Italian football has a reputation for being defensive born from its more methodical style of play and the country’s general ability in defending, having a particular respect for the art in much the same way the Spanish put passing on a pedestal, yet if there was ever a time the stereotype was true it was the nineties. The banning of English clubs from European competition post-Heysel just as the globalisation of the game really kicked in saw Serie A become the world’s best football league by a margin we might never see again: even teams footing up the table could amass top shelf talent and the biggest had stars rotting away in the reserves.
While this inevitably left the league brimming with quality, the early entertainment gave way to paranoia, as teams set up around world class number tens but then fielded up to three defensive midfielders to combat the opposition’s, squeezing out all the space available.
And so, in this environment, what will an early season clash between the two top teams from 1998-99 look like as they gear up for the millennium?
Both unbeaten, Lazio were set up in a 4-4-2 in typical Sven-Goran Eriksson fashion, while champions AC Milan lined up in a 3-4-1-2.
The opening of the game was very bitty. Lazio – again in true Eriksson fashion – were playing long balls up to Marcelo Salas and Alen Boksic, but against a back three with Demetrio Albertini and Massimo Ambrosini shielding, they had little opportunity to create. Milan were more patient but struggled to break down Lazio: they had an extra man in the middle yet Federico Giunti was better deeper than between the lines, while the holding players didn’t really have anyone to aim at as the two strikers were marked by four defenders. The wing-backs could also be doubled up on by the full-backs and wide midfielders.
Albertini tried to draw one of the central midfielders or Juan Sebastian Veron close to him to engineer more space for Andres Guglielminpietro on the right or for the attackers between the lines, while Paolo Maldini strode forward on the ball with Ambrosini covering behind him, yet the sheer number of Lazio defenders meant they never really had anyone to play it into. George Weah and Andriy Shevchenko dropped off between the lines (the Ukrainian also moving wide) to get on the ball and move the defence, however they were always surrounded by Lazio players and could only get it with their back to goal.
The deadlock was broken the only way it really could be: one of those multitude of defenders making a mistake. Roberto Ayala, skinned by Boksic in the build-up, missing his clearance so Veron could pounce and smash the ball past Christian Abbiati at his near post. Balls being playing behind Costacurta down the left for a drifting Boksic was a thorn in Milan’s side throughout the match, with Ayala, hardly the most mobile of defenders himself, looking uncomfortable having to cover for Costacurta. Boksic occupying Milan’s right side meant Veron often had space to come inside and curl passes over the top of the defence into the path of Salas.
It didn’t take Milan long to get back in the game. Shevchenko now roamed far more, often coming deeper than Giunti to get on the ball and it played a part in the equaliser – him picking up the ball between the lines from Maldini and spraying it into the path of Serginho. Truthfully Lazio were just sleeping. Serginho’s energy was an obvious threat that had so far been counter-acted by Conceicao’s, but he stepped up to Maldini rather than following the Brazilian’s run behind, and substitute Giuseppe Pancaro was caught cold having come on seconds before after Paolo Negro had his nuts cracked in a 50-50 with Giunti. Serginho raced behind and sent in a low cross for Weah, whose finish may have not crossed the line were it not for the head of a flailing Sinisa Mihajlovic helping to convert. When Veron and Conceicao pushed up it allowed the Lazio attack to stretch the back three, but their full-backs struggled to defend against Milan’s wing-backs when they were left alone.
Milan’s defence immediately surrendered the opportunity they had been given though. Abbiati flapped at a corner minutes later to put Lazio back in the lead, then Salas doubled it. The Chilean dropped deep for a throw-in when Ambrosini and Albertini weren’t covering, Ayala failing to follow him presumably worried about being caught high up the pitch due to his lack of pace and unsure of leaving Alessandro Costacurta and Maldini two against two with Boksic and Conceicao, who had pushed up on the right. This meant Salas was able to turn and play a perfect through ball behind Ayala – who had now belatedly stepped up to stop Salas from having a free run at the defence – to Boksic, who laid it off to Conceicao, now free due to Maldini having to step inside to cover Ayala, to cross back inside for the onrushing Salas to head home perfectly.
Shevchenko pulled one back just before half time. Much like the first, a wing-back – this time Guly – managed to isolate the full-back, Veron simply not bothering to track back. The Argentinian drove inside and squeezed it out to Shevchenko, who had time to round the keeper due to Giuseppe Favalli going to ground in an attempt to block the pass.
Shortly after half time, Shevchenko equalised. Weah won a penalty, getting tripped by Luca Marchegiani after Ambrosini was gifted the space to slide a through ball into the box, which the Ukrainian duly finished. He then completed his hat-trick with another Weah assist: the Liberian playing a pass from deep straight into Shevchenko’s feet – the defenders failing to get close as he let the ball run across his body facing the goal. Both his goals from open play had showcased Shevchenko’s quick footwork yet the full-backs had twice done an awful job.
The switch of Roberto Mancini for Boksic and then Simone Inzaghi for Diego Simeone, with the Italian partnering Salas, Mancini moving out to the left and Veron going central displayed Lazio’s new attacking intent and in response Milan’s wing-backs were pulled back to form a back five.
It of course didn’t take long for the hosts to equalise though: Veron making an untracked run (Serginho staying with Conceicao rather than joining his backline and the midfielders not following the Argentine) to follow up on a rebound and tee up Salas. Eriksson’s strategy of just throwing on more attackers lacked nuance but suited a game that had long lost its organisation. Leonardo had taken advantage of this too by substituting Giunti for the more direct Leonardo, yet his last two changes attempted to shore up his defence, bringing on centre-back Bruno N’Gotty for Serginho and a young Gennaro Gattuso for Shevchenko to see the game out.
There wasn’t a whole lot of tactical interest in the game in part due to the high number of defenders strangling all the space for the attackers in the opening stages then the complete loss of structure for the rest, but the goals go some extent to displaying why this era of Italian teams were so paranoid – one small defensive error would be jumped upon by top class players and immediately punished. It also says something about the defenders: the goals often came the few times the attackers weren’t outnumbered two-to-one, but the defenders defended in much the same way as if they had cover, aggressively jumping into challenges and leaving the attackers in space if they missed. With so much cover, the defenders generally didn’t need much discipline and the result of what happened when that cover was lost is reflected in the scoreline.