20-year-old centerback Nikola Milenković was a surprise inclusion in Stefano Pioli’s starting lineup against Juventus. He’d been solid if unspectacular against Bologna the preceding week, but Germán Pezzella’s return from suspension meant that we expected the Serb to return to the bench. Instead, Pioli retained him in the XI at the expense of an out-of-form Vincent Laurini and Bruno Gaspar, who was responsible for the Juve goal in the away fixture.
Young Nikola repaid the mister’s faith in him with interest. After spending the initial moments in the center, with Pezzella out on the right, the two switched, which put Milenković up against the fearsome Mario Mandžukić, setting up a game-long running battle between two very large men which the youngster won. As the Viola put in an impressive performance against their arch-rivals, a lot of people are wondering if the Mountain-that-Kicks has played his way into a starting berth, with Pioli moving to a 3-man defense. If this match was anything to go by, we can draw a few conclusions.
1. 3 at the back creates problems elsewhere. Milenković, Pezzella, and Davide Astori form a rock-solid group of defenders, especially as Astori is left-footed and perfectly suited to play on the outside of the back 3. The problem, though, is further forward. Pioli has used a midfield trio in every match this season; to accommodate 3 in both at the back and in the middle, the only solution is a 3-5-2.
That means we’d see Cristiano Biraghi at left wingback and Giovanni Simeone up top, but the other striker and the right wingback are tricky. Bruno Gaspar may seem like a perfect wingback, but he’s looked bad every time he plays there; he clearly prefers to start deeper as a real fullback and then burst forward into the space that’s left in front of him rather than starting higher up. The other two solutions are to drop Federico Chiesa back, where he’d be even farther away from goal and unavailable to partner Simeone up top, or put Gil Dias there, where his propensity to cut inside would leave the flank bare all too often.
With such unappealing options there, Pioli will have to get creative, and the match against Juventus showed that he may have a trick or two up his sleeve.
2. Milenković will stay wide. Take a look at the young man’s positional heat map against Juve and you can see that, rather than dropping into more central locations as you’d expect from a 6’6 dude playing in a back 3, he’s staying out on the touchline.
He was happy to stick closely to Mandžukić out wide. The Serbia U21 defender has pace and quickness that belie his gargantuan size, so he’s actually more comfortable than you might expect matched up one-on-one against a winger, especially when that winger is more of a converted target man. In defense, Nikola’s perfectly happy to the fullback role.
3. So where does the width in attack come from? In attack, however, he creates a problem. You obviously can’t expect too much going forward from a 20-year-old playing out of position. While his height makes him an additional danger at set pieces, the heat map above shows that Milenković isn’t going to give you the width in attack that Cristiano Biraghi does on the left. Given the propensity of Chiesa and Dias to come inside, having an overlapping run down the touchline will be crucial to prevent opposing defenses from collapsing into the box.
Again, there are a couple of obvious solutions here. The first is Bruno Gaspar, but as previously discussed, he’s simply not comfortable as a wingback and tends to vanish when asked to perform in that role. Pioli probably doesn’t want Chiesa spending his energy racing backwards, as the young man sometimes looks gassed at the end of matches already. Gil Dias, while willing to contribute at the back, is left-footed and always comes inside. So who provided that width against Juve?
It was Marco Benassi. Take a look at the nominally central midfielder’s involvement. Of the 61 times he touched the ball, 34 of them came on the right wing where you’d expect someone who’s not the slightly clunky Italian to be operating. However, it was Benassi on the right wing who was involved in the absurdity of the penalty denial: it was his cross from the touchline that Giorgio Chiellini handled in the area, and he played 2 other crosses as well.
4. Yes, it feels familiar. A 3-man backline that tilts toward the right? A left wingback who drops in as a fullback but bursts forward to spam crosses into the box? A midfield three comprised of a holding player who moves the ball around, a somewhat more creative passer who operates a bit farther forward, and a third guy with an apparently undefined role? All in all, a weird mix between a 4-3-3 and a 3-5-2 that contains pieces of both without being either? Yeah, Pioli has basically reinstalled Vincenzo Montella’s tactical blueprint.
This isn’t to disrespect Pioli, who’s working with a very different group of players than Cousin Vinny did. But it’s a bit surprising that it took him this long. After all, using Benassi as a carrilero, or a central player who shuttles out wide in attack, was Pioli’s first attempt at integrating the ex-Torino man into the setup. It failed because the midfielder lacked the pace or technique to threaten a defense from out wide. But by putting Chiesa high on the right with the freedom to stay up and Milenković deep on the same side with the brief to sit back, there’s suddenly a lot of space for Benassi to float into and influence play.
Of course, this could have just been a one-off, an attempt to nullify a very specific Bianconeri attack, and we may see a return to the usual 4-3-3 next week at Atalanta, especially as la Dea don’t offer nearly the threat that Juventus do. But this sort of flexibility in strategy is a big step forward for Pioli, who has thus far tried to shoehorn players into roles rather than changing the role to fit the player. Using this setup, which features an XI with an average age of just 24, could be the formula for success over the rest of the year and for a few years after.