At Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia, two teams with UEFA Europa League ambitions, Sassuolo and AC Milan, went head-to-head. Before kick-off, the hosts sat eighth in the table, eight points shy of seventh-placed Milan with four remaining matches in Serie A. The Rossoneri, in turn, were chasing fifth-placed Roma who stood only two points above them at 58. Sassuolo and Milan entered this match relying on strong momentum, as they both came from a streak of eight positive results (4W, 4D for Sassuolo and 6W, 2D for Milan).
This tactical analysis breaks down the tactics of the match between Sassuolo and Milan. With the use of match footage and data, this analysis unpacks what happened at Mapei Stadium in Milan’s 2-1 win over Sassuolo.
The two teams lined up with mirroring 4-2-3-1 formations. For the hosts, in front of goalkeeper Andrea Consigli featured, from right to left, Mert Mulder, Marlon, Federico Peluso, and Rogério. The two holding midfielders were former Milan player Manuel Locatelli and Mehdi Bourabia. Sassuolo manager Roberto De Zerbi opted for some rotation for the front four, as both key players Jeremie Boga (11 goals) and Filip Đuričić (five assists) started on the bench. Domenico Berardi (13 goals, six assists) took up the right wing position, Lukáš Haraslín featured on the left flank, and 20-year-old Giacomo Raspadori was the trequartista underneath Sassuolo leading scorer Francesco Caputo (18 goals, six assists prior to this match).
Milan’s manager Stefano Pioli started the same eleven that swept Bologna 5-1 over the weekend, with only Andrea Conti preferred over Davide Calabria in the right full-back position. The other three defenders in front of goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma were captain Alessio Romagnoli, Simon Kjær, and Theo Hernández. The duo of Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer was confirmed in the middle of the park, with Alexis Saelemaekers, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, and Ante Rebić (11 goals in 24 appearances) supporting the lone striker, Zlatan Ibrahimović.
An eventful first half
The two teams faced each other openly, giving life to an intense and eventful first half. The high intensity of the game is visible in the fact that in 45 minutes, Sassuolo committed 10 fouls, while Milan nine: these figures are close to the number of fouls that an average Serie A team commits per 90 minutes – precisely, 13.20. Within thirty minutes of action, Milan had to substitute two players because of injury, Romagnoli and Conti specifically, who were replaced by Matteo Gabbia and Calabria. Sassuolo, in turn, saw their holding midfielder Bourabia being sent off for a double yellow in the first half’s stoppage time.
Milan realised that they were having success with delivering crosses from the half-space, especially on the right attacking side. When a Milan midfielder received the ball in these pockets of space while facing forward, Ibrahimović would peel off the Sassuolo centre-back and ask for a cross on the far post. Not only did Ibrahimović give Milan’s temporary 1-0 lead on such play (left image), but he later missed a clear header when a similar occasion presented itself one more time (right image).
The statistics for the first half were overall balanced. To Caputo’s equaliser from the penalty-kick spot, Ibrahimović responded with a goal in stoppage time to give himself a brace and put Milan 2-1 up before the interval.
The three goals in 45 minutes proved the two teams’ recent success with being clinical in front of goal. In fact, both Sassuolo and Milan scored on 50% of their attempts on target: one goal out of two shots for the Neroverdi and two goals out of four shots for the Rossoneri.
Milan controlling the second half
A triple change for De Zerbi at halftime tried to shake things up offensively for Sassuolo. With the introduction of Boga on the left side, Sassuolo aimed to isolate their pacey French winger with Milan’s right full-back, as well as count on added speed in transition. Given that they were one man down, Sassuolo had to rely on individual moments of sharpness to chase the equaliser.
Aware of Boga’s pace, Milan diligently exploited the extra man on the pitch by making sure that defensive one-versus-one situations would not occur. To achieve it, Milan’s wingers would double down on Sassuolo’s wingers Boga and Berardi. In the case shown below, Saelemaekers’s defensive work makes it hard for Boga to get past the Milan defence, as he now has to engage in a difficult one-versus-two dribble. In the situation below, the Sassuolo forward ends up getting dispossessed.
Milan applied high pressure on Sassuolo’s 4-4-1, bringing numbers in Sassuolo’s midfield and being smart when losing possession of the ball. Knowing the speed and quality of Sassuolo in transition, Pioli’s men often prevented the opponent from picking up pace by doubling down on the man in possession and, if necessary, committing fouls.
The instance below shows the Milan players making a foul in Sassuolo’s defensive third to prevent them from being exposed in transition. As we can see from the picture, Milan had indeed committed many numbers forward and could not afford getting exposed on a Sassuolo counter-attack.
As the clock ran out of time, Sassuolo started to push their pressure higher up the pitch. Missing a man in the midfield, however, caused De Zerbi’s men to be outnumbered and their pressing broken by Milan’s passes. Sassuolo especially struggled with picking up the two Milan holding midfielders, who were often able to drop and turn undisturbed. The picture below shows Bennacer receiving the ball from centre-back Kjær while having no pressure from behind.
While being down 60 to 40% in ball possession during the first half, Milan used the numerical advantage to keep the ball more often in the second half, concluding the match with a 51 percentage of possession. This allowed Milan to bring a few more offensive threats to Sassuolo’s goal, including a shot by Bennacer that hit the post and another four attempts on goal. Sassuolo were able to strike only one time on goal in the second half, but the shot was not of particular danger for Donnarumma.
Milan’s rotations around Ibrahimović
When Milan were in possession, Ibrahimović occasionally enjoyed dropping deep, taking up play-making duties. When that happened, Milan made sure that the rotations worked such that there would always be someone taking up the number-nine position. This was necessary to keep Sassuolo’s centre-backs occupied while making sure Milan would always have numbers in the box.
There were a few instances in this game that showed how Milan midfielders and wingers were comfortable with taking up Ibrhaimovic’s position when this dropped underneath and asked to receive the ball at his feet. In the sequence below, Kessié recognises that Ibrahimović is deep, and he therefore initiates a committed run forward exactly toward the space left vacant by the Swedish forward. By taking up that spot, Kessié ends up completing a dangerous one-two combination with Ibrahimović at the edge of Sassuolo’s box, which led to Ibrahimović receiving the ball in a favourable position for a shot toward goal.
Again, as Ibrahimović leaves the central position to shift toward the right, we can see the right-winger, Saelemaekers, drifting toward the middle and occupying the centre-forward role (left picture). Similarly, on the right picture, we see Rebić coming inside when Ibrahimovic drops lower and functions as an attacking-midfielder for Milan.
The match between Sassuolo and Milan was balanced for the entire first half and saw the Rossoneri carrying a 2-1 lead at halftime thanks to Ibrahimović’s sharpness in front of goal. The ejection of Sassuolo’s midfielder Bourambi at the end of the first half changed the two teams’ approach to the second 45 minutes of the match. Here, Milan kept the ball more often, while Sassuolo tried to bring offensive threats in transition with their fast and skilled wide players, although with scarce results.
Milan confirmed their fine form and now put pressure on Roma and Napoli, who are fifth and sixth respectively, although all are lagging quite a bit behind Juventus. Sassuolo have now little to ask themselves in the final stretch of this Serie A season, as the Europa league ambitions are out of hands for the Neroverdi. After a great run, it will not be surprising to see De Zerbi’s men take the foot off the gas pedal in the last three remaining matches.