AC Milan advanced to the Champions League group stage with a convincing victory against a young PSV side.
Massimiliano Allegri made one change to his lineup that featured in the first leg, introducing Mattia De Sciglio at left back for Urby Emanuelson. Besides that, Allegri stuck with his traditional 4-3-3 that saw Mario Balotelli lead the line, alongside Kevin-Prince Boateng and Stephan El Shaarawy – while Riccardo Montolivo, Nigel de Jong and Sulley Muntari formed a midfield three.
Phillip Cocu made no changes to the side that earned a draw in last week’s first leg showdown. Tim Matavz led the line, with Memphis Depay and Park Ji-Sung on the flanks, while Adam Maher, Stijn Schaars and Georginio Wijnaldum formed a midfield three.
PSV started the match well, but Milan’s experience proved to be vital against a young side that lacked penetration.
Similar to the first leg, PSV’s energy and will to attack, allowed the Dutch side to start the match brightly. Cocu’s men had a fair amount of possession, but they looked dangerous when they didn’t have the ball. PSV pressed Milan higher up the pitch when the Italian side played the ball from the back, forcing them to concede possession or clear their lines. Considering Milan’s centre backs aren’t great on the ball, it was a logical plan – Cocu wanted his men to win the ball in Milan’s final third, but also keep the Italians away from their net. Milan were keen to get the ball wide, so Park and Depay closed down the Milan fullbacks, while Jetro Willems and Joshua Brenet got tight to the Milan wide men, further up the pitch.
Milan’s pressing was less rigorous, but it worked to fruition and led to Boateng’s opener, in the ninth minute. Opposed to pressing higher up the pitch, Milan worked hard to win the ball, when they conceded possession in their final third. They hounded PSV’s inexperienced side relentlessly, which made up for their lack of creativity, as they constantly won the ball in key areas.
Milan went through large portions of the match without the ball, but they were content without possession. They often dropped into a 4-5-1 with El Shaarawy and Boateng tucking infield – Milan covered spaces well as a unit, and nullified activity between the lines. Boateng and El Shaarawy worked hard tracking back to prevent potential overloads, while the midfield (de Jong and Montolivo) made a total of eight interceptions throughout the match.
For all the possession Cocu’s men had, they were often in deep positions. PSV’s wingers failed to find space between the lines when drifting centrally and they were unable to get in behind the Milan back line, due to the lack of penetration.
Milan’s shape defensively was superb – their midfield trio was compact and organized, which proved to be difficult for the young Dutch side to break down.
One of the distinct elements in the match was the midfield battle, due to both sides playing identical systems. Milan thrived in this aspect due to their solid shape, leaving PSV’s midfield trio frustrated. Montolivo tracked Maher’s movement in advanced areas – more so to the left – Muntari was keen on lunging into tackles when Wijnaldum pushed forward, while De Jong stepped higher up the pitch to press Schaars. PSV’s midfield three offered no substantial threat in Milan’s final third, often taking shots from 25 yards out, due to their inability to play penetrating passes between the lines or get behind the Milan defence.
De Jong was one of the top players on the night – defensively he was superb, but his safe, reliable passing set the tempo for Milan’s attack. Despite the early pressure, Milan’s midfield was able to play passes freely into wide areas, and unlike the Dutch side, they played passes between the lines – Boateng received a pass between the lines from midfield, which led to his opener.
The match was relatively tight in the first half, but Milan’s dominance on both ends in midfield, merited their lead.
A constant theme in the first half was Milan’s aim to attack the right side. Depay wasn’t providing Willems protection, thus allowing Milan to create overlaps. Boateng drifted into central positions on numerous occasions, which allowed Abate to push forward and deliver crosses. Allegri’s intent to isolate Willems was evident, and Milan nearly took the lead when Montolivo attacked a large gap of space, due to Boateng’s movement, but the Italian midfielder fired is shot inches wide of the post.
Milan’s successful overlaps wasn’t decisive in the result, but it was one of the various outlets Allegri’s men used when going forward, getting them into dangerous positions in the final third.
Balotelli had himself arguably his breakout match in Europe, despite this only being a qualifier. The Italian striker displayed why many around the world are so fond of the abilities he possesses. Balotelli scored the second goal of the night, putting the tie out of reach, and although the significance of the goal was high, the Milan striker was imperious in other aspects.
One of the key traits in Balotelli’s game is his ability to turn on either foot when holding up the ball. This adds an unpredictable element to Balotelli’s game, leaving defenders questioning how to defend him, without committing a foul. The Milan striker used his brute strength to hold up the ball and bring his midfield towards him, as they sat relatively sat deep throughout the match – but his vision to link play with galloping wingers and fullbacks was exceptional. Albeit being booked for committing a cynical foul, Balotelli led the press well, and during the second half, he dropped deeper to help Milan sustain their shape.
We don’t get to see Balotelli play at this level often, but it’s evident that he’s capable of doing so, and these European nights may be beneficial to the Italian striker, who intends on being one of the best players in the world.
PSV started the second half in fine fashion, and nearly equalized when Depay delivered a cross to Wijnaldum, but Abbiati saved the Dutch midfielder’s shot from five yards out. Cocu made a tactical change introducing Florian Jozefzoon for Park, who in fairness had a quiet outing. Jozefzoon’s direct threat was what Cocu felt his side needed, and the Dutch attacker constantly tried to get the better of De Scigilo, but the Italian full back handled the situation superbly.
Abbiati had little work to do, compared to the first half, where he had to make a few key stops from distance. The second half lacked any significant themes – Milan sat deeper and deeper as the match wore on, keeping their 4-5-1 shape intact and PSV’s midfield didn’t provide creativity, penetration or the final ball needed to create clear-cut opportunities.
Milan’s defensive approach nullified PSV’s attack, whereas on the attacking end, their superiority in midfield, along with being clinical in front of goal, proved to be vital.
PSV’s young side held their own against Allegri’s men, but their main strength in midfield was cancelled out. Conceding goals in the opening nine minutes of each half, despite good starts, also didn’t play into their hands. Whether they can replicate last year’s success this season is indecisive, but this is a great lesson for the several young players in Cocu’s side who aim to move abroad in the near future.
Allegri’s men were a class above their Dutch opponents on the night – Balotelli’s mature display, the midfield trio’s ability to nullify and expose PSV, along with the standout outings from Abbiati and De Sciglio, all led to an impressive Milan performance. While they do enter the Champions League group stage, failure to strengthen the midfield and defence, could harm them later on in the tournament. In hindsight, their key men rose to the occasion, and will need to do so throughout the season, if they intend on challenging for trophies.