Roma vs Milan Tactical Analysis: A Game of Two Halves

Two of the top four teams met in the key match of Round 11 of Serie A on Sunday night, as fourth-placed Roma welcomed Milan to the Stadio Olimpico.

Roma went into this game having won only twice in their last five games. Jose Mourinho’s men have been playing fairly inconsistently in recent weeks and the early Jose effect seems to be starting to wear off.

Milan, on the other hand, had no such problems ahead of Sunday’s encounter, with Stefano Pioli’s side winning six games on the trot and, along with Napoli, are one of only two teams yet to taste a defeat this Serie A season.

The following tactical analysis will break down the key playing patterns of both teams, explaining the intricacies of their tactical approach to the game.

Team Lineups and Formations


As for team lineups, both managers kept the same tactical formations they have used so far this season. Both Roma and Milan opted for a 4-2-3-1 set-up, which they alternated to some extent during the match depending on the circumstances of the game.

At the back, Roma fielded a backline of four defenders. Gianluca Mancini and Roger Ibanez formed a center-back duo, with Rick Karsdorp and Matias Vina occupying the two full-back spots. The latter was the more advanced of the two full-backs, as Jordan Veretout often dropped into the left half-space during the build-up, allowing Vina to push further forward.

The central midfield, or the double pivot, consisted of the aforementioned Veretout and Bryan Cristante, who was the deepest of the two midfielders and often assisted the two center-backs in building out from the back.

In attack, Lorenzo Pellegrini operated more as a central attacking midfielder, while Nicolò Zaniolo was deployed on the right wing and Henrikh Mkhitaryan took up a more central role inside the left half-space, despite being originally intended as a left winger. Tammy Abraham was Roma’s only recognized striker.

On the opposite end of the pitch, Milan played with an identical 4-2-3-1 tactical formation, and the application of the system itself was very similar, at least in the early stages of the game.

Fikayo Tomori and Simon Kjaer were two center-backs, while Davide Calabria and Theo Hernandez were busy moving up and down the flanks. Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessié acted as a double pivot, with one of them often dropping deeper to facilitate the build-up play, while the other occupied a more advanced role.

In attack, Rade Krunic operated as a central attacking midfielder between the lines, with Rafael Leao and Alexis Saelemaekers playing as inside forwards or inverted wingers on most occasions, although they were moved wide and played more as an out-and-out wingers after the sending off. Up top, it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic who led the line for Milan.

Tactical Analysis – Roma

Roma were relatively negative and passive in the first half, recording only 32% possession. But the game turned the tables in the second half after Theo Hernandez was sent off for his second yellow card. Mourinho’s side had 20 attempts on goal in the second half, compared to just 4 in the first 45 minutes. However, only 6 of those 20 shots tested Ciprian Tatarusanu, with Roma only creating 1 big chance during the entire second half, despite having a man advantage. Overall, the home side produced a 1.31 expected goals (xG), 1.00 of which were accumulated in the second half.

Their positional play was fairly evenly distributed across all three segments of the pitch, with slightly more emphases on the right side overall (37% of attacking plays). In the image below we can see one of the examples of Roma attacking down the right flank. They managed to create a two-on-two situation, with Zaniolo playing a through ball in between the two Milan players, while Abraham lined up to make a run at the far post.

When building play from deep zones inside their own half under pressure, Roma tried to overload one side of the pitch with four or five players in close proximity in order to take the Milan’s midfield line and one of their full-backs out of the game.

If executed well, such tactical move allowed Roma to progress the ball vertically and at a high speed, breaking through the lines quickly while the rest of the players are in favorable positions to create an advantage.

Usually, after overloading one side of the pitch, the entire opposition team shifts to the ball side, thus underloading the fire side, where there is usually plenty of room for a wide player to move, as was the case with Vina in this instance.

Tactical Analysis – Milan

Milan were the dominant team for most of the first half, forcing Roma to sit back and defend in numbers. The visitors had 68% possession in the first 45 minutes and registered a total of 7 shots, 1 of which resulted in a big chance. The Rossoneri produced a 0.80 xG in the first half, which does not seem much considering the amount of possession they had, but Roma’s compact defensive block simply did not allow the visitors to find the gaps easily.

Milan were very attack-oriented in the first half, often positioning five to six players between the lines of Roma’s defensive and midfield units, as can be seen in the image below. One of the advantages of having so many players in the advanced zones was that it forced Roma into a low block, allowing Milan’s first line to have full control of build-up play from the back.

One of the approaches Milan used to get in behind Roma’s tight defensive block was for the center-back to carry the ball into the midfield third and position three players in the half and wing-spaces. In this case, Roma’s outside midfielder would step out to press the ball carrier (Kjaer), thus widening the gap between the midfield and defense line at a certain angle that was suitable to Milan. As soon as the midfielder jumps out to press the ball, Kjaer makes a pass out wide and Milan are now in a good position to play in behind Roma’s backline.

In this situation, Roma’s left-back has to move out of that position to press Milan’s wide player (Saelemaekers), while Milan’s right-back (Calabria) and Ibrahimovic move into the vacated space. On this occasion, Milan created a 3 v 1 or 3 v 2 overload and were able to get in behind the opponent’s backline.

Expected Goals (xG) Statistics