AC Milan 0-1 Manchester United [1-2]: Tactical Analysis
Paul Pogba in action | Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Manchester United have progressed to the Europa League quarter-finals after victory against AC Milan at the San Siro

The match was another one that shown that Stefano Pioli's side are a strong outfit and one that could look to challenge for the Serie A title next season. 

They were, in fact, looking like the stronger team in the first half against the Reds, but it was a half-time substitution from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer which swayed the tie back in United's favour. Paul Pogba was introduced after being out injured since the beginning of February and he scored three minutes after entering the pitch for United. He was the super sub that United needed.

This article will focus on the tactical aspects of the match and then how the introduction of the Frenchman changed the dynamic of the game and led United to victory. 

Exploiting the right-side

It was clear that there was space to exploit on the right for the Red Devils in this match. According to WhoScored, 38% of United's attacks were from the right side and it often came in transition, as there was space in behind the attacking Theo Hernandez

It was apparent from the first minute that this was an area that United could take advantage of, as Daniel James received with space to run into on the right and was able to cross towards Mason Greenwood, but the 19-year-old could not connect. 

Duo to the tight marking system that the AC Milan midfielders deployed in central areas, United's attacks were mainly through the wide areas - only 25% of their attacks were made centrally. 

The Milan players often looked to shut out the attack on the United left-side with an overload, as shown in the image below. 

This worked in the first period as United were unable to link-up well enough in the first half to cause trouble but they managed to exploit this in the build-up to their goal. 

After trying to implement a press against United's attack on the left, the Reds were able to avoid this and then Bruno Fernandes switched the play to the right side, as Milan were focused on the left side of the pitch there was space to exploit and this ultimately led to the only goal of the game. 

AC Milan's pressing to nullify United's build-up

What made this game a very difficult one, to begin with, was the battle in central areas. Franck Kessie and Soualiho Meite had a vital role in suppressing the build-up in central areas by United. 

The pressing in wide areas has already been looked at, but the Milan pair pushed on centrally and ensured that Scott McTominay and Fred could not progress the ball and then when the United pairing did get a chance to try and progress - they were sloppy and poor on the ball, which meant that it was more difficult for Solskjaer's side to sustain pressure against Milan. 

Here, we see Dean Henderson forced into a long kick as both McTominay and Fred are marked in the build-up. 

Paul Pogba: a game-changer

The inclusion of Pogba in the second half and the role that he played was vital in United gaining control of the game. 

Marcus Rashford made way for the Frenchman, as it looked like the winger was still labouring a slight injury in the first half - but Pogba did not occupy the same role as Rashford and he instead almost acted as a third midfielder next to Fred and McTominay, but he also advanced into forward areas centrally to cause trouble for Milan, who now needed to mark both Pogba and Fernandes. 

Pogba's WhoScored heatmap against AC Milan is shown below, and it supports the claim that the substitute was operating a lot more centrally than Rashford and Luke Shaw was left to patrol the wide area. 

Paul Pogba's heatmap vs AC Milan | Courtesy of


Here is an in-game example of this and how the change benefited United. As Fred receives the ball, Fernandes is being marked and this would usually nullify United's central progression into the final third, but instead, Pogba is also in a central area while Shaw is covering the left side. This means that Fred has an easier option to play to and Pogba can receive and play forward towards Greenwood, who's on the edge of Milan's box. 

As previously mentioned, Pogba did not only help United progress into the final third but he also helped in the early stages of build-up, acting as an extra man who could link the play and bypass the press from the opposition. 

As United cause a turnover after a Milan throw-in, the hosts looked to regain possession with their press but it was not only the extra body in situations like this that Pogba added, it was the immense quality he brings that allowed them to bypass the press. He received the pass from Fernandes and immediately recognised that Fred was free to drive into space - he played a first-time flick to the Brazilian who could then drive and pass forward. 

 The Frenchman was very impressive when he came on and completed 21 passes, made two key passes and was astute defensively, winning five ground duels and one aerial duel according to SofaScore. 

He helped United in all phases of the game and scored the winning goal, but this was facilitated by Solskjaer and his instructions for the World Cup winner to play inside to aid our overall play. It was a good example of the Norwegian's improved in-game management since he's started leading the club. 


It was a great win for Manchester United as they kicked yet another strong team out of the Europa League on their quest to win the competition. 

After being injured for over a month, Pogba will be wanting to come back and help lead United to silverware at the end of the season and it was another clutch performance from him - while Solskjaer also deserves some credit for adjusting his side to beat the press that Milan implemented, yet the quality of Pogba shone through. 

Man United face Granada in the quarter-finals of the competition as they aim to win their first silverware since they won the same trophy in 2017 under Jose Mourinho.