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Qasa Alom On November - 1 - 2010

Time Running Out For Ignazio Abate?

Milan had won four on the bounce, Robinho scored two games consecutively, the trident was starting to pur, Gattuso back to old form, Pirlo looking much more like Il Maestro and Spirits were generally high. On the other hand, Juventus were in the midst of an injury crisis with their best player of the season Milos Krasic out and their best defender Giorgio Chiellini pulling up minutes before kick off. The result was already in the bag right? Wrong.

Despite Milan’s confident start which ought to have yielded a goal, Juventus grew into the match, nullifying the home sides attack to make Milan look sluggish and impotent. This was even with playing attacking wide forward Simone Pepe at left back. How was this possible? Although there are a number of factors to take into consideration, including incredible efficiency on Juventus’ part and bad luck/poor finishing from Milan, the biggest factor from where I was sitting was Milan’s total lack of faith in Ignazio Abate.

As the game wore on Milan concentrated more and more of their play down the left flank, which finally yielded a goal; Zlatan knocking in a Luca Antonini cross in the 82ndminute, however this did not prove to be enough and one does begin to wonder why Milan did not trouble the makeshift rag-tag Juventus defence more and Pepe in particular.

Below is a screenshot from the match in the dying minutes. Milan’s two attackers Zlatan and Pippo are off - screen, whilst Robinho and Seedorf are taking up positions more towards the left hand side to combine with the left back Antonini. Unsurprisingly Pirlo can be found behind the play in the centre circle, with his right hand man Gattuso…yup you guessed it on his right hand side. The final Milan player in the screen is Ignazio Abate with acres of space in front of him.

There is nothing unusual about this set-up. The rossoneri could be blindfolded and still take up these positions, as they have been more or less using this set up since 2003. What is unusual however is the way Juventus are defending. The two forwards lurking closely to Pirlo and Gattuso, three midfielders paying close attention to Milans left hand side, and a full back in cover as well. Nobody is watching Abate.

This happened time and time again and the only instance that Juventus were almost made to pay for leaving Abate free was in the dying minutes when the young blonde converted full back gathered up a loose ball and drilled it across goal.

Juventus played this risky strategy because Milan hardly use the out ball towards the right back anymore, and the Bianconeri - picking up on this - squeezed the game towards the centre and their right flank as much as possible to make the pitch small, narrow and congested. As a result Milan kept on going up a blind alley and Juventus found it easy to break down their attacks to see the game out.

The question remains though: Why did Milan not attack Pepe and use Abate? The answer is simple. The other Milan players do not trust Abate.

As previously mentioned, this has been the standard Milan template since Carlo Ancelotti took Milan to CL glory in 2003 (ironically against Juventus), yet it was in 2004 that the team tactically reached its devastating peak. All the factors were the same, with Seedorf Kaká and the fullback all combining down the left hand side to create the bulk of play, yet and here’s the keywhat stopped Milan’s team being so narrow and predictable was the out ball to Cafu that the team would launch time and time again.

AC Milan leaving the right flank to Cafu or Oddo 04-08

When Cafu was in the team, Milan had width that scared the opponents and stretched them which created the holes for the likes of Kaká/Seedorf and Shevchenko to burst through. Moreover, as the forwards (Sheva and Inzaghi) knew that the team would switch from side to side at will, they could remain focused at playing through the left and right channels. The team had trust and confidence in Cafu to supply the balls, so left that right flank completely to him and focussed more bodies in the centre and left hand side of the pitch, therefore rendering the space in which the teamplayed paradoxically both bigger AND more compact at the same time.

It’s no wonder that the purchase of Massimo Oddo – a player with similar characteristics to Cafu - in the January of 2007 also coincided with an upturn of fortunes and eventually led to another CL Victory for the Milanese side.

AC Milan 2010. Compensating for Abate

Now though Milan have a completely different situation which has had a knock-on effect throughout the whole team. With Abate and Gattuso (hardly the most gifted attacking players) manning the right flank, Alexandre Pato has had to hold the line out wide so that the team has some attacking threat from all parts of the pitch. Consequentially this severely isolates Zlatan upfront, and thus spreads the teams’ considerable attacking menace a lot more thinly. Had Milan a full back with real menace, Pato could effectively drift in as a ghost striker next to Zlatan adding an extra body in the box and thus give the opposing defence more to think about.

This argument is completely supported by the fact that only one game prior to the loss against Juventus, when Milan set out completely the same side, Massimo Oddo’s overlapping runs created both the equaliser and the winner.

So why do Milan not trust Abate?

Well the problem with Abate is that he is not good enough. Unlike Cafu, Antonini or Oddo he cannot control the ball from one of Pirlo’s diagonal passes, take it in his stride and roam forward all in one movement. He often has to chest the ball, stop and then start again. Not only does this slow down the pace of the attack, but it gives the defender time to restructure and close him down. Thus Abate has no option, but either to pass it up the wing to Pato who’s had to drift out wide to help the youngster, or knock it inside and backwards to Gattuso.

So whilst Milan may have arguably the best attacking trident in world football, the best central defensive partnership in Serie A and a rejuvenated world class midfielder in Andrea Pirlo…teams have sussed out how to play against them. If they want to win lo scudetto or get far in the Champions league this season, they’re going to get Ignazio back to basics or dip into the January transfer market.

Qasa Alom

Broadcast Journalist. Writer for Serieaweekly, subtitled online or anyone else daft enough to want me. These are my thoughts (even the clever ones)

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  • Drew

    Nice post Qasa, Leonardo as we know earmarked right fullback as an Achilles heal, and this has still not been addressed, with Berlusconi continuing to indulge himself and creating a who’s who of Stellar name forwards that he has signed under his reign.

    Personally a decent midfielder and a fullback would have been a better signing than Ibrahimovic, even though he has largely been great, as i still felt Huntelaar with the right
    back-up would have been a very good striker for Milan.

    Abate is a great squad player, almost like a Darren Fletcher at Man Utd, he is not a natural fullback, and I also think Gattuso highlights Abate’s weeknesses.

    So who are the options? Rafinha, Di Silvestre, van der Wiel? The latter will certainly demand a big fee this coming summer. I would rather see us sign Bochetti or Criscito and move Antonini to the right side. Both Criscito and Bochetti have enormous potential, and are relatively under the radar of Europes ‘fat cat clubs’. I also like to see Italian defenders at Milan, as historically they are by far the best in world football. Potentially a back four of
    Criscito-Astori-Silva-Antonini should serve Milan well for years to come. However Juve have relinquished ownership of Criscito, so time is of the essence, as I’m sure Inter will go sniffing!

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