With both managers under pressure, this game at the Olimpico was billed as one that could cost either man their job. Roma have undoubtedly been on a bad run, which has seen them pick up only one win in their last 9 matches, leaving Garcia on thin ice and in poor standing with the fans. Mihajlovic has also endured some bad results recently, admittedly not to the same degree as Roma, but draws with Carpi and Verona as well as a loss in the week to Bologna have seen Milan struggle to stay in the race for Europe. The home side were without Dzeko, serving a suspension, so Umar Sadiq started up front, with Falque and Gervinho attacking on the wings in a 4-3-3 set up. Milan continued with a 4-4-2, although with Kucka in for Montolivo in central midfield and Adriano alongside Bacca up front.
Early Roma goal dictates play
From the whistle, Rudi Garcia’s side were looking like they wanted to control the game and get off to a quick start. Milan appeared slightly nervy and on the back foot, with the main culprit being Romagnoli – he looked immediately under pressure and made mistakes early on. Sadiq had a chance in the opening seconds, as the Milan defender allowed the ball to bounce without any real assertiveness and Sadiq got a shot away in the box that lead to a good save. After the early warning signs, soon came the first goal. It arrived from a familiar source, a Pjanic free-kick, which was won through a shirt-pull by Romagnoli as the ball came towards Sadiq. The free-kick was flighted into the box, dipping at the back post area, where Rudiger was running in to volley goalwards with ease. The Milan defensive line was poor – Abate and Zapata served only to play the Roma players onside as they retreated back into the box too early to play offside, and too late to affect the runners behind them – one of which was the subsequently unmarked Rudiger.
Roma still had chances after the goal, they continued to worry Milan’s defence. Sadiq created another opportunity as the ball was thrown into him inside the box, he was allowed to turn sharply and lay it off to Pjanic who just missed the target. Again though, it was poor defending by Milan in the area, with Romagnoli kind of waving a foot out and Bertolacci perhaps scared to make a tackle in the box. We did have glimpses of Milan going forward, with Abate getting high up on the right wing for the first time, failing to pick anyone out with a cross, and a couple of tame shots from distance. They enjoyed periods with the ball and made their way into Roma’s territory, but it was the home side that continued to look the more incisive at times, and Sadiq again appeared to have the beating of Romagnoli, as he ran onto a ball over the top but was flagged offside. This, frustratingly, was a feature of Roma’s play throughout the match – offsides from long balls as the attacker (usually Sadiq) was slow in jogging back into position. There were a few underlying factors that contributed to this, aside from lazy movement from attackers. In particular, Milan’s high defensive line pushing up, and some pressing high up the pitch (from both teams) which forced the ball long on occasions. The difference was that Milan tried to avoid playing it long, they didn’t really need to, and Roma didn’t mind going long because they had pace to worry Milan’s high line in behind. Also, Szczesny went long with his kicks quite a lot (although notably sloppy in doing so).
Further examples of Roma’s long-ball offsides – 13min – 44min – 58min – 65min
Roma continued to create the majority of the chances, often due to the pressure put under the defenders by the high-line forcing individual mistakes, and a second goal before half-time looked a real possibility. Falque ran down the right, chasing after a throw-in, and nearly managed to scamper past Romagnoli to get a 1-on-1 with the keeper, but the Milan defender just managed to poke it out for a corner after originally misjudging the bounce of the ball. From the resulting corner, Pjanic swung the ball in and Rudiger met it with his head, prompting a fantastic save by Donnarumma to push it onto the crossbar and out. Again it was poor defending, as you could see Rudiger run from the penalty spot to the near-post area without being blocked or tracked well enough. It was Romagnoli who tried to follow him but never got close enough to get right side of Rudiger to get the ball first. Shortly after this, Pjanic is allowed to run into the Milan penalty area and get in a low dangerous cross, which is turned away by Abate. Again, it is a combination of Romagnoli backing away to let Pjanic wander through and De Sciglio afraid to make a tackle from the wrong angle in the box.
In and amongst the Roma attacks, The away side’s biggest threat between 20 minutes and half-time was probably Bonaventura. The Milan winger picked up the ball on the left on several occasions, and got into positions to deliver a cross, but with no-one on the end of it. All the same, it looked a decent route of attack (as well as Abate on the right) as Bonaventura appeared to have the beating of Florenzi, who’s defending when 1-on-1 is sometimes questionable. In fact, despite Roma’s dominance, Milan had 10 crosses in the first half – more than Roma’s total for the whole match. However this statistic may have proven deceptive, as although the Rossoneri used the width, they couldn’t trouble Roma’s goal – crosses were blocked or not meeting targets. Milan’s best threat in games like this is often Bonaventura either cutting in from the left or really running in at an angle for a cut-back. (Although the cross for the goal in the second half is a rare contradiction to this point). Milan also had more possession in the first half – around 60%. Nainggolan was the main man to try and break up the possession of the ball that the Milan defenders had, by pressuring them in their own half. He did this successfully on numerous occasions (examples being at 12:30, 25:40 and 29:30). They also tried to win the ball back quickly when they lost it in Milan’s half – notably Pjanic on 33mins when he received a booking (tackling not being his strong point). However, after scoring their early goal, it wasn’t a key priority for Roma to attack Milan’s half and Mihajlovic’s team did see a fair amount of the ball in the opposing half – but didn’t create any major goalscoring chances.
Roma’s attempted counter-attacks
Roma can perhaps be criticised for not applying more pressure in terms of trying to keep the ball in their opponents half to get them on the back foot. The strategy they employed was more centred around catching Milan on the break and countering their advances with pace. Garcia’s side made over 100 less passes in the match, but 15 more long balls, and nearly half as many passes as Milan in the final third. With Sadiq, Gervinho and Falque going forward, it felt like Roma always had their pace in mind and the big open space around Milan’s defence. However, in contrast to last season when they were performing at their best, Garcia’s team looked to lack some fluency, cohesion and control in their attempts to break. There were two general types of this style of attack – a quick long ball to try and get the attacker in behind the defence beating the offside trap (sometimes more of a get-out ball), and a counter-attack that was worked through the middle (often via Nainggolan, or de Rossi winning the ball back). The latter of the two was effective on occasions, but the short passes when approaching the box, or decision-making, were often poor and took the momentum out of their attack – hence the 1-0 scoreline at the break.
Roma’s approach, theoretically, wasn’t an unreasonable plan, but it didn’t really work. Instead of finding themselves two or more goals to the good and killing the game off like they could have done, it allowed Milan to get back into the game after half-time – both mentally, physically and strategically. Initially it looked like the time after the first goal, when Roma dropped back a bit and settled in, could have been a reactionary period (albeit interspersed with some dangerous attacks). But they never really got away from this mindset, either intentionally or not. The away side were never too far away from a result, despite their lack of clear-cut chances. They had the majority of the possession and had spent a fair bit of time in Roma’s half trying to engineer goalscoring opportunities, they just needed to find some incisiveness. As long as they were patient, Mihajlovic’s side would have chances to take the game back away from Roma – and that’s exactly what they did.
Roma weren’t helped at the start of the second half by the withdrawal of centre-back (and one of their better players recently) Manolas, with the introduction of Leandro Castan in a straight swap. It was a relatively quiet opening few minutes to the half, but out of pretty much nothing Milan got the equaliser. Kucka initially picked up a header from a long goal kick and managed to get the ball on to start a 5v5 attack. Bonaventura ran with the ball and slipped it nicely through to Bacca who had just managed to nip behind Castan into the box. Bacca touched it off to Honda, who delivered a great first time cross that was floated towards the back post, where Kucka jumped to head in. It was a great header from the Milan midfielder, but Roma will be disappointed that it was Florenzi who was challenging him in the air – a reasonable physical disadvantage. Kucka did well to continue his run from midfield into the back post area, but he was effectively untracked as it didn’t seem like Florenzi knew 100% that the Milan player was coming in behind him to meet the ball until it was too late. For the first real time in the game we saw (a) a meaningful attacking contribution to the game from Honda (b) the first good accurate cross by Milan. Florenzi was actually left in a similar situation again, a few minutes after the goal, but with 2 men lurking at the back post as a cross came in from Abate this time. Rudiger had moved forward, and this now left Florenzi with 3 attacking men whilst the three other Roma defenders were drawn to Bertolacci’s run into the box. Florenzi managed to head the cross clear, but went berserk afterwards.
The goal served to give the away side more belief, and they continued to play the ball around, trying and work it to Bacca through Adriano, Kucka, Bonaventura & co. It felt like Milan had the ability to maybe move up a gear, whereas Roma were stagnating slightly – summed up by the crowd’s jeers, not for the first time, when Rossi played the ball back to the keeper instead of looking for a positive pass. Milan were also starting to win the individual battles more consistently and were then able to be more ambitious and look to get the ball forward, helped massively by the clever runs made by Bacca. The camera showed a close up of the Colombian striker just as he was signalling with his arm to a team-mate that he wants the ball played through into him so he could run on. He obviously sensed there was a chance to get ahead in the game this way. Roma’s loss of momentum and forward spark prompted the introduction of Salah for Falque on 55mins. At the same time, the away side brought on Boateng for Adriano (despite playing pretty well), and it was the Milan player who had the bigger impact. Rudiger inexplicably stumbled on the ball in defence, and Boateng pounced, dispossessing him and managing to race to the byline and pull the ball back for Bacca to step over, but Kucka then blazed over. It was probably Milan’s best chance to go ahead.
As happy as he would have been to see his side dominate the game so far in the second half, Mihajlovic decided to kick a water bottle across the touchline and got sent to the stands (although he didn’t seem too keen to go and sit anywhere). Roma began to lose their way and started giving up possession easily. Milan had another good chance – one which demonstrated their strengths of the second half very well: Boateng got the ball inside his half and started a counter-attack by passing it out wide to Bonaventura, who was able to slip it into Bacca after he made another well timed run in behind Rudiger. Bacca then cut inside and hit a great shot from just inside the box, at an angle, which thundered the crossbar. Bonaventura then had a chance to play Boateng in a couple of minutes later, after some nice interplay between the two, but he chose to shoot from distance and the chance was lost as it was miss-hit. The crowd were starting to get annoyed with their Roma team at this point, and Garcia decided to try and alleviate this and turn things around by using his final substitution to bring on Totti. Just prior to this, Roma had their first decent chance of the half, with some slick passing going forward between Salah and Gervinho, the latter of whom ended up missing the target inside the box. However, it was a sign of hope for Roma. Sadiq was removed from the action and Totti came on – passing a paper note to Nainggolan as he did so – deployed centrally, but a bit deeper. From here he could try and link up the play and form some cohesion when his team were attacking, with Gervinho and Salah able to run on past him from wide.
The game was quite open in midfield, and Milan were the main benefactors of this. Bertolacci and Kucka won the midfield battle in the second half, and Boateng looked influential after he came on. Nainggolan worked hard all game, and was probably one of Roma’s best players, but never had much of a hold on the game. Totti looked slightly rusty when he came on, giving the ball away and miscontrolling a couple of times, not having a huge impact. The away side used their final two subs late on – Abate off injured for Antonelli and Bonaventura off for Niang. Nianggolan appeared to pick up an injury in the final 10 minutes, but remained on the pitch as Garcia had used all 3 subs. There were no major chances towards the end of the game, Florezni had a shot from distance after catching the Milan defence a bit flat-footed, but it fizzed wide. Both sides looked pretty drained, mentally and physically, towards the end and a couple were slightly frustrated. Nainggolan got booked for dissent after going mad off the ball and Bertolacci received a caution for sliding through Salah, although without contact. Milan will be disappointed to have not taken all three points after their second half and the chances they created – notably Kucka and Bacca. Garcia’s job appears to remain very much under threat, with a mediocre performance here – underlined by the boos emanating from the crowd at the final whistle. An acceptable result at the Olimpico, but not one that does either manager many favours.