At the conclusion of the summer, AC Milan was lauded by pundits across the world for their assertiveness in the transfer market. While there is no doubt that AC Milan was in need of radical change, the tactical implications of such change have received minimal attention.
Finding the Perfect Fit
In Antonio Conte’s first press conference with Chelsea, the Italian manager famously remarked: ” The Manager is like a tailor. You must build the best dress for the team.” This brilliant football maxim pertains perfectly to Vincenzo Montella’s monumental task this season with AC Milan.
'The manager is like a tailor. You must build the best dress for the team.' – Antonio Conte https://t.co/m8nTZsOnO5
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) July 14, 2016
Given the massive influx of talent this summer, coach Vincenzo Montella must “tailor a suit” around an AC Milan team made of various, fabrics, cuts and sizes. While the acquisitions that AC Milan made this summer certainly improve the team, the question that remains to be answered is how they will do so.
Bonucci’s Early Season Struggles
After AC Milan’s humbling 4-1 defeat to Lazio, the bearer of most of the scrutiny was Leonardo Bonucci. After leading the impenetrable Juventus defense for several years, Bonucci was expected to bring the same defensive consistency to AC Milan. However, Lazio’s victory reminds us that good defense must be based on cohesion and not solely individual talent.
While Bonucci certainly retains his reputation as one of the best defenders in the world, the four man defense in which he is being played in fails to leverage his raw talent. In order for AC Milan to unlock the full potential of their star defender they must play in a three man defense similar to the likes of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea.
— Leonardo Bonucci (@bonucci_leo19) September 18, 2017
A three man defense allows Bonucci to play a more central role while the other two defenders slide in behind him. This positioning will allow Bonucci to push up the field to make more risky tackles and will also allow him to have a larger role in the build up play where he can play the long balls he is well known for.
Montella has done well to realize this issue and has played with a three man defense in their last two games. As a result, AC Milan have won both games conceding only one goal. While the 3 man defense solves the Bonucci dilemma, it also has the potential to create positioning issues for the midfield and forward players.
The Challenges of Playing “3 in the back”
With all of the talented midfielders and forwards brought in this season, a three man defense will reduce the options Montella has for using all these players effectively. This is why Montella originally tried to play with a four man defense. A three man defense allows you to place an extra player in the midfield or the attack. Unfortunately whichever Montella chooses he will be leaving out key players that were recently purchased or have been with the team for quite some time.
For example, if Montella plays a 3-5-2 he can fully utilize his abundance of talented midfielders. However, he must have two wingers in the midfield who can also cover the wide areas when on the defense. While Milan certainly have the personnel to fulfill that role with the likes of Abate and Ricardo Rodriguez, they must then sideline their most effective attacking winger Suso.
— AC Milan (@acmilan) September 22, 2017
Conversely, if Montella plays a 3-4-3 he can field his most talented player Suso on the wing but only at the expense of one of his key central midfielders.
Much like Antonio Conte’s 3 man defense at Chelsea, Montella must find a way to not only rotate his best players but also teach his forward thinking players to play more defensive roles when needed. If Montella manages to do so AC Milan can leverage the full potential of all of their great players. If Montella fails he will be coaching a team with a angry players on the bench, potentially wasting the investments the footballing world applauded this summer.