Tactical Analysis: Lazio Unable to Cope with Milan Counterattacks

In Round 14 of Serie A, Milan were looking to extend their 14-game unbeaten run, which would have placed them top of the league standings coming into the new year. Despite throwing away a two-goal lead, the high-flying Rossoneri managed to sneak out a tight 3-2 win over Lazio thanks to a stoppage- time header from Theo Hernandez.

A victory means Milan have returned to the top of the league for the eleventh consecutive match-day after being briefly overtaken by their fierce cross-city rivals Inter, following the Nerazzurri’s 2-1 win against Verona earlier in the afternoon.

This tactical analysis will break down the key playing patterns of both teams.

Starting Lineups and Formations

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

The two managers opted for completely different tactical set-ups, with Stefano Pioli going for a 4-2-3-1 lineup with a double pivot in the center of midfield, whereas Simone Inzaghi stuck to his preferred 3-5-2 set-up with a back three and two wing-backs.

At first glance, Milan’s live set-up in possession resembled their theoretical 4-2-3-1 set-up on paper relatively well. The two defenders in Pierre Kalulu and Alessio Romagnoli formed a center-back pair, with a right-back Davide Calabria and a left-back Theo Hernandez providing width and helping out Milan’s forwards in the attack on occasions. In the middle of the park, Sandro Tonali and Rade Krunic controlled the central area while on the ball and shielded a back four when out of possession.

Hakan Calhanoglu was Milan’s only playmaker who had more freedom to roam around by drifting wide to support the wide players in the build-up play. Alexis Saelemaekers and Ante Rebic posed a threat down the wings, with the latter usually staying higher up the pitch, while Rafael Leao used his pace to get in behind on most occasions.

On the other side, Lazio’s theoretical 3-5-2 formation was transformed into a 3-1-5-1 or 3-1-4-1-1 set-up during the game. A back three of Gil Patric, Luiz Felipe and Stefan Radu stayed relatively tight over the course of 90 minutes and were protected by Gonzalo Escalante (no.18) who was deployed rather deep, thus allowing the other center-midfielders to drive forward. Moreover, it enabled both wing-backs to occupy very high positions in the opponent’s half when in possession, who were crucial for contributing to Lazio’s offensive play in the final third.

Both Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto played as more advanced “number 8s”, with Joaquin Correa operating as a second-striker or at times a “number 10” in behind Ciro Immobile. Nevertheless, due to injury to Correa in the 32nd minute, Vedat Muriqi (no.94) was brought on to the pitch, which meant that Immobile had to drop slightly deeper.

The average player formations of Milan (left) and Lazio (right). Photo: legaseriea.it

Milan’s Offensive Strategy: Tight in Midfield, Swift Counterattacks and Threat from Set-Plays

This season, Milan are one of the best teams in Europe for grinding out the results. The Rossoneri are far from the most fluid team in the league, attack wise, but their ability to score so many goals (2nd in the league with 32) indicates that although Pioli’s men do not play “sexy” football, they are efficient in their own right. Milan are only 7th in the league in terms of the possession stats (52.6%), but they have the 3rdhighest number of touches in the attacking penalty area (avg. 29.1) and rank 2nd for the most shots in the Serie A, averaging 15.6 per game.

The Rossoneri’s more direct but efficient style of play is reflected by the type of goals they have scored so far this season. Out of 32 goals, only 16 came from open play (6thresult in the league), 7 were scored from set-pieces (1st in the league), 6 from penalties (1st in the league) and 2 goals were a result of counterattacking moves (4th in the league).

A more direct, counterattacking football from Milan, accompanied with set-plays, was especially prominent in yesterday’s game. The Red and Blacks had only 38% possession but attempted 13 shots, which was only one fewer compared to Lazio.

Starting with Milan’s positional play, the Rossoneri were trying to either exploit Lazio’s high defensive line by playing lobbed balls in behind their defense or break forward in numbers after having immediately closed down Lazio’s ball receiver, which was followed with a successful ball interception. Such an example is presented in the image below, with Milan’s center-back Kalulu swiftly closing down one of Lazio’s forwards.

Milan’s tight defensive actions around their defensive third

It resulted in a successful interception by Kalulu, which allowed Milan to make a quick transition from defense to attack. In this instance, the Rossoneri played a long ball over the top into the path of Leao.

Milan swiftly transitioning from defense to attack. Leao chasing the ball down the right channel

A similar situation can be observed here, with Kalulu spotting the danger and immediately closing down the ball receiver. Thus, Lazio’s midfielders were caught out, leaving acres of space in behind, which Milan tried to exploit.

Kalulu is first to sniff out the danger, setting-up Milan’s transition

It followed with a quick break-away move, with Lazio’s midfield and a right-back completely cut out from the game in this instance.

Milan ended up in a 3 v 3 situation, following their swift counterattacking move

Milan’s tight marking in midfield caused Lazio serious problems as they often struggled to pass through the central areas. Such an example is portrayed below and we can see how tight and compact Milan’s midfield is, making it incredibly difficult for Lazio’s ball carrier to find a defense-splitting pass. In this occasion, Calhanoglu intercepted the ball and launched yet another swift counterattack.

Milan’s compact midfield served two purposes: 1) Prevented Lazio from playing through the middle 2) Enabled Milan to launch counterattacks, assuming the ball was won back quickly enough

Consequently, Milan found themselves in a 4 against 4 situation, with Lazio’s right wing-back Manuel Lazzari caught out of position, leaving Rebic completely unmarked.

Milan bombing forward 4 v 4, with an entire left-flank to exploit

Rebic often found himself on the receiving end during the game, with Lazio’s right wing-back Lazzari positioning himself high in Milan’s half. It often resulted in Rebic having lots of space to run into, forcing Lazio’s right-sided center-back to shift across, leaving the gaps elsewhere.

Milan exploiting Lazio’s right flank by playing direct passes into the path of Rebic

Milan’s defensive compactness is best presented in the image below. On this occasion, the Rossoneri set-up a trap for Lazio by inviting one of their center-backs inside. Consequently, five Milan players quickly congested the space, forcing Lazio’s ball carrier to lose the ball.

Milan’s defensive compactness in a form of setting-up a trap

In a split second, they were breaking-away 5 against 3, which should have ended with Milan’s third goal of the game.

Milan attacking Lazio 5 v 3

To further back up our points, below we can see how narrow and compact Milan were throughout the game.

Average position of Milan’s players (left) and Milan’s defensive position without the ball (right). Photo: legaseriea.it

This season, Milan have been one of the best teams on set-pieces, and yesterday proved it. Out of 4 corners taken, the Rossoneri scored from 2 of those. Despite switching to a different marking system on both occasions, predominantly zonal marking for the first goal, and full man-to-man marking for the second goal, Lazio were unable to prevent the preventable goals.

Milan’s first goal from a corner
Milan’s second goal from a corner

Lazio’s Attacking Principle: Exploiting the Right-Wing and Finding Holes in Milan’s Tiring Midfield

Lazio are one of the teams that are neither fully counterattacking-based nor possession-based. It would be fair to say that Inzaghi’s men possess a bit of both, capable of playing out from the back and transitioning from one third of the pitch to another with short passing combinations, as well as playing long and getting their forwards to run in behind when needed.

Lazio are 7th in the league for ground passes (avg. 376.5 per game), 4th for low passes (avg. 72.1 per game) and 5th for high passes (avg. 99.7 per game). It suggests that the Biancocelesti are a mixed team, capable of playing in more than one way. However, in Wednesday night’s game, Lazio were a relatively one-sided team for the majority of the match in terms of their propagated offensive strategy. The Biancocelestid placed an enormous emphasis on their wing-play, predominantly the right-wing, trying to exploit Milan’s left side weaknesses.

One of the main strategies that are used to dominate the wing-play are based on the principle of overload and underload. Indeed, it was Lazio’s main go-to-plan for the game, with Simone Inzaghi instructing his players to heavily overload the left flank, while the entire right side would be left free for a wing-back to exploit. One of many such examples is presented below, where Lazio deliberately concentrated their build-up play on the left, with Lazio’s right wing-back Lazzari left completely free on the opposite underloaded side.

Lazio overloading the left flank in order to underload the right side of the pitch for Lazzari to exploit

Another very similar situation can be analyzed below, with Lazio creating a 7 against 6 player overload on the left, choosing to switch the play with a cross-field pass to the underloaded right flank.

Lazio’s left wing-back Marusic switches the play to the opposite flank

Consequently, Lazzari receives the ball completely unmarked, with two Lazio players positioned in between Milan’s defensive and midfield units to support a wing-back in the attack.

Lazzari receiving the ball wide on the right

Below we can see another example of Lazio switching the play from the overloaded to the underloaded side of the pitch, with Lazzari this time positioned in his own half before receiving the ball.

Lazio’s left-sided center-back switches the play to the right

By receiving the ball deeper in Lazio’s half, Lazzari had space in front of him to run to, with Milinkovic-Savic occupying Milan’s left-back and left-sided center midfielder.

Lazzari exploiting space in front of him created by Milinkovic-Savic

Milinkovic-Savic and Lazzari were often involved in the build-up play down the right side, with the Serbian midfielder usually providing cover for his Italian wing-back, who covered an enormous amount of ground in the game.

Milinkovic-Savic and Lazzari combining down the right-wing

The following attacking plays’ map confirms our analysis above. Lazio created 9 attacking plays down the right-wing during the 90 minutes, which made up 33% of their overall attacking plays. However, this is where most of Lazio’s attacking play got stuck and eventually broke down during the match. The Biancocelesti enjoyed 62% of possession and had 168 touches in Milan’s defensive third (Lazio’s attacking third), which was 58 touches more than the Rossoneri; however, Lazio managed only 22 touches in the attacking penalty area (Milan’s box) compared to Milan’s 24.

Lazio’s attacking plays map (right). Photo: legaseriea.it

After the hour mark, Lazio managed to find a different way of reaching the opponent’s final third of the pitch, as a result of Milan’s tiring midfield. As we can see in the images below, Milan lost their compact shape in certain parts of the second half and were easily sliced through the middle. Nonetheless, Lazio’s ineffectiveness in the final third meant that Milan were able to hold on and eventually grab all three points in the end.

Lazio finding their way through Milan’s midfield

Shot Map of Both Teams

xG (expected goals): Milan 1.681.83 Lazio

Result: Milan – Lazio 32

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


To sum it up, Lazio dominated the positional play, with Milan happy to soak up the pressure and hit Inzaghi’s side on the counterattack. Although Milan’s build-up play is far from impressive and they often lack intricacy in the attacking third, the Rossoneri still manage to create enough pragmatic scoring chances, including the set-plays.

After making it 2-2, Lazio were more than capable of snatching all three points but lacked calmness and composure in the final third. So far, Pioli’s proposed tactical plan has worked a treat, and Milan continue collecting points despite being outplayed by their opponents in terms of the positional play.