Despite losing the opening Milan derby of the 2015/16 season last Sunday evening, Milan looked an improved force against city rivals, Inter. Playing a faster, more-direct brand of football, they frequently tested Inter’s high defensive line before succumbing to a close 1-0 defeat.
Sinisa Mihajlovic was happy with the display, which was significantly better than either of Milan’s opening two Serie A fixtures against Fiorentina or Empoli, telling Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia): “I found my team tonight.”
It was a strong declaration given that there remain clear issues for the coach to iron out going forward.
Defensively, Milan are getting better but are far from perfect, while new strikers Carlos Bacca and Luiz Adriano have yet to strike up a fully functioning relationship. The greatest area of uncertainty, however, lies in midfield.
Mihajlovic made several changes to this area prior to the derby. He replaced Nigel de Jong with Riccardo Montolivo and brought in Juraj Kucka for the injured Andrea Bertolacci. These decisions gave greater stability to Milan’s midfield and offered a glimpse into the way the head coach should line his men up in future.
Since Mihajlovic took over at Milan, he has vigorously attempted to institute the 4-3-1-2 system he utilised so effectively with Sampdoria. This includes a midfield diamond, something which is integral to the success of the system as a whole. If the diamond is ineffective, there’s a high chance the entire system falls down.
The first transfer of note to be concluded by Milan after Mihajlovic took the reins was the signature of Roma midfielder Bertolacci. The 24-year-old has been capped four times by Italy and arrived on the back of an exceptional season with Genoa, hence his noteworthy €20 million (£14.6 million) price tag.
A creative central midfielder with a left foot capable of producing pinpoint passes to open up defences, Bertolacci suited Genoa’s fluid possession football but has had difficulty fitting in to Milan’s diamond so far.
As Bleacher Report tactics writer Sam Tighe points out, the two outside central midfielders within a diamond are required to be “pure athletes” tasked with the responsibility to “protect their full-backs”.
Essentially, these two players must undertake a great deal of physical and defensive work, something Bertolacci is not particularly well-versed in.
He, and his usual partner Giacomo Bonaventura, are both elegant, nimble flair players with a preference for having the ball at feet as opposed to having to win it back. They are both technically refined but not ideal selections for the central roles in a diamond.
This is the reason Kucka was specifically chosen to play against Inter in Bertolacci’s absence. The Slovakian may not have the ball skills of Andrea Poli, but he was chosen ahead of him due to his energetic and combative style.
Bonaventura retained his place beside Kucka, while Montolivo came in for de Jong behind them in the deeper-lying midfield role.
Although not as strong as his Dutch team-mate, Montolivo is superior on the ball and a much better passer. He is also more intelligent in a positional sense, slotting between the centre-backs to receive possession and covering the more-advanced central midfielders well.
Under Mihajlovic, Milan seek to press high with the aim of winning the ball as close to the opponent's goal as possible. To carry out this tactical ploy requires central midfielders comfortable putting in a defensive shift with constant running and tactical awareness.
Kucka fits this ploy better than either Bonaventura or Bertolacci as, per Squawka, he wins more tackles and a higher percentage of his total duels than both of his team-mates. The dilemma then for Mihajlovic is who to pick alongside him in the short term.
Antonio Nocerino was expected to depart Milan in the summer after spending much of the last few years on loan at other clubs. However, since Milan’s competitive season got underway, he has found himself involved in first-team affairs.
A limited 30-year-old considered past his best may not seem like the player Milan need to restore their midfield but, at least statistically speaking, he fits the mould. He has won 66.67 percent of his total duels, according to Squawka, which is a far-higher percentage than both Bertolacci and Bonaventura.
Nocerino was once considered the heir to Gennaro Gattuso due to his gritty style of play but that was a long time ago and, should Milan prefer to opt for a fresher option, Jose Mauri may be a reasonable choice.
Mauri arrived on a free-transfer from financially stricken Parma in the summer, but the 19-year-old has yet to feature in any of Milan’s league games. Although young and relatively inexperienced, he has the traits to develop into a ball-winner perfect for Milan’s system and style.
Last season, Mauri won 2.04 tackles per 90 minutes, a total that currently only Kucka has surpassed out of all Milan’s aforementioned central-midfield options. Clearly, Mauri has an appetite for battle that could suit both the role and Milan’s pressing game.
Essentially, when it comes to selecting his two central midfielders, Mihajlovic may have to choose between the more-talented individual players, such as expensive new signing Bertolacci, or those who better fit the system and style of football he wishes to implement.
When evaluating whether Montolivo should retain his deeper-lying midfield role or be replaced by de Jong, the dilemma isn’t quite so complex.
The Italian’s passing statistics so far this season don’t quite measure up to de Jong’s, although he accrued these numbers in a match where Milan sought to play more back-to-front football against an Inter team that were centrally dominant. Naturally, Montolivo’s percentages weren’t up to the usual standard.
While coach of Sampdoria, Mihajlovic preferred to use an enforcer in Angelo Palombo at the base of his diamond, though it must be said Milan’s circumstances are different. While Sampdoria were content to finish seventh in Serie A last season, Milan seek to finish in the top three year on year.
Milan often approach matches with a mentality of dominating the opposition and the ball, and thus require a deep-lying midfielder capable of composedly orchestrating attacking moves. Montolivo fits this description more than de Jong.
Over the summer, Milan were involved in a tug of war for Geoffrey Kondogbia, who eventually signed for Inter. The Frenchman played a major role in Inter’s winning performance in the opening Milan derby, offering Mihajlovic a reminder of what he could have had.
While in the short-term Milan must pick from what they have, they will get an opportunity to sign players again come January, and one of their priorities should be a ball-winning midfielder with similar qualities to Kondogbia to partner Kucka in central midfield.
The only remaining dilemma is to consider where Bonaventura and Bertolacci fit in at Milan in the long-term.
The former has often been used as an attacking midfielder at times throughout his career and this should be his long-term position for Milan. As already covered, he is not best suited to a central role in a diamond, though he does possess the qualities to play as Milan’s trequartista.
Statistics back this viewpoint up. So far this season, Bonaventura has—per 90 minutes—made more key passes, created more chances, set up more goals and completed more dribbles than the current incumbent of this position, Keisuke Honda.
Bertolacci is a far-harder puzzle to solve. He is untested in more withdrawn or advanced midfield roles, though he does appear to have the technical ability to perform in them, even if only hypothetically.
For the time being, Mihajlovic should allow Bertolacci time to prove himself both worthy of the fee paid for him and capable of playing in the centre of a diamond midfield, where he should be partnered by Kucka. Bonaventura should be pushed to the tip of the diamond, while Montolivo should take up a regista role at its base.
This leaves the likes of Honda and de Jong on the sidelines, though they are both decent back-ups for the time being.
Come the January transfer window Mihajlovic will have a better idea of what he needs and, if Bertolacci doesn’t fit the system, a quality ball-winning midfielder must be targeted.