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Tactics behind the scoreline: Manchester United 3-2 AC Milan

There are some matches and scorelines that transcend the fan to a moment in time. “Where were you?” incidences that are passed on to future generations.

As thrilling and memorable as the scorelines are of these encounters, the tactical blueprints that made them happen are often forgotten. At best they step aside in favour of the thirty yard screamer, or the last minute penalty save.

This short series will look at iconic modern matches, and the systems and tropes that occurred within them. Today’s feature goes back fourteen years to a Champions League classic in Manchester.


Both Manchester United and Milan were in awkward spells when they met on 25th April 2007.

The 2000s are synonymous with the success and titanic nature of these teams, and their coaches.

United would go on to win the league and Champions League double in 2008, but back in 2007 they had not won the domestic league since 2002/03. Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger no longer had sole custody of the Premier League owing to Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Chelsea in 2004.

Milan under Carlo Ancelotti ranked among the Champions League’s greatest sides. Winners in 2003, and runners up in 2005 at the hands of a resurgent Liverpool. Yet they had not won Serie A since 2003/4, with city co-habitants Internazionale winning five successive Scudettos from 2005/06.

Both Ferguson and Ancelotti had won ‘Big Ears’, in 1999 and 2003 respectively. Yet it was the search for the follow up that drove them and their next generation of teams.

In the 06/07 competition, both suffered two defeats in the group stages before qualifying as group winners. Their respective runners up, Lille and Celtic, trade spaces to play the other’s group winner. Both were brushed aside.

The quarter finals saw Milan draw 2-2 at home to Bayern Munich. A 2-0 win in Germany courtesy of the resplendent Kaká and Filippo Inzaghi pushed them a step closer to the final in Athens.

United on the other hand produced one of the most devastating performances in the competition’s history. Despite losing the first leg 2-1 at the Stadio Olimpico, the Red Devils obliterated Roma at Old Trafford 7-1. It set up a semi-final tie with I Rossoneri, beginning with the first leg in Manchester.

On a balmy, pink skied spring evening, a modern classic would play out.


Manchester United set up in a 4-3-3/4-4-2 hybrid. With Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo positioned in the forward line, left winger Ryan Giggs often found himself in a deeper position closer to the midfield. This allowed Rooney and Ronaldo to drift and interchange, as well as giving an angle of attack from a deep crossing position.

Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were the most central of the midfielders. Darren Fletcher played the water carrier role, shuttling the length of the pitch as well as finding himself as Kaká’s targeted hitman.

In defence Ferguson found his options decimated by injury. Patrice Evra returned from injury to play at left back. This allowed Gabriel Heinze to be positioned in central defence with Wes Brown. John O’Shea played at right back, yet the makeshift nature of this back four meant three out of the four were playing in the shoes of another. Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Gary Neville watched on as Heinze, Brown and O’Shea deputised.

Milan’s set up was a far more textbook 4-4-1-1. Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini remained from the Champions League final defeat two years previous. Then they cohabited the backline with Jaap Stam and Cafu. This time they were flanked by Marek Jankulovski and Massimo Oddo. Fine players if not of the pedigree of their predecessors.

Andrea Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini were Ancelotti’s most central midfielders. Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso played either side in an extremely narrow midfield four. This afforded space to the star man, Kaká, behind Alberto Gilardino.

Width vs Centrality

United took the lead in the fourth minute through a Ronaldo header (and calamitous goalkeeping by Dida). What was quickly evident was the difference in where the teams progressed the ball.

Milan’s narrow midfield, and the ball playing abilities of said midfield, meant they sought to control the centre of the pitch. With Seedorf and Gattuso tucking inside in defence and in possession, they outnumbered Carrick and Scholes two to four.

Kaká looked to drop deep, sometimes into his own half, to collect and drive forward. The Brazilian aside, Milan lacked significant carrying ability. Pirlo played his archetypal role, sitting incredibly deep and recycling possession with Gattuso and Ambrosini as bodyguards. Yet with neither full back keen to commit forward, and Gilardino offering little hold up threat, the Italian was shorn of that raking long pass he craves.

United on the other hand exploited this narrowness and channelled their attacks wide. O’Shea and Fletcher made for a conservative right side, so Rooney and Ronaldo would take turns to spill over to that side. On the left however, Giggs returned a performance akin to a decade before in its’ dynamism. Evra bombed beyond him, with Giggs either driving to the by-line himself, or retracting into the half space to cross.

This difference made attacking transitions quick and seemingly without pause. United would commit forward and wide, lose the ball, and Milan would spill through the central areas to overwhelm the United midfield. Rinse and repeat. It was to be a case of which side could exploit the other’s systemic weaknesses most effectively.

One man’s creative effort

Milan’s experienced centre backs were in salvation mode for the opening quarter, Nesta especially. Oddo and Jankulovski were continuously isolated against Giggs and Evra, Rooney and Ronaldo. This left huge spaces for the forwards to be played in behind the Milan defence via through passes. More than once Nesta was required to slide in and block shots from red shirts.

At the other end, Kaká peppered Edwin van der Sar’s goal from range. Gilardino was very much a support act, pulling the out of position Heinze and Brown aside to allow the Brazilian a free sight at goal.

As courageous as Heinze and Brown were, their tendencies to race from their post to slide and challenge put proceedings on a knife edge. The tackling was at time spectacular, but the sense was always that Kaká would eventually skip away.

The first Milan goal came from a situation not dissimilar to this. Firstly, O’Shea’s positioning was far advanced from his centre backs as Milan transition. Seedorf rolls the ball into Kaká’s stride twenty yards out, and Gilardino blocks Brown off. Kaká bursts through with a heavy touch and finishes past van der Sar.

From thereon, Kaká’s threat only grew. Brown and Heinze were caught in two minds whether to follow him or allow him his pocket of space. Fifteen minutes after his first, the Brazilian produces a goal for the European night ages.

Again it is on him to create the spark, the moment. A long pass out to the left deep in United territory draws Heinze out to intercept. Evra too shuffles across, aware that Gilardino is not in his blindspot and therefore no threat. Fletcher tracks the ball’s flight. Three men so close a sheet could be thrown over them.

Kaká is first to the bouncing ball, flicking it it with his right foot at a ninety degree angle. Heinze charges and misses, with Evra now engaged to clear. Kaká again is first, nonchalantly heading past the two challengers. Evra and Heinze collide and crumple, leaving Kaká one on one with van der Sar. 2-1 Milan.

The United collective

The genius of one of the generation’s best had put Milan ahead. United had firmly been the better side however.

After half time, Evra continued to terrorise Oddo. Jankulovski had a significantly easier time on the left with United pouring forward on the other side. Ronaldo was mesmeric, dragging Gattuso across the pitch to fire fierce efforts on goal.

United’s high line, searching of an equaliser, was exposed on occasion. Again, it was Kaká that was played in behind, this time unable to capitalise. Despite being elder statesmen that night, Seedorf and Giggs were among its best. The Dutchman’s weight of pass and creativity was stunning, Giggs’ crossing and positioning a menace throughout.

United eventually broke through on the hour mark. Milan camped deep and tight, within the width of the penalty area. Yet even with Ronaldo isolated and hovering wide left, Scholes lofts the ball over the centre backs for Rooney to scramble past Dida. Despite their efforts to congest and cramp central areas, Milan were breached by the quality of pass and movement by Scholes and Rooney.

The awareness and understanding between the United players seemed a level beyond Milan’s. Evra, Ronaldo, Rooney and Giggs attacked as a unit of four, with Carrick, Scholes and Fletcher wedging balls behind for them. Conversely Milan’s possession play and positions did little hurt the hime side, save for the one man brilliance of Kaká. Pirlo was ineffective, and Seedorf’s sole outlet was the aforementioned Brazilian. The attacking thrust and energy of United that saw them breach the Italian defence.

The final dance

As minutes ticked by, the home side’s wing advantage increased further. Giggs was afforded acres of left sided space to carve crosses in. Milan praying each time for their interception.

Equally the United midfield threatened more and more. Carrick would miss a volley at the back post, and Fletcher poured into the right half spaces time and time again. Milan refused to yield, encamped in their own territory. Seing talent of the calibre of Pirlo and Seedorf marshalling defensive lines is peculiarly jarring.

Scholes too enjoyed more joy between the lines, assigned to a creative role in this second half. His delightful assist for Rooney’s opener symptomatic of this.

The ninety third minute rolled around. Ronaldo and Rooney were at full throttle, swapping positions and pulling the tired Milan defence around. Ronaldo’s stepovers and one man trickery diverted attention form his tenacious partner.

Giggs breaks free on the right as United counter. With Ronaldo flying down the left Giggs watches his movement before reversing the pass to the right for Rooney to run onto. United’s eventual all time goal scorer pummels a shot past Dida. Old Trafford explodes, and Rooney cradles his head in disbelief.

For all the emotion and drama of this latest of winners, the youth and directness of United showed. The triple threat of Ronaldo, Rooney and Giggs proved too much. Milan’s game plan, in spite of their multitude of talent, was to give the ball to Kaká and hope. The doggish work of Fletcher and Carrick kept Pirlo quiet. Gattuso was typically engaged in a cage fight with the United players.

What happened next?

This proved to a historic European night, embodying the spirit and drama encapsulated by Ferguson era teams. Yet they would fall short in Milan, losing 3-0 in a Seedorf-Kaká masterclass.

Milan would then go on to avenge their Istanbul ’05 nightmare by beating Liverpool in the final. Ancelotti’s second success as manager. Ferguson would have to wait one more year for his follow up win, beating Chelsea in Moscow in the 2008 final.

Two great teams, two great managers, two great ears for each club. The perfect European contest, with the fascinating tactical spectacle to underlie it.

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