Milan have a long way to go before they are definitively a top-four side in a league as competitive and cutthroat as Serie A.
Both these statements can be true, even if one was more prevalent than the other during Milan’s stunning, heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Napoli in their Serie A opener.
A brilliant strike on the volley from Giacomo Bonaventura put Milan ahead within 15 minutes, and the Rossoneri endured the pressure from the hosts long enough for Davide Calabria to double the advantage just after halftime.
The warning signs had been flashing, however, and 2-0 quickly became 2-1. From then on, it was all Napoli.
Not many expected Milan to go to Naples and win. A draw would have been a great result against — at worst — the third-best team in the league. But everything unraveled, and questions are rightfully being asked.
Here are a few thoughts on Milan’s crushing defeat.
Play out of the back at your own peril
Even on paper, Napoli are the better side in all three areas of the pitch. They ran at Milan’s front three with a devastating trio of Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Arkadiusz Milik. That alone is enough to make a defender’s knees buckle.
But for a while, Milan did a pretty good job keeping the attack at bay. The problems began when a defender won the ball.
Milan have a decent defense, and they will have a better defense when Mattia Caldara takes Mateo Musacchio’s place in the coming weeks. But they don’t have the ability to play from the back the way Gattuso wants. That was made clear against Napoli. Two of Napoli’s three goals were the direct result of an inability to move the ball through the midfield after winning it in the defensive third.
It was tough to watch. The worry wasn’t from when Napoli had the ball. It was watching Musacchio and Ricardo Rodriguez try to force the ball to Alessio Romagnoli because they were so uncomfortable possessing it. At times, it seemed like a game of hot potato, only where one of the most lethal attacks in Serie A is waiting for you to screw up.
There are a few people responsible for this, and chief among them is Gattuso. One of the most lovable things about Gattuso is his confidence in his players, but it’s to a fault sometimes. There’s no clearer proof of that than thinking the personnel he has in the back are capable of transitioning and creating an attack from the defensive third. It may be how Gattuso wants to play, but it’s a manager’s responsibility to recognize when he doesn’t have the players capable to play a certain way. Maybe he should watch Empoli manager Aurelio Andreazzoli’s interview in the Week 2 preview episode of “Inside Serie A,” in which Serie A’s oldest manager describes his approach to implementing his system. Fascinating stuff.
Ideally, Gattuso will have seen what everyone else saw, which is goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is incredibly uncomfortable with the ball at his feet. He’s a young goalkeeper, and one who’s probably struggling for confidence after a roller coaster year. Forcing him into an uncomfortable situation seems reckless. He’s not Manuel Neuer. Most goalkeepers aren’t. They don’t want to play with the ball at their feet. Maybe Pepe Reina should have started. He’s familiar with that approach, having played at Napoli for so long. It seems like an opportunity was missed to demonstrate the value Reina has at Milan, even as the de facto No. 2.
So why is this the strategy for Gattuso? What’s wrong with defenders clearing the ball away upfield?
Biglia is on borrowed time
Also deserving of blame for Gattuso’s plan unraveling is Lucas Biglia, who played a greatly important role in his first season at Milan, but is already an easy target of the Milanisti this season. Biglia is injury-prone, inconsistent and aging horribly. His performance against Napoli was a cause for concern.
Napoli’s first goal came as a direct result of Biglia’s inability to corral a pass and keep the transition out of the back going. Piotr Zielinski scored seconds later.
Biglia didn’t even last an hour before being replaced by newcomer Tiémoué Bakayoko. Now, Bakayoko played a role in the second goal, for certain. He headed the ball away off a corner kick, but not well enough, as it fell perfectly for Zielinski, who volleyed it past Donnarumma. But that moment aside, Bakayoko proved an upgrade to Biglia. He wasn’t great, but he was better, and with time expect Bakayoko to prove worth the gamble on the loan move from Chelsea.
Regardless of whether Bakayoko takes his spot or not, Biglia is going to play a big role in the Milan squad this season, which begs the question: Why, oh why, did Milan let Manuel Locatelli join Sassuolo? Midfield remains a concurring spot for the Rossoneri, and it’s going to have to be all hands on deck. Biglia needs to improve on this performance, or else Milan are in trouble.
The attack still goes through Suso, for now
Neither goal Milan scored happens without Suso.
Milan’s most critical attacking player last season was again the puppet master at the San Paolo. His brilliant ball across to Fabio Borini set up the first goal, and his quick thinking put Calabria through for the second.
One match gone in this new season, and it’s some old in the Milan attack. Nothing happens without Suso’s involvement.
This was always going to be a concern going into the season, something Milan needed to improve on. It’s great to have a string-puller like Suso, but he can’t be Option A, B and C to create in the attacking third.
With the moves Milan made this summer, creativity and service will need to come from more than one position. Until it does, opponents know they only need to shut down Milan’s right winger to shut down the entire attack. This leads into the next point.
Hot take: Higuain needs some service
There was a moment late in the second half when Gonzalo Higuain tracked back into his own half to try to win possession. This was obviously problematic for a few reasons.
First, Higuain is the No. 9. He’s the target man. If he’s going back to win the ball, it’s unlikely anyone will be there to get on the end of an attacking play. Sure enough, Fabio Borini fell into the middle on that play as the target man, and that scenario is fun for no one when it’s not 3 a.m. while playing FIFA after a night of drinking.
Second, if Higuain felt he had to race all the way back to win the ball himself, he must have been feeling how all Milan fans were during the match: excruciatingly frustrated at the lack of service he was getting.
This goes back to the attack flowing through Suso, and that’s obviously a problem. But it seems like there’s a reasonable solution.
A popular opinion among Milan fans is it may be time to abandon the 4-3-3 in favor of a 4-2-3-1. This could put Hakan Calhanoglu — who is no longer suspended — into a trequartista role that would be more natural for him, with either Samu Castillejo or Bonaventura out to the left.
This move could solve a few problems. It gives Milan more creative options than just the beloved right winger. There was no presence in the middle of the attacking third. This seems problematic. Moving Calhanoglu in to a No. 10 role fixes that.
Goodness knows Higuain needs that. He was clearly frustrated all game with the lack of service. Put him in positions to score and he’ll light the net on fire, but he needs help. Milan acquired a prized asset from Juventus. They can’t let him go to waste.
(Side note on the 4-2-3-1: It could set up the Franck Kessie-Bakayoko tandem in the midfield some have been harping for, which has the added bonus of moving Biglia to the bench for certain, so that’s good.)
Can't believe I'm actually saying this, but Fabio Borini has been one of Milan's best players in this game so far.— Denis ❁ (@Deninstagram) August 25, 2018
In defense of Fabio Borini...
Going there. Doing it.
Leave Fabio Borini tf alone.
No one — absolutely no one — wanted Borini starting that match. He was never going to if Calhanoglu was available. But the postponement of the Genoa match meant Calhanoglu had to serve his suspension against Napoli. It is what it is.
Neither Castillejo nor Diego Laxalt were ever going to start that match. They have only been with the squad a matter of days. The responsibility was always going to be Borini’s. This was never a secret. The lineup Gattuso started against Real Madrid was meant to be the lineup we would see in the Serie A opener, and that’s exactly what we got.
Borini is not starter quality, but he was put in a situation where he had to start. Don’t knock him for that. It’s just how it happened. Castielljo and Laxalt — maybe even Alen Halilovic — will be options to consider before Borini moving forward.
But let’s say this for Borini: what he lacks in quality he makes up for by giving everything he has for as long as he is on the pitch. Laxalt replaced him in the 71st minute, but to that point, Borini had hauled it for Milan.
Assist aside, Borini lost the ball a lot. However, what happened after he lost the ball is what was worthy of attention. He didn’t lose the ball in dangerous spots the way Biglia and the defense did. He lost it in his own attacking third along the sideline, and when he did, he went into an all-out sprint to win it back. Most of the time he didn’t, but he made sure to put Napoli under some amount of pressure in an effort to rectify his mistake.
He’s not a player anyone will want to see on the team sheet week in and week out, but at least when he comes on for a cameo, you know he’s going to give you everything he’s got. Say what you want about him, but that’s a player worth having around.