Marseille vs AC Milan

We covered both sides route to the final in this preview piece, which provides a greater context of how how each team was formulated as well as how their season had progressed prior to qualifying for the Champions League Final.

Starting Line Ups

Marseille Line Up:

An injury concern had left Franck Sauzee out of the starting line up in Marseille’s Matchday 6 game against Club Brugge, however the influential Frenchman was re-instated to the lineup to partner Deschamps in central midfield. Eydelie had by now cemented his place at right wing back in the starting lineup, a change which originated after Angloma replaced Casoni in the backline at the turn of the year, completing the trio beside Boli and Desailly.

Goethals also altered the front line slightly, favoring the wide players to be able to cut inside on their stronger side and using the size and strength of Boksic centrally who would typically operate off the right.

AC Milan Line Up:

As Milan had already qualified for the final heading into Matchday 6 Fabio Capello would name a heavily rotated squad for their game with PSV. Considering Milan still won 2-0 illustrates the strength of squad at Capello’s disposal.

Capello had navigated UEFA’s three foreign player limit throughout the tournament by rotating his selections, however for this match he would choose to leave out Ruud Guillit, Zvonimir Boban and Dejan Savicevic. He instead chose to go with Marco Van Basten, who made the lineup despite having undergone major ankle surgery only a few months prior to the final, Frank Rijkaard, who very few would have disagreed with his selection, and former Marseille striker Jean Pierre Papin who would only make the bench. Given Van Basten’s injury situation and lack of form the decision to omit Papin appeared optimistic at best, however the Dutchman’s talismanic reputation certainly went before him at this time.

Another surprise inclusion had been Roberto Donadoni who had only featured in one Champions League match thus far, however given his work ethic in defense and attack it was perhaps an insurance policy to cover the attacking quality of Di Meco and Voller on Marseille’s left hand side.

First Half Tactical Analysis

Defensive Strategies

While Marseille and Milan are two incredibly talented sides full of attacking quality, there can be little doubt that while vastly different the foundation each side is built upon is that of a solid defensive base.

Fabio Capello had augmented his squad almost continually throughout his first two years in charge of AC Milan, yet he did remain committed to the style that Arigo Sacchi had implemented dating back to the late 80s. When we think of pressing in a contemporary sense it’s commonly understood that the strikers initiate the forward movements by moving toward the ball, with the remaining players working forward to close the gaps behind the forwards and therefore reducing the length of the field. The genesis of AC Milan’s shape without the ball can actually be traced back to the other end of the field, in that Capello, and Sacchi before him, used a highly aggressive defensive line which reacted to a backwards pass from the opponent like a sprinter would to the bang of a starting pistol. In complete choreographed unison we see Milan’s narrow back four sprint forward in a fashion that is almost reckless, given one slight error and a Marseille striker is in on goal. It’s worth noting that in 1993 we are still in an era where any attacker who is in an offside position is classed as “active”, regardless of whether there is an attempt to play the ball.

Throughout this campaign Marseille had shown themselves to be at their most dangerous during moments of transition, so as a means of orchestrating where these transition points would occur Goethals put together a defensive strategy that began with lowering the line of confrontation from his front three. He would then position Voller and Pele on the wings to cover Milan’s full backs to create a 5-4-1 formation without the ball, which was further compacted on the back end by using a high defensive line. While this would provide Costacurta and Baresi with more time on the ball it also limited their choices to either a short pass into midfield or a long ball over the top where the athleticism of Desailly, Boli and Angloma would likely thwart that of Massaro or Van Basten in a foot race.

Milan Build Up Play

Another hallmark of this Milan side is the rotations they use in wide positions during periods of buildup, whereby the ball side full back and winger use movements that look to exploit the opposition by pulling them out of their defensive shape. In this clip we see Baresi carrying the ball into a deep halfspace area and just as he’s about to connect with the pass we see left winger Lentini checking forward to the ball pulling with him Jean-Jacques Eydelie. As the ball travels forward and the camera pans down the wing we see that Maldini has raced forward and is now in a crossing position in the final third, with Abedi Pele furiously tracking back to block the cross.

The bounce of the ball gives Pele that extra second to get his tackle in successfully ultimately killing the move, however what has been tested here is not only Marseille’s reaction time in tracking runners on the wing but also how well they cover the middle when their defensive line is faced with a wide attack. In this image we see Boli has moved across to cover Pele, leaving Desailly and Angloma to defend the middle where neither have really picked up Van Basten and Massaro who would be on hand to attack the cross should Maldini make a connection.

Marseille’s overall defensive performance in the first half was very impressive, which went some way to reducing Milan’s shot total to five from open play. There were two chances that will still give Goethals something to correct in the Marseille dressing room at half time, both of which came from opportune attack play from Milan.

When Milan’s back line is forced to defend aerial balls their midfield line converges to attack the 2nd ball from a very narrow starting position. Both Albertini and Rijkaard patrolled the spaces in front of the defensive line and were complimented by Donadoni and Lentini moving inside from the wings almost into attacking midfield positions. All four players worked to create attacks for Massaro and Van Basten, either through dribbling forward or direct through balls, as both were left to remain on the high line forcing the Marseille back line to drop in anticipation or take the risk of holding their line and allowing a forward run in behind them.

Marseille’s high defensive line often thwarted Milan’s attempts at the rotational patterns they liked to use in wide areas, yet in doing so it led to a few glimpses of how dangerous Massaro’s movement could be if Marseille’s forward press wasn’t able to get enough pressure on the ball.

Marseille Transition

On a surface level Marseille have a back five and midfield pairing that are highly functioning defensive unit, therefore it would be enough for some managers to use this strength to cancel out an opponent in the hope that fatigue would eventually level the playing field. What impressed me about Goethals defensive strategy in the first half was how he used his side’s defensive structure to accentuate its major strength, which lay in their potency via counter attacks.

In Sauzee and Deschamps Marseille have two midfielders who have turned interceptions into an art form, therefore when Voller and Pele drop to cover the wings they do so to force play towards where their midfield partners do their best work. With Milan’s full backs Tassoti and Maldini primed to move forward this gave Marseille the perfect transition point in which to pass wide if and when Sauzee and Deschamps are on hand to rob possession from Baresi or Costacurta. Marseille’s attacking trident offer the perfect blend of pace and power, each of which capable of scoring on their own but exponentially stronger when they work in unison.

Marseille Opening Goal

In what was a very even contest in the opening forty-five minutes each side shared a couple of moments where they had threatened to open the scoring. A header from Massaro narrowly missed the mark at the end of a Lentini inspired counterattack and was followed up with a Van Basten turn and hit inside the box only to be blocked by the feet of Fabian Barthez. Rudi Voller and Alen Boksic had shots from similar positions as each out foxed the Milan back line before having their efforts quashed by Sebastiano Rossi in the Milan goal. Yet it was to be Marseille that went ahead on 43 minutes.

A goal kick from Barthez, which was initially cleared by the Milan back line, found its way to Sauzee in midfield who passed back to Boli to restart play. The French defender carried the ball a short distance before finding Alen Boksic between Milan’s lines who immediately fed the ball wide to Abedi Pele. The Ghanian blitzed past Paolo Maldini with all the velocity of a jet engine, yet the ball remained glued to his right foot the entire time.

In a desperate last attempt to prevent an easy cross Maldini made a reaching slide tackle that would connect cleanly with the ball, but more importantly it flicked up onto the forehead of Abedi Pele who had fallen as the challenge was made. Despite the protests of the surrounding Milan defenders the linesman incorrectly pointed to the corner flag, thus awarding Marseille the corner kick.

Abedi Pele would take the resulting kick, swinging the ball into the front post area where Basil Boli would rise above Frank Rijkaard to glance a header into the bottom left-hand corner of the Milan net to give Marseille a 1-0 lead. Interestingly Sebastiano Rossi had went without a player on the back post instead using Baresi as the spare man in the front zone, who in tandem with Rijkaard failed to prevent Boli from connecting with the header.

It would be hard to argue that Marseille’s goal arrived against the run of play, even with AC Milan controlling large parts of the possession in the half. Both teams had shown an equal level of attacking intent albeit from different starting points, a fact that would be amplified further in the second half as Milan sought retribution and Marseille worked to protect their lead.

Second Half Analysis

AC Milan Tactical Switch

Neither coach would make any changes at half time, however after only 10 minutes of the second half Fabio Capello would replace Roberto Donadoni with former Marseille striker Jean Pierre Papin. The Frenchman would join Van Basten as a second striker, with Daniele Massaro dropping into right midfield.

There was an immediate shift in the way AC Milan built their attacks after this substitution, venturing away from the wide area attacks of the first half and now far more central focused with Van Basten dropping off the high line to serve as a target forward. Once the Milan back line had directed their passes into Van Basten the next phase of the attack saw Massaro, Lentini and Papin attack the space behind him, with Albertini and Rijkaard moving forward to link back with the Dutchman to maintain the flow of the attack.

In response to Milan’s new attacking approach, we saw both the Corinthian and the cynical sides of Marseille’s defense. There were many instances when the Marseille back line were simply too athletic for Van Basten raising above him to power a header forward, however we also saw a tackle from Boli that even by 1993 standards was utterly reckless and would conspire to the unfortunate demise of Van Basten’s career thereafter.

Marseille Defensive Strategy

While there were many examples of quality individual defending from the Marseille players, where they excelled tactically in this match was in managing AC Milan’s counter attacks. As frustration grew within the Milan side and fewer direct passes were finding their way into Van Basten, mainly as they were in fear of the ball coming straight back, Baresi, Rijkaard and Albertini began to carry the ball forward in search of creating attacks closer to Marseille’s goal. Earlier in the competition Goethals had set up Deschamps and Sauzee to pounce on any second balls in midfield, using counter pressure to not only regenerate attacks should they break down but also as a means of preventing their opponent from creating a counterattack of their own.

After Capello’s Van Basten switch Goethals would instruct Deschamps and Sauzee to break from the conventional and collapse backwards after an attack had broken down, using all their tactical intelligence to usher play toward the sidelines in an attempt to slow down Milan’s attack and allow Voller and Pele more time to work back and cover the wings.

Marseille Professionalism

In truth, large portions of the second half felt like Marseille were tightening their vice-like grip on the game through sheer professionalism. Playing for fouls, winning throw ins to gain territory and transitioning into wide areas were all part of blunting any momentum AC Milan had hoped to build. Goethals second half substitutes were both conservative changes that saw Eric Durand and Jean-Christophe Thomas provide fresh legs in replacing Rudi Voller and Franck Sauzee who had given their all.

After three sharp blows of his whistle, Swiss referee Kurt Rothlisberger would bring an end to proceedings crowning Marseille as winners of the inaugural UEFA Champions League. It’s perhaps fitting that the final would include two teams who had proven themselves to be the continent’s top sides, capping off what had been a terrific tournament with such an evenly contested match.

Data Analysis

Value of Chances:

xG Timeline:

This final began at a pace that was certainly not in keeping with the typically cagey affairs we had become accustomed to throughout the late 80s and early 90s, yet after the opening 20 minutes it was clear both sides had made a concerted effort to double down in defence as a means of building from a more solid foundation.

While AC Milan had marginally more shots in the game, they certainly had more consistency in their attacks whereas Marseille went through long periods without a shot for much of the match.

Chance Quality:

Milan certainly had more upticks in their attack play due to the higher xG of their shot locations, however it was Marseille who recorded the only big chance of the match through Alen Boksic who failed to convert a rebounded Voller strike from the center of the box.

Types of Chances Created

Outside of set pieces Marseille’s chance creation relied on the chaos after the turnover to dictate the most effective route to goal. In Pele, Voller and Boksic they have intelligent players who display a natural instinct in making the most of the space afforded to them, so it’s little surprise all three were actively involved in the few opportunities Marseille did manage to accumulate.

This AC Milan side were renowned for their lighting quick attacks, especially during moments of transition, so to see a return of zero shots on goal from counter attacks perhaps illustrates where the Italian champions inability to break down a solid Marseille defense lay.

From their 7 buildup play attacks only 4 of these would result in shot on target, adding yet another layer of disappointment given Van Basten and Papin were arguably the most prolific strike force in world football at the time.

Where Chances are Created

When analyzing AC Mian’s shot locations, it’s clear to see their finishing inside the box just wasn’t up to their usual standards, however after we remove their 4 attacks inside the box from set plays this only leaves them with 6 box shots from open play throughout the 90 minuts. 4 of these shots would take place in the first half, with only two hitting the target, therefore throughout a 2nd half that Milan desperately needed to score they could only muster 2 box shots and neither would hit the target.

The xG score shows that Marseille outperformed their chance creation by scoring more goals than the accumulative probability of their shots, whereas AC Milan under-performed against their chance creation as they failed to score despite their chances totaling higher than 1. While this is a common occurrence in football, the xG from shots on target illustrate that Marseille only managed 0.11 xG (16% of their overall total) and AC Milan 0.39 xG (33% of their overall total). While Marseille clearly did more with the chances they were presented with, whats also obvious is that Milan under performed in an area that many would suggest they’d excel.

Match Simulator

We fired up the RFA Match Simulator to replay the match 1000 times, and in doing so calculating the accumulative win percentage based on the probability of each shot. Here are the results:

About the Author

Picture of Alistair Bain

Alistair Bain

Alistair is a native of Hamilton, Scotland, and an A License qualified coach with vast experience in the football industry. Currently residing in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alistair's resume includes a variety of roles within football clubs in Scotland, England, and the United States.

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