derby della Madonnina. However, despite losing the game, the Rossoneri showed more defensive resilience compared to the previous three matches, in which they conceded a total of 12 goals. They repeated the new tactical system against Torino and won 1-0 thanks to Olivier Giroud title. Milan are far from being back in top form, but there are early signs of recovery from such a difficult moment.
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There are two reasons that may explain why Pioli’s team responded well to the tactical change. Firstly, they are playing with another centre-back and that can help the team for all the obvious reasons. It was the side that suffered in this particular part of the field, in part due to individual errors. Fikayo Tomori And Simon Kier they don’t play at their best and bringing in another player who can help them helps the whole team. Also, Theo Hernandez can play as a winger in a 3-5-2 formation and that can definitely improve his game. In fact, he already provided one assist to Olivier Giroud in the winning goal against Torino last Friday, while in his last six games (the last against Monza 22 of October).
Interestingly, the change in formation did not affect Theo Hernandez’s approach to playing on the field. He can still do all the offensive things he excels at, this way of playing is now heavily supported by a new defensive setup that gives him more cover. It will be interesting to see how this change will affect Rafael Leao position. It’s too early to give a clear explanation of what Pioli thinks about the substitution and how it could affect the Portuguese striker’s game, but looking at his position on the field, he is now more often asked to come and handle the ball when the action starts, instead of be isolated on the left flank, as he was before, waiting to be called when the team needs to finish the action.
As shown in the heat map below, Leao remained reliably high and wide prior to the formation change.
In the last two matches, it’s easy to see Leao step back and get closer to the center in addition to his usual touches.
Now the question is whether this will help the player’s game or not. Leao is clearly a budding superstar, but Milan have also been very attentive to his development. He has become the most decisive player in the squad, but he still needs to adapt to the new system. If Theo Hernandez hasn’t really changed his style of play, but is now much more supported by the defense and has more freedom in attack, then Rafael Leao still needs to adapt to his new role in a 3-5-2 formation where he mostly operates. as a forward playing alongside Olivier Giroud.
When Milan take on Tottenham in the Champions League round of 16 on Tuesday, it will be another test for their new tactical system. The Rossoneri will play against Antonio Conte’s team, and the former Inter Milan manager is one of the most influential managers who brought the three-back defense back into vogue in the last decade of European football. In fact, there is no better game to test if this new tactical system will work in the coming weeks.