The Champions League has returned and the first match day is approaching. There are 3 very interesting encounters this week, Inter are facing Real Madrid, Bayern Munich are visiting Camp Nou to play Barcelona and of course AC Milan are playing Liverpool in Anfield. We will be previewing this game as this is AC Milan’s first game back in the Champions League for 7 years. Let’s get into it.
Liverpool will most likely lineup in a 4–3–3 formation as that is Klopp’s favourite formation and I can’t see him changing it. Injury wise they’re doing okay with only Firmino missing due to a muscle injury and unfortunately in the game against Leeds, their bright starlet Harvey Elliott, got a horror injury and suffered a hefty ankle injury which will rule him out of action for the next few months. Taking these injuries into account, this is the starting lineup I expect Klopp will put out.
LB: Robertson CBs: Van Dijk & Matip RB: Alexander-Arnold
CMs: Thiago, Fabinho, Henderson
LW: Mane ST: Jota RW: Salah
Most of us now are familiar with the playing style Klopp has implemented at the Reds but let’s go through it again. Generally, Liverpool play with a narrow, compact midfield and forward line while the progressive and attacking fullbacks of Roberson and Alexander-Arnold provide the width. The ST normally drops while one of the outside midfielders will push up between the lines to add to their attack. Their pressing system is well understood and a very effective means of attacking or counter-attacking from winning the ball back.
But Liverpool have blended this modern approach with a more direct, functional style of play which you could even call old-fashioned. With Van Dijk and the amazing capability of Alisson’s passing range from the goalkeeping position, Liverpool added even more directness to their game. This results in several interesting phases of play. Firstly, Liverpool play a lot of long diagonal passes to the wide areas, either looking for the winger on that side pulling even wider, the fullback pushing on or a runner from the midfield. Liverpool also like to open up the opposing crossing areas, by switching the play with cross-field passes, rather than shifting the ball across as would be more often the case in a possession based team. These passes often go from full back to full back, pinged across the pitch in the air into space the opposite full back can attack, and again it relies on pace and the directness approach catching out teams. They cannot shuffle across as you might defend a series of passes into space and the sudden opening of the opposite wing creates space inside for runners to attack the cross. Lastly, Liverpool will also hit long balls forwards, especially towards Firmino dropping in, and then mop up the second ball or win it back with intense pressing. This fits more with Klopp’s gegen-pressing style, but the use of long balls to create chances and to win turnovers from pressing is an interesting blend of a more old-fashioned, direct approach with Liverpool’s high energy, very modern, high pressing game.
Pioli will most likely lineup in a 4–2–3–1 as that is his preferred formation. Looking at their injury list, Giroud was diagnosed with Covid on the 2nd of September and so won’t be available for the game on Wednesday and Bakayoko came on against Lazio, suffered an ankle injury and is out until October so he is also unavailable for the game. Considering all of this, I think this will be the most likely lineup on Wednesday.
LB: Hernandez CBs: Romagnoli & Tomori RB: Calabria
DMs: Tonali & Kessie
LM: Leao CAM: Diaz RM: Florenzi
One of AC Milan’s greatest strengths this season has been their defensive fortitude and their ability to win the ball back from the opposition. The team adopt a very narrow 4–4–1–1 shape in defense and also show signs of counter-pressing when they are in possession. One of the most prominent features of their counter-press includes a double defensive-midfield pivot of Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer/Sandro Tonali sitting deeper when the side attack. One of the two men will often drop into the defensive line to provide cover for Theo Hernandez and Davide Calabria, as the other screens the back-four and marks the opposition’s number 10. In spells without the ball in their own half, Milan’s defensive shape and narrowness has meant that the team have won more tackles per game than any other in the league. They’ve also been brilliant in the air. This is partially due to Zlatan’s presence up front, but also their solidity at the back with the height and strength of players like Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjaer. It has definitely been effective at dealing with crosses into the box and keeping the ball out of the back of the net as a whole.
AC Milan adopt a relatively high press, especially when Ante Rebic and Alexis Saelemakers are in the side together. Rebic is used to gegen-pressing from his days at Frankfurt, while Saelemakers is also an astute tackler and more defensively-minded than other players in the side. Zlatan and Giroud are not necessarily aggressive pressers, which means the team have to squeeze higher up the pitch and remain more compact when adopting this approach. As Bennacer and Kessie drop in to cover for the fullbacks in defense, they also perform a similar role in build-up-phases, coming to the left or right of Milan’s centre-backs to provide a third option, as the other midfielder completes a diamond shape. Pioli’s team can look for direct passes into Zlatan Ibrahimovic to nod down for other players.
Milan can also build-up in more of a traditional 4–2–3–1 shape, utilizing the fullbacks, centre-backs and defensive midfielders as their key weapons for bringing the ball forward. With the fullbacks so good at pushing forward and making either overlapping or underlapping runs, the centre-backs/defensive midfielders are often afforded more room to bring the ball forward. Pioli’s team have had the second most vertical approach to their attack this season, with the quartet of Kessie, Bennacer/Tonali, Kjaer and Romagnoli often their most influential players in the build-up. But that’s not to say that AC Milan don’t use the wings, they just don’t use them to the same extent as other teams. In build-up phases Pioli’s team will often overload the left, such as Rafael Leao/Zlatan Ibrahimovic drifting to that side to combine with Hernandez and the left-winger, before looking for switches to the right. They can also do the same exact thing on the right side, overloading and switching quickly to free up space for the talented French fullback.
With all of their talent across the pitch and the flexibility they have in playing out from the back, AC Milan have a variety of methods for breaking teams down and scoring goals. When they come up against very narrow teams, they can easily go wide and utilize the fullbacks. When they come up against teams a bit more open, they are also adept at going through their opposition, looking for incisive passes into the striker. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in the side, their variety of attacking methods can be even more deadly. He’s adept in the air, good with his feet, and still has a lot of speed and agility in him for someone approaching 40 years of age. Considering his aerial presence, he can also nod the ball down for other players, and he links up well with the three in behind him.
I expect Liverpool to get the win but not as comfortable as some people would say. This is the best AC Milan team in a while and are definitely not a pushover. Their midfield is their best part and Pioli has set them up very nicely. It will be a very tight game but I expect Liverpool to win by 1 goal. 2–1 to Liverpool.