Juventus vs Milan Tactical Analysis: Defensive Solidity

The battle for the three remaining places in next season’s Champions League took an important turn when two of the contenders for a place in the top four in Juventus and Milan met on Sunday night at Allianz Stadium.

Both teams came into this fixture level on 69 points, with direct rivals Atalanta and Napoli winning their respective encounters to put pressure on the two Italian giants. The Bianconeri were in better form ahead of this game, winning four of their last six league games, whilst the Rossoneri dropped points on three separate occasions, including two back-to-back defeats to Sassuolo and Lazio.

Andrea Pirlo’s men can confidently be described as one of the most inconsistent sides in terms of their performance levels in Serie A this season, and that was the case once again on Sunday against Milan. Although nothing spectacular, Stefano Pioli’s men’s solid defensive block and individual brilliance of Brahim Diaz and Ante Rebic proved to be too much for last season’s champions to handle.

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

Starting Lineups and Formations

The starting XI of Juventus and Milan. Photo: legaseriea.it

Looking at the team sheets, neither manager offered anything original in their choice of tactical formations. Andrea Pirlo opted for his traditional 4-4-2, with Alvaro Morata and Cristiano Ronaldo up top, whilst Stefano Pioli went for the tried-and-trusted 4-2-3-1 formation, with Brahim Diaz starting on the left wing.

The average player positions of Juventus (white) and Milan (red). Photo: sofascore.com

Juventus’ Tactical Plan: Build-Up Down the Right Side and Crosses from Deep

Juventus are one of the teams that tend to use a mixed model of positional play. The Bianconeri are more than capable of executing a slower build-up play from the back using short passing sequences to drag the opposition around the pitch (avg. 58.4% possession), but at the same time Pirlo’s men can adapt their style of play by bringing more directness, verticality and switch of play into their game.

To back up the above points, we can take a look at some statistical metrics. Juventus complete the third-highest number of short passes (avg. 198.4 per game) and the second-highest number of long passes (avg. 76.6 per game) in the league, as well as the second-most progressive passes (42.1) and the sixth-most cross-field balls to switch the play (15.6). All of this was on display against Milan as well and in line with the season average; however, it did not solve Juventus’ problem with ingenuity and creativity in the final third area, which was the main problem for the Bianconeri.

Starting with Juventus’ build-up play, the 36-time Scudetto winners showed a greater tendency to advance into the final third via the right side of the pitch – wing space and half space – often deploying one of the defensive midfielders at the base, with Weston McKennie occupying the inside channel, while Juan Cuadrado was staying on the touchline to stretch the pitch.

This tactical move can be explained in two ways: Firstly, McKennie and Cuadrado are more comfortable in possession and therefore carry less risk of losing the ball; secondly, Juventus intended to exploit Theo Hernandez’s defensive frailties by attacking down the right side, and the fact that the French left-back is one of the driving forces in Milan’s attack, which could be seen as a way to exploit that side of the pitch.

Juventus’ tactical move to play out from the back via the right side of the pitch is perfectly illustrated in the touch map below.

Juventus’ touch map against Milan. Photo: legaseriea.it

Juventus stuck to the same tactical plan for the most part, even when Milan retreated deeper into their own half. In the image below, we can see the situation where Juventus intend to progress the ball through a triangle play with de Ligt, Cuadrado and McKennie. The Dutch center-back plays the ball out wide to the Colombian right-back, meaning Milan’s left-back Hernandez had to step out to close down the ball receiver. Consequently, McKennie now has the space to run in front of him as a result of such movement and Morata’s positioning between the two center-backs.

A similar scenario can be seen here as Juventus try to get the ball forward via a triangular movement down the right side. However, due to Milan’s zonal marking in the 4-4-2 shape, teams in possession are often able to find the gaps and exploit the space with clever positioning and movement off the ball.

In this case, Milan’s front two – Ibrahimovic and Diaz – are pressing Juventus’ two center-backs, while the midfield line takes up a more lateral position across full length of the pitch. This allows Bentancur to sneak in between the front two and Milan’s four midfielders, without any of the central midfielders coming out to press the Uruguayan. As a result, Morata drops deeper to pick up the pass, while Cuadrado makes a blindsided run continuing a form of triangular movement.

If executed correctly, Juventus were able to break through the Milan’s midfield line and subsequently had a surplus of players in the attacking areas; however, when the Bianconeri did get into the final third of the pitch, they were often unable to make the final push in terms of finding the way how to get the ball into promising shooting positions.

This is perfectly illustrated in the chart of attacking areas below, as we can see that Juventus spent most of their time in wide areas of the middle third, but created little progressive action in the top part of the pitch and around the penalty area.

Juventus’ attack areas against Milan. Photo: sofascore.com

In such case, when teams are unable to get the ball into promising areas in the final third, they tend to rely on crosses from deep. Juventus did just that against Milan, having delivered 28 crosses into the box, which was 14 crosses more than their season average, but only 5 of them found the target (18% success rate). The reason for this low rate is fairly simple – Juventus’ forwards were heavily outnumbered by Milan defenders pretty much every time the ball was delivered into the box, as can be seen in the images below.

Milan’s Tactical Plan: Build-Up Down the Flanks and Playing Through the Center in the Final Third

Milan have never been a team that would dominate games from the possession point of view. The statistics can only confirm this, as the Rossoneri average 52.1% possession per game – 9th place in Serie A. However, despite having less time on the ball, Pioli’s men have shown that they can be productive with it and are able to find ways to get the ball into the dangerous zones in the top third of the pitch. As a result, on average Milan create a high number shot and goal actions per 90 minutes compared to some teams that tend to hold the ball for longer. Specifically, the Rossoneri are 4th in shot-creating actions (avg. 23.91 per game) and 5th in goal-creating actions (avg. 3.17 per game).

This trend was confirmed against Juventus as well: Milan had 44% possession compared to the Bianconeri’s 56%, but at the same time Pioli’s men managed to get the ball into dangerous areas around the opponent’s penalty area. In total, Milan recorded 17 shot-creating and 6 goal-creating actions against Juventus, with the latter statistical figure being the most impressive and important. In comparison, Pirlo’s side finished the game with 0 goal-creating actions.

The reason why Milan were able to create a higher number of goal-creating actions was the fact that they were able to find ways to get the ball into central zones directly in front of the goal. In more detail, Milan were able to get the ball into these areas for two following reasons: First, Milan often had three players operating between Juventus’ defensive and midfield lines, with Hernandez and Saelemaekers staying out wide to stretch the pitch and aid build-up play through wide areas; second, Juventus’ defensive block in the 4-4-2 system was often too wide, meaning there was too much space between the defensive and midfield lines, where Ibrahimovic, Calhanoglu and Diaz operated for most of the game.

One of those examples is illustrated below, with Milan initiating the first phase of their build-up. As we can see, Juventus defended in a rigid 4-4-2 formation, with the midfield four relatively narrow, leaving space on the outer flanks. However, as we can see in the image below, there was too much space between the defense and the midfield, allowing Milan’s forward players to receive the ball in favorable positions around the penalty area after switching play from the center-back to the right-wing.

Milan’s three forward players in the form of Ibrahimovic, Diaz and Calhanoglu did a good job of pushing Juventus’ line deeper into their own half, whilst their midfield four were caught ball watching, which subsequently increased the distance between the defense and the midfield.

As mentioned earlier, Milan’s ability to exploit the gaps between Juventus’ defensive and midfield lines was key to their ability to create chances. The sequence of images below shows another example of how Milan were able to get the ball into the central zones behind Juventus’ midfield line. In this case, Pioli’s side created a right-sided numerical overload, meaning Hernandez was isolated in acres of space on the ball far side.

It followed by a switch of play to the French full-back who, as we can see, had no options to play the ball in behind the Juventus backline, but instead, as mentioned earlier, there were three Milan attacking players positioned between the lines of Juventus’ defense and midfield. This, combined with Juventus’ flat midfield line, allowed the Milan player with the ball to slip a pass through for one of the three players positioned in the central zone.

The perfect example that sums up everything explained above is shown in the image below. In this case Milan only have two players positioned between the Juventus defensive and midfield lines, but the space is huge, which allows Rebic to receive a pass in acres of space, turn and take a fantastic shot into the top right corner.

Below we see a graph that confirms everything explained above: 60% of Milan’s attacking plays against Juventus came from the central zone of the pitch.

The attacking sides map of Milan. Photo: legaseriea.it

Shot Map of Both Teams

xG (expected goals): Juventus 1.09 – 1.19 Milan

Result: Juventus 0-3 Milan

xG (expected goals) shot map of both teams. Photo: infogol.net


In summary, while Milan did not deserve to beat Juventus by such a large goal margin, as suggested by the expected goals metric, Pioli’s men were much more intelligent in the way they managed to overcome their opponents rigid 4-4-2 defensive block. In contrast, last season’s Serie A champions constructed their build-up play mainly down the flanks, but were often stuck in wide areas of the middle third. Even when the ball was played into the top third of the pitch, the Bianconeri showed little ingenuity in their movement and passing, which left them with only a very pragmatic choice in sending crosses into the box.