A.C. Milan’s Champions League winning side of 2007 was an evolution that was five years in the making.
While Carlo Ancelotti had had success before, his system was the result of tweaking and integrating new players, particularly the full backs Jankulovski and Oddo, and fixing the defensive issues caused by the ageing of Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf.
Ancelotti had previously filled his side with central attacking playmakers, having as many as four in the 2003/04 side after adding Kaka to the then European Champions, but the 2006/07 vintage employed more width from full back, while also adding greater steel to the central areas in the form of vastly underrated water-carrier Massimo Ambrosini, who along with Gattuso, shielded the majestic Pirlo in his classic regista role.
This Milan side are set up to be patient, to probe for weakness, and to rely on the explosive pace and finishing ability of their poacher, the passing range of the regista, and the width provided by the full backs, here set as complete wing backs.
The structured team shape means that the side is both hard to break down, but also that no one goes tearing off after the ball; closing down is also set to sometimes, and both centre backs are asked to do this even less, which helps the defensive shape, especially against quick counters. A passing directness of mixed, as well as the counter instruction, allows for a bit of latitude for a more vertical pass from the regista, but generally this team work the ball forwards sensibly, relying on high skill levels and short passing ability.
The midfield is compact and tough, with a ball-winning midfielder and a central midfielder on defensive mode, both with PIs to hold position, tackle hard, and play simple passes.
The centre backs are likewise asked to play short and simple, encouraging, along with the exploit the middle and play out of defence instructions, the use of the Pirlo figure as a playmaker.
The wing backs naturally provide width and so overlap instructions aren’t needed. The attacking trident, which features perhaps the most interesting and useful role, the shadow striker, is asked to play with creativity: the two AMs are encouraged to move into channels, and while the AP(s) is told to hold up the ball, both are free-wheeling, attacking players who find space and let the goal scorer focus on scoring goals.
I only ran this formation until October, but the results were seriously encouraging. A loss to Bayern aside, A.C. Milan went undefeated through pre-season and the league to that point.
There’s no doubt that this isn’t the most exciting system, and you need to recruit a better regista than Montolivio (maybe bring the old man back for one last hurrah?), but if grinding out results is your thing, you might struggle to do better.
The system also works on control against teams that sit deeper, and if you need to tweak further, try pressing a little more and playing with greater verticality to get your players into more attacking positions. You might not win the Champions League straight away, but Ancelotti’s system will take even a poor side high up the league.