Without a doubt, one of the most memorable European nights in AC Milan’s history came against Manchester United at the San Siro in 2007.
The Red Devils had arrived in Milan with a 3-2 lead from the first leg despite Kaka’s heroics at Old Trafford. It was a match that pitted two of the best teams at the time, led by two of the best footballers at the time – Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Milan emerged the final winner after a flawless performance in the rain at San Siro.
While on the field they were some of the best players of the first decade of the new century, on the bench two of the great minds of football met – Sir Alex Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti. Sir Alex had won the first meeting, but the Italian was merciless in the second leg.
Let’s go back to that great match in Milan that Rossoneri fans labeled “La Partita Perfetta”.
Ancelotti’s Christmas tree
After Andriy Shevchenko went to Chelsea and Manuel Rui Costa returned to Benfica, Ancelotti had to make some tactical changes. Papa Carlo has proven once again that he can handle any situation and is one of the best when it comes to working with footballers on a human level.
Ancelotti has designed his system so that his biggest stars can shine, whatever they do to bring success to Milan.
The Italian specialist invented the 4-3-2-1 system, which became known as the “Christmas Tree” because of its shape. Ancelotti settled on a scheme with four defenders, three midfielders and two attacking players behind the central striker, “forgetting” about the flanks.
Thus, Ancelotti wanted to achieve total dominance in the central part of the pitch. And he had the players to do it – at the time Milan had some of the most skilled midfield artists in the likes of Kaka, Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo.
With players like Marek Jankulovski and Massimo Odo, the Rossoneri covered the flanks. Meanwhile, Massimo Ambrosini and Gennaro Gattuso secured the area in front of the goal.
The two stars
To a greater or lesser extent, Milan depended on the brilliance of Kaka’s play. The role of the Brazilian was to find the empty spaces in which to receive the ball, then with it either outrun the opponent or eliminate him with a one-on-one dribble. Because of these qualities, Kaka was given complete freedom by Ancelotti.
The Brazilian often returned close to his own penalty area to assist in defensive actions or to receive the ball. He also often moved out to the right wing to create more attacking width, constantly searching for the ball, ready to finish off any Milan counter.
On the other side was Ronaldo. The Portuguese is a few years younger than Kaká and despite being one of United’s key players, considering what a nightmare he has become, he was still just a rising star at the San Siro.
Cristiano started the game on the left wing in an attempt to trouble Odo. Gabriel Heinze also helped him in this endeavor.
As we have already noted, the key to the victory over United was Ancelotti’s midfield. In the original scheme, Pirlo was drawn at the back of the midfield, just in front of the defence, from where he could thread long passes forward. Gattuso and Ambrosini had an obligation to look after the flanks too – they were the hard workers, the people who had to run the most. Seedorf was drawn behind the striker next to Kaka.
Showing himself to be a great tactician, however, Ancelotti often turned the Christmas tree into a diamond, with Pirlo at the top. Gattuso played as a defensive midfielder and Seedorf moved to the left. At another point, the Dutchman was passing back to Gattuso in front of the defence, with Ambrosini and Pirlo being given permission to join the attack.
In this way, the “Rossoneri” again secured themselves at the back, but constantly changed the players they attacked with, so that everyone conserved their strength and were as energetic as possible when they were required to be involved in more forward positions.
Inzaghi’s Role: Pipo will forever go down in history with his actions in the penalty area. Sir Alex even once joked that he was born into an ambush. But Inzaghi was much more than that in this match. With his inexhaustible energy, the striker started the press, dragged defenders, with which he opened spaces for Kaka, Seedorf and Pirlo. And was the main goal of all crosses in the penalty area.
United’s view: While Milan’s tactics were based on the Christmas tree, Ferguson’s idea was to get the ball from Van der Sar to the strikers as quickly as possible. United went out in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Carrick was tasked with defensive duties, while Scholes was expected to direct play from the centre.
The most creative player of the guests was Ronaldo, but Fergie’s plan to leave him 1v1 against Odo did not work. Instead, Ancelotti was well aware that this would be Cristiano’s goal, so Gattuso and Ambrosini often assisted the full-back and provided numerical superiority on the flank.
Rooney led the attack but often dropped back a bit, allowing Ronaldo and Giggs to finish the attacks. United also relied heavily on full-backs in John O’Shea and Heinze to help in attack.
Milan Press: Of course, in 2007 we can’t talk about a Klopp or Pep Guardiola-type press like we see today from Liverpool and Manchester City, but the Rossoneri did perfectly in this aspect. The saturated midsection helped them to “fly” to the ball every time they lost it and limit the opportunities in front of the opponent.
And while the home side’s first goal came after confusion in United’s defence, the second came thanks to a dedicated press from Inzaghi and Pirlo.
United needed two goals (due to the away goal rule) and Ferguson immediately switched to a 4-3-3 formation. Ronaldo was given a free role and Giggs returned to his starting position on the left. The “Red Devils” started to attack more massively, feeling that the ranking of the final was slipping away from them.
Ancelotti’s trap: To control the situation, Ancelotti switched to the so-called “middle block” scheme. In it, the players try to be as close as possible to each other in the middle of the field, both horizontally and vertically.
The advantage of this scheme is that it entices the opposition to attack, creating a hole between their midfielders and forwards and the defensive line. If the opponent’s attack is unsuccessful, the “middle block” is extremely effective, because his attackers are close – between the midfielders and the opponent’s defense line, and the ball can reach them easily and quickly.
Knowing that United needed goals, Ancelotti did just that. Kaká and Inzaghi/Gilardino were sent between the visitors’ lines and the effect was instant, and reserve Gilardino decided everything with a goal ten minutes before the end.
It was truly one of Milan’s greatest teams, and Ancelotti – a Rossoneri legend as a player – managed to build a truly brilliant squad as a coach as well.
Despite losing Shevchenko and failing to find a replacement, Don Carlo demonstrated his tactical brilliance. With the victory over United, Milan secured an opportunity for revenge against Liverpool and the nightmarish night in Istanbul two years earlier and did not miss it.
A year later, United proved their class again, winning the cup for the third time in their history. But in 2007, he was simply not ready to compete with that Milan of Ancelotti.