AC Milan: Defeat to Fiorentina Shows Tactical Teething Problems for Mihajlovic

Blair Newman@@TheBlairNewmanFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2015

AC Milan coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, right, watches a Serie A soccer match between AC Milan and Fiorentina, at the Artemio Franchi stadium in Florence, Italy, Sunday, Aug. 23  2015. (AP Photo/Fabrizio Giovannozzi)
Fabrizio Giovannozzi/Associated Press

As far as beginnings go, it couldn’t have gotten much worse for Sinisa Mihajlovic’s new-look AC Milan. Struggling against a more settled Fiorentina side from the start, they had Rodrigo Ely sent off before succumbing to a 2-0 away defeat in their Serie A opener on Sunday night.

It was always going to be a tough test for Mihajlovic’s men but, while the scoreline is not one often associated with a thrashing, the truth is Milan were almost completely outplayed by their hosts. Tactically, there is plenty for the Rossoneri to learn from this match.

Milan lined up in Mihajlovic’s favoured 4-3-1-2 formation with new signings Carlos Bacca and Luiz Adriano leading the line up front, Andrea Bertolacci slotting into the right of central midfield and Alessio Romagnoli in central defence. All worked hard but none were truly allowed to shine within the framework of a game shaped and dominated by Paulo Sousa’s Fiorentina.

Sousa is a newcomer to Serie A management having taken the reigns at Fiorentina in the summer after Vincenzo Montella’s dismissal. Certainly if this game is anything to go by, the Portuguese former Juventus midfielder is on to a good thing in Florence.

Milan couldn't get to grips with Ilicic (left)
Milan couldn't get to grips with Ilicic (left)Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

His side were the more dangerous throughout the game as they seeked to test Milan’s young central-defensive pairing of Ely and Romagnoli at every opportunity. Fiorentina only played one up front—Croatian new-boy Nikola Kalinic—but he was supported by two players in Josip Ilicic and Federico Bernardeschi who caused difficulty playing in between Milan’s midfield and defensive lines.

Milan were open to counter-attacking opportunities and worryingly susceptible to vertical passes played through the centre of their defence. Ely, handed his Serie A debut, was particularly culpable.

The young Brazilian brought down Kalinic to earn his first yellow card before the Croat was again played in for a one-on-one opportunity only to be foiled by Diego Lopez. Ely was once again caught on the wrong side of Kalinic on 37 minutes, earning a second yellow and a subsequent early bath.

On a difficult debut, Ely had a lot to deal with up against a vibrant Fiorentina forward line. However, the harsh reality is he failed in his task and will have to work on the sharpness of his positioning if his fast rise to prominence is to continue.

Ely had a torrid time on his Serie A debut
Ely had a torrid time on his Serie A debutFabrizio Giovannozzi/Associated Press

From that very foul, just seconds after Ely had left the pitch, Marcos Alonso curled home an exquisite free-kick to compound Milan’s misery going into half-time.

Other issues with Mihajlovic’s 4-3-1-2 formation became even clearer with the one-man disadvantage. He organised his Milan side to be compact horizontally and they at times pressed quite well in more attacking areas of the pitch, but this tactic also led to narrowness, offering a wide outlet to Fiorentina which was exposed for the home side’s second goal.

With the full-backs, Luca Antonelli and Mattia De Sciglio, instructed to push forward and provide Milan’s width, there were opportunities in behind them for Fiorentina to exploit. After just six minutes of the match Ilicic had raced into the vacant space behind Antonelli to force a save and, on 56 minutes, the Slovenian brought even more danger in the exact same area.

Once again he was able to run into space to the left of Romagnoli and, committing the 20-year-old, drew a foul and won a penalty which he himself converted to double Fiorentina’s lead.

With the second goal, Mihajlovic’s chances of beginning his Milan tenure with a win went out the window. Fiorentina withdrew Ilicic and brought on Mario Suarez to strengthen their grip on the centre of the pitch, which led to delighted chants of "Ole!" from the home crowd as they witnessed their team’s domination of possession increase in the final 10 minutes.

Adriano tumbles on a day in which he had little service
Adriano tumbles on a day in which he had little serviceFabrizio Giovannozzi/Associated Press

Those chants were added humiliation for Mihajlovic, who had little to be positive about after such a disconsolate display. Milan’s distribution from the back was poor and their midfield largely anonymous, which explained their disjointed look and inability to build attacking moves. As a result, Bacca and Adriano were simply given nothing to work with and Milan failed to register a single shot on target.

Those issues, along with the aforementioned vulnerability when without possession, leave plenty of room for improvement for Mihajlovic, something he noted when speaking to Sky Sport Italia (via Football Italia) after the game, saying:

The performance certainly wasn’t up to the task, especially where we were dominated in midfield. With 10 men it was harder, but we still should’ve done better.

Arrigo Sacchi’s legendary first spell as Milan coach began with defeat to Fiorentina, though Mihajlovic will find little consolation in that similarity with the iconic tactician; he has set high expectations of his players for this season. It will take time for his way of playing to be fully embedded within the team though. If they are to reach his high standards, improvements must come fast.