If you’ve stepped away from the Italian game for a few years, you will notice that the calcio stereotypes do not necessarily fit. While defence is still prized by the top clubs and the Azzurri will feature one of the best backlines in the world game, Serie A has more diversity of styles and play than in the past. A key example of these is Sassuolo, the little Italian club who rose to Serie A behind an aggressive pressing style more common in northern European leagues. Behind manager Eusebio di Francesco, the Neroverdi are possibly the most exciting team in Serie A, even when they have a down season like this one.
This weekend they hosted AC Milan, the exact opposite kind of club to Sassuolo. World famous, wealthy, and conservative, the Rossoneri had never defeated Sassuolo on the road. The match would pit two contrasting styles with the more traditional approach seeking to challenge for a European spot while the newer, more stylish one simply looking to climb the table.
Francesco’s side came out in their usual 4-3-3 but Milan countered with a similar formation. Manager Vincenzo Montello decided to exploit an advantage on the wings by deploying former Everton and Barcelona player Gerard Deulofeu and Jose Sosa wide. During the first half they ran rampant up and down the sidelines and allowed Carlos Bacca and others to receive good service from the wings. The space provided by the forward push also allowed Sassuolo space on the wings, making the center of the pitch look near immaculate in this match.
The post-game reports will focus on the missed Berrardi penalty and the Bacca goal that should have been disallowed. Those plays epitomize what was an ugly match. The game should have been more free-flowing but because both sides allowed so much space for the opposition to fill, players resorted to rash fouls and cynical plays. Francesco after the match complained about the officiating and fouls impacting his team’s ability to play their style of calcio.
After the Bacca goal, Montello reverted to his usual style of pulling his team back and defending deep. The 4-3-3 became more compact, focusing on the middle of the pitch and allowing Sassuolo the wings. The home side responded early in the second half by shifting to a 4-2-3-1 to allow a focal point for the crosses and for a while it seemed like Sassuolo would create a breakthrough. However, Milan continued to hunker down and responded with their own formation shift to a 4-3-1-2.
Milan are slowly climbing the table after a slow start based on the traditional Italian formula of fortuitous scoring, a stout defence, and a mentality that one goal is enough to win. The players in front of young Donnarumma are not as world class as those on competitors atop the table, but Montello has installed a traditional and successful formula to get results. Despite its diversification and more engaging style of play, sometime a good conservative defence is good enough to win in Serie A.