In the first part of the new Serie A campaign, Stefano Pioli has been trying to get his team more offensive weapons by taking advantage of the potential of his fullbacks. Lets’ see how.

In modern football, it’s very common to see fullbacks being involved in all phases of their teams’ possession. They usually have freedom during the build-up and managers try to take advantage of this in several ways. Some want them to play wide up the pitch, some use them to move the ball from the back by playing them close to center-backs, and others turn them into proper registas, moving them to the center midfield to manage the build-up. In Serie A, AC Milan has a very original use for their fullbacks: wide on the wing or close to the center, Theo Hernandez and Calabria are among the most important players during the Rossoneri build-up.

A good example is Calabria’s goal against Atalanta after less than 30 seconds from kickoff. Hernandez has left the wing to move towards the midfield. Calabria, on the other hand, is positioned high on the offensive line on the right wing and helps push Atalanta defenders back. Basically, he’s helping in creating the space centrally where Hernandez can move with the ball after the French fullback got rid of Atalanta’s first pressing and received the ball from Saelemaekers.

When he slows down to close the play with a neat pass that cuts off the last opponent’s defensive line with his left, Hernandez finds himself being Milan’s offensive midfielder. Calabria is the most advanced player, the wing that cuts from the right to the center to finalize. And he did that at the second attempt after Musso badly stopped his first one.

Those movements, particularly Theo Hernandez cutting to the center midfield, were studied to expose the weaknesses in Atalanta’s defensive system, but they were no news to AC Milan. In the match against Juventus, a fullback-to-fullback combination already created a big chance that on the occasion wasn’t converted into a goal.

Once again, Theo Hernandez set everything up by receiving in a more natural position for a fullback, wide on the left behind the opponent winger. That time too, the more advanced players’ movements were aimed at pushing back the opponent’s defensive line and creating space for Theo Hernandez to carry the ball into. Leão sprinted vertically behind the fullback, Rebic pinned the center-backs while Florenzi, by cutting towards the center while being pinned by Alex Sandro, created space on the right wing.

Hernandez didn’t do all the work by himself though, but merely passed to Brahim Diaz in the opponent third and then moved centrally to get the ball back from his teammate. At that point, conditions were pretty much what AC Milan intended them to be: with Juventus defense overloading on one side, while the opposite wing was quickly attacked by the other fullback, Pierre Kalulu.

Once again, Theo Hernandez is the advanced midfielder de facto, the player that makes the last pass in the central area close to the box, while the other fullback completes the play. Kalulu’s shot, though, was stopped by Szczesny with a great reflex save.

Against Juventus, the fullbacks’ change of position in the second half – with Hernandez playing closer to the center midfielder and Kalulu wide on the right wing – helped Milan move the ball better, therefore controlling the match. Even if they both get close to the center midfield frequently, it’s rare that fullbacks are the most involved players in the build-up, the ones who make the most passes and touch the ball the most. They don’t move to receive the ball all the time and command attacks, but they often limit themselves to create spaces, move opponents around and open channels for the teammates to run into. Sometimes, fullbacks take the responsibility to move the play forward (especially Theo Hernandez, who is formidable when he runs with the ball) and take advantage of the spaces created by their teammates. Other times, they just lure their markers up the pitch, making life easier for the defenders building up the play, whether vertically on the midfielders or the strikers.

In the image below, the attempt to manipulate Atalanta’s man-oriented pressure with fluid positions is so obvious that Milan creates a diamond in the midfield. In the lower apex, there’s Theo Hernandez, while Calabria is the mezzala on his right. Saelemaekers left the right wing and is in an advanced midfielder position. Tomori tries a long pass and Milan lose the ball.

In this situation, during the build-up, Milan create two lines of three players, with the fullbacks playing beside the center midfielder (Kessié) and Tonali covering for Calabria on the defensive line. Theo Hernandez will suffer a foul from Zappacosta and moments later, he will pass long to Rebic on the left wing.

Again against Verona – a man-marking team – Milan tried to disorganize match-ups with changes of position that led fullbacks to the center midfield, even if Theo Hernandez (who got Covid-19) was substituted by Ballo-Touré, who is more inclined to cover the wing rather than playing centrally. In the screen below, both Calabria and the Senegalese fullback move dynamically towards the center, transitioning after a ball won close to the box. This time, Calabria takes the responsibility of moving the ball forward, passes to Maldini, runs ahead to close the 1-2 and reaches the limit of the box by taking advantage of the space in the central channel. His shot, though, is too high.

The Serie A campaign has just started but AC Milan’s fullbacks offensive work is already huge: Theo Hernandez scored a goal and has served 3 assists (the best in the Rossoneri team), Calabria scored a goal and an assist, and even Kalulu already served an assist, for Maldini against Spezia. It’s also to their credit if Milan seem to have more offensive choices compared to last year: their performances will heavily influence the results of the Rossoneri.

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