The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Mark van Bommel at the heart of a new, harder Milan

They are two markedly different periods in AC Milan’s history but owner Silvio Berlusconi is having to show the same level of faith he did to legendary coach, Arrigo Sacchi, as he is to incumbent manager, Massimiliano Allegri. Berlusconi took over the club in 1986 and after a  nervy start, which drew heavy criticism from star striker, Marco van Basten, he kept his trust in Sacchi. That show of confidence was rewarded as it saw Milan experience their most successful spell in their hostory, winning three European Cups in ten years and five league titles. “It was to become a magnificent Milan team, probably unrepeatable, but I was grateful to Silvio Berlusconi,” said Sacchi. “Because he always placed trust in me, especially at the beginning when the losses first came.  The board always supported me. Always. The board trusted me and said follow your way, it is the right way.”

And while Massimo Allegri has begun in winning fashion – securing the championship in his debut season – the exuberant spending that once characterised Serie A club owners is no more and that means a different type of trust has to be placed on Allegri. And it is a different type of team too.  “You can’t always dine on lobster and caviar,” said Allegri dismissively when asked about the way his Milan side are playing. “Every now and again you have to be satisfied with a ham sandwich.” His team is a side in transition – not necessarily in terms of age which it seems Milan have forever been stuck in anyway (as Arsenal are in youth); even Sacchi himself has recently belittled the squad’s age – but in terms of philosophy where graft has replaced craft. Berlusconi is willing to accept it due to the financial constraints hampering their attempts to bring in a “fantasia” or a “regista” but also because some argue it’s a step towards the modern era. And it’s because of that ideological shift that Milan stand the greatest chance of overcoming their “English taboo” in the Champions League.

A new Milan emerges

In the library of Coverciano, the Italian Football Federation’s legendary technical centre, sits Carlo Ancelotti’s thesis, ‘Il Futuro del Calcio: Piu Dinamicita’ – ‘The Future of Football: More Dynamism’ and though he preferred to err on romanticism when in charge of Milan, it seems Allegri’s team at the closest end of that extreme.

Functionality pervades Allegri’s Milan. Michael Cox of ZonalMarking.net writes of how boring their midfield has become, which is “now based around physical attributes” and indeed, the statistics show that their midfield four is creating less on average, at only 0.85 key passes a game (that means in some matches, they even fail to create any chances). To be fair on Milan, though, they have missed their main creative outlet in midfield, Alberto Aquilani while fantastically intelligent as he may be, Clarence Seerdorf’s heavy legs deem him a liability in the defensive phase. They’ve added energy to their game which was once their kryptonite (they were so impressed by Mathieu Flamini’s astronomical fitness levels in one game, that they signed him a year later) and now they depend highly on individual quality upfront rather than intelligent play from midfield to create chances.

In a sense, Mark van Bommel personifies the new Milan. He makes just as many passes as the celestial Andrea Pirlo did in the red-an-black but is seen as an antithesis of what their midfield was built around before. Pirlo was the conductor; the instigator of attacks while van Bommel is the retardant; he stops the opponents’ attacks. His role, however, cannot be understated because it’s just as important. In fact, he might as well be Milan because take him out and they’re a severely less efficient team. In that regards, van Bommel is just like Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta, giving security to a system which was once deemed inefficient.

Milan, who play a 4-3-1-2 formation, have long been regarded as being weak on the flanks, both from a defensive capacity as well as an attacking one. The full-backs are expected to provide the width but as soon as they lose it, they’re just as quickly expected to filter back. Perhaps, it’s a tactic that works well in Serie A where matches are less intense because in the league, the midfield three have done well to get back into position and double up in wide areas but with the pace of Arsenal, Milan might be exposed. Indeed, this is where Mark van Bommel has been superb since his move in January last season – a move which Allegri admits was a gamble, the opposite of Arteta – because he marshals his troops so expertly. “As for Van Bommel, what to say,” said Allegri. “This is a very intelligent player who has already figured out Italian football and gives a sense of security needed in defensive line.”

Against Napoli, in the 0-0 draw a fortnight ago, van Bommel was the coach on the pitch, shouting and ordering his team-mates to position like a general and covered any gaps that emerged. Indeed, theirin may lie a weakness because there’s often an overwhelming reliance on him to paper over the cracks tactically. This can be highlighted by a moment in the Napoli game where, after reading an unsuccessful through-pass, he was ushered into the full-back position and when pressed, rather than get it safe, he played a dangerous ball across his own box which fortunately for his side, went unharmed. Simply, he’s doing too much. And with a booking away from suspension, he’s certainly walking a thin line.

Van Bommel’s success is that he alleviates any weakness that Milan has, especially on the flanks, and shifts the tactical battle in the middle of the pitch – where Milan are strongest. They might draw courage from the way Benfica compressed play towards the middle of the pitch against Arsenal in pre-season in a similar diamond formation although when they did score, it came from expected fashion; a quick attack down the flank saw Kieran Gibbs free Robin van Persie. The fear is that it might happen again. Milan will need Mark van Bommel to be his typical self for that not to happen and the referee to talk groceries with the Dutch midfielder.

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9 Responses to “Mark van Bommel at the heart of a new, harder Milan”

  1. Utkarsh says:

    Great write up, interesting points. Arteta = MvB? Always admired MvB. I remember around 01/02 there was genuine talk he was in for Arsenal. Will be interesting to see how Milan play once he gets his standard yellow card or is suspended for the return leg.

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  2. Ario says:

    Interesting piece. I think we should be well set up to deal with Milan tommorow, MvB’s function might be to stop attacks through the middle but since we play with more functionality than flair in midfield this season, his impact might be lessened. I’d imagine any goals we score tommorow will come through a break at pace or a cutback from either of the wingers.

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  3. Ronit says:

    If I’m reading this right, the Arsenal midfield’s number one job should be to goad MvB into a yellow card.

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    ArsenalColumn Reply:

    @Ronit,

    Another way of looking at it, yes!

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  4. Waleed says:

    I think Ramsey’s pace and energy will be too much for van Bommel. He will be a handful.
    But yeah the key will be on the flanks. Gibbs should start because he may be rusty but he will have relatively less pressure defensively, and will be primarily an attacking weapon.

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    ArsenalColumn Reply:

    @Waleed,

    The Evening Standard feel Mikel Arteta is not good enough to dictate games against top opposition. But whether that’s the case or not, Wenger’s trust in him might decide if Ramsey start. Nevertheless, as Rosicky has begun two games in a row – the possession choice in attacking midfield – means Ramsey should start.

    Ramsey’s dual role could be interesting; can he do enough to ensure Arsenal don’t have a numerical advantage in the centre and can he drag van Bommel around with his running?

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  5. Woolwich Peripatetic says:

    It beggars belief that the mainstream media can’t write articles of this quality.
    I wonder if MvB will be tasked with sitting on RvP when Milan don’t have the ball. He’s clearly the man for the job, except that he will have to wander all over the pitch which will disrupt Milan’s shape. The alternative is that they try to hold a fixed shape and RvP works the space between defence and midfield.
    Arteta is a key player for this game, although he too will happily collect yellow cards, although his game is much more about tactical passing and movement than MvB’s.

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    ArsenalColumn Reply:

    @Woolwich Peripatetic,

    I think, that as van Bommel knows him, he will take it upon himself to watch/man-mark van Persie. Whether that’s easier said than done because RvP’s so spontaneous that, give him a bit of space, and he can fashion the most unlikeliest chances. But what van Persie has done so well this season is play more orthodoxly and playing so high up the pitch, it’d be hard for van Bommel to watch him without ceding another area on the pitch.

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  6. novicegooner says:

    After watching Udinese v Milan game, I believe We’ve got chances to win the game providing we don’t waste any chances. In that game, even though Milan won 2-1, they were very vulnerable to quick attacks down the flank. Udinese caught them enough times to win the game, but they wasted the chances.

    Ibrahimovic will always be the dangerman, but Stephen El Sharaway is also a very talented player. Whoever plays at RB should keep his eyes closely to him.

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