In the 1980s through to the mid-2000s, AC Milan were undoubtedly one of the marquee names in world football. Since those halcyon days under coaches of the calibre of Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti, the quality of football from the Rossoneri has dropped almost as quickly as their league position.
A recruitment strategy that showed little evidence of cohesive thinking, coupled with some questionable coaching choices, has led to season after season of disappointment for the fans in recent years.
Silvio Berlusconi, the notorious president of the club, has finally admitted that the financial expectations that came with keeping a club competitive at the top level of the European game were now beyond his means. Berlusconi had always maintained that his ideal vision for the club was one in which the first team was driven by younger players that were developed in house and schooled in the Milan way.
Ironically, now that Berlusconi has sold the club and is in his last season as an acting executive, we may be beginning to see that vision realised. Young players like Gianluigi Donnarumma and Manuel Locatelli are products of the club who also grew up as Milan supporters. They are driving a new wave of optimism amongst Milan fans. That optimism is also aided by the tactical aptitude of the new Milan coach Vincenzo Montella.
While Milan have been down and are now on their way back up, their opponents in this match, Juventus, have been at the top of their game for some time now. A combination of astute coaching and exemplary recruitment has seen the side from Turin win the last five scudetti in a row.
With their signings in the summer of Gonzalo Higuaín from Napoli and Miralem Pjanic from Roma, they effectively weakened two of their closest rivals while strengthening their own side.
Milan have started to rely on a core of young Italian players to balance out their first team squad. In this regard, Donnarumma and Locatelli were joined in the first team by Mattia De Sciglio and Alessio Romagnoli.
There was also youth in the wide areas for Milan as the Spaniard Suso started on the right and French winger M’Baye Niang played on the left.
How the traditional 4-3-3 of Milan would match up with the 3-5-2 (3-5-1-1) of Juventus would be an interesting aspect of the match. Juventus lined up as expected with the only slight change being the presence of Hernanes in midfield partnering Khedira and Pjanic. The main threat from Juve would come from their Argentine strike partnership of Higuaín and Dybala.
Solid defence from Milan
The most impressive aspect of the match from Milan’s perspective was their level of defensive discipline throughout. Juventus tend to attack as much through brute force as they do cerebral combination play as they create overloads in specific zones and simply force their way towards goal.
Here you can see Juventus progressing their attacking phase down the right hand side of the pitch. Milan have dropped their defensive and midfield units back to defend the edge of their box and are denying Juventus any easily accessible space between the lines.
The full-back will move out to press Dani Alves in possession but there is ample cover from the midfield strata to prevent the ball being moved into the feet of the near sided attacker easily.
Once again Juventus are in relatively comfortable possession of the ball. Milan were slow to press in these areas of the pitch, preferring to keep a solid defensive structure and allow their forward players to press in isolation when the opposition present an easy opportunity. This is obviously not the case in every phase and we will later see how Milan pressed the initial build-up to cause Juventus issues.
In this instance the Milan back line are all closely marking an opposition player. The key to their defensive structure is the positioning of the midfield block, who are effectively screening the central area and preventing Juventus from accessing the centre of the field.
The composition of the Juventus midfield means that they rarely have a player moving into the advanced central area of midfield, preferring to have Dybala drop deep from the front line. This makes it easier for Milan to defend in this situation as there are limited areas that Juventus will look to play in to.
Milan commit players forward
For all the defensive strengths shown by Milan in this instance, they still displayed a willingness to commit players forward into the final third throughout the game.
We have already seen that Milan were content to sit in a medium block as Juventus were in established possession of the ball. In the initial build-up, though, Milan were more likely to press in advanced areas to disrupt the Juventus progress.
There are two main avenues that we see Juventus build play in possession from the back. They will initially look to build up through their controlling midfielder in the 6 position. If this avenue is cut off then the wide defenders will look to bring the ball out from the back to access the midfield third and then the final third in this manner.
Here you can see that Milan have cut off access to the controlling midfielder and Chiellini has been pinned to the wide area by Bacca pressing horizontally. He is forced to use Alex Sandro on the left hand side to move out from the defensive area.
In the attacking transition Milan were constantly looking to pressurise the defensive line of Juventus by narrowing off their attacking structure. Niang and Suso were keen to directly challenge Bonucci and Chiellini by running either inside or outside of the wide defender and making angled runs towards the Juventus penalty area.
When you couple these movements with the runs from deeper midfield areas then the Juventus defensive structure can be found wanting.
Milan structure in build-up
When Milan are building up play they prefer to do so under Montella by playing through all three thirds of the pitch as they progress.
As you can see, Juventus were pressing high, as is the trend at the moment through top level football. Milan are brave in their build up, though, with the central defenders splitting wide across the penalty area. A single midfielder drops back between the central defenders on another line and the full-backs and second midfielder form a third line.
As the ball circulates out to the wide area, the man taking possession can then assess his options and read the movements of the closest defensive player. If he shadows inside then the ball can move out to the wide areas, and conversely if the player covers the wide pass then it can circulate inside.
The next phase of build-up is slightly different as Milan look to put quick pressure on the Juventus defensive line. Instead of linking up through the next level of the structure, Milan will look to increase the length of the next pass into the final third. The three attacking players are joined by the most advanced midfielder as they look to initiate a quick overload in the final third of the pitch.
As the ball is moved into the final third of the pitch, the full-backs and second midfield player will move up to support the play and offer the option of recycling possession.
The winning goal was scored in this manner with Milan youngster Manuel Locatelli arriving at the edge of the area to support the attack and fire an excellent shot across Buffon into the far corner of the goal.
Milan worked hard in the defensive phase to make life as uncomfortable for Juventus as possible. Juve were denied time and space on the ball in the areas that they usually like to attack from, and Milan showed a willingness and desire to transition quickly in the attacking phase and to support that transition from deeper areas.
It remains to be seen whether Milan can keep up this run of positive form but for the first time in what seems like a very long time, there are definite signs that fans of the Rossoneri can be positive about their side once more.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis