In amongst all the predictions of doom, comments on the quality of play and general criticism of Milan after their opening day defeat to Sampdoria, many seemed to miss or ignore Coach Massimiliano Allegri try something new for the 90 minutes.
Often accused of being tactically inflexible, he presented a slightly different Milan for their first competitive game of the season, one lining up in what was essentially a 4-3-3 with Kevin-Prince Boateng in a false nine position and Robinho and Stephan El Shaarawy out wide.
It is not strictly ‘new’ – it was tested on a few occasions in pre-season – nor is this his first attempt at 4-3-3. But it is the first time we have seen it with a false nine in a meaningful game.
The introduction of the role into the team for this match was forced upon Allegri. Although the Ghanaian was the man used here in pre-season, Alexandre Pato was set to start up-front against Samp until his injury, and the Coach did not want to use Giampaolo Pazzini from the beginning as he had not started a match for some time.
Nevertheless, it is still interesting that he made the choice to go with a pre-season experiment over a tried and tested 4-3-1-2. Pazzini notwithstanding, the lack of a guy to start as a prima punta, or a “reference point” as Allegri referred to post-match, has not stopped him from sticking to his preferred formation in the past and just using whatever strikers he has available to fill the two positions in attack.
Perhaps he should have done so here – the performance was not good from an offensive standpoint. It was only when they were desperately trying to save a point that they created the best opportunities. Until that stage, Boateng caused Sampdoria no problems whatsoever centrally, while Robinho and El Shaarawy struggled to get into the game.
This system should have suited the latter duo. They have both played wide before in similar systems, but on Sunday had a limited impact despite receiving the ball on enough occasions. The choice of Boateng as focal point was not particularly inspired – he still dropped deep without the ball as he would in a 4-3-1-2, but he is not inventive enough to aid a team in the manner that is required from this role. As Roma learned last season, simply moving an attacking midfielder further forward, as Luis Enrique did with Miralem Pjanic in Francesco Totti’s absence, is not a solution.
Robinho might have been a better bet, but in truth this false nine position is so hard to get right that there are few teams at the top level that can pull it off, and those that can usually have very special players doing it.
That should not mean the end for the 4-3-3, at least as an alternative to when things are not going well. Though whether we will see it again this season is another matter. 4-3-1-2 is so ingrained in the squad, and the players that have been acquired have been brought in with that in mind, that it is going to take a lot of work to move away from it, but there are a few options in the team to fill spaces.
It is probably best to use a proper striker there for now – Pazzini or Pato are the options – rather than trying to be clever with Boateng. The No 10 did a serviceable job when moved to the wing in the second half – he played wide left during his stand-out year with Portsmouth, so he is capable, although he would be best served beefing up an average midfield in this instance. And Urby Emanuelson, as poor as he is in the centre, can affect games in his proper position out wide too as he did on Sunday evening.
If it is to work long-term it is going to need a different type of player purchased during future windows. The fact that Vice-President Adriano Galliani made clear that new 17-year-old signing M’Baye Niang, a forward, would play in the first-team instead of the Primavera as seems natural for him, could well be a sign they are thinking about the new system already. And Bojan Krkic, should he arrive, may also be a useful tactical tool.