Milan needed to bounce back after a devastating loss at Napoli to open the Serie A season, especially heading into the international break. Only one match in, the home opener against AS Roma was a must-win.
Thanks to a dramatic winner, Milan got that win, beating the Giallorossi with the last kick of the match.
Patrick Cutrone’s winner was the perfect way to cap an exciting opener, from the Curva Sud serenading Kaka to the little kid overcome with emotion as he hugged his father. Milan head into the two-week break with momentum they desperately needed.
This kid is every Milan fan right now... pic.twitter.com/tMbz79xQac— Tim Fontenault (@Tim_Fontenault) August 31, 2018
With that in mind, let’s run through some things that stood out in the win.
How the winning goal came to be
Patrick Cutrone’s winning goal was excellent every step of the way. It goes far beyond the finish itself.
Calabria with the excellent interception, Higuain with the exquisite pass to find Cutrone’s run, and Cutrone with the gem of a finish. What a goal by Milan. pic.twitter.com/sKjHSvngxT— Para (@Paracelsus) August 31, 2018
It starts with Franck Kessie, scorer of the first goal and an ever-reliable enforcer in the midfield. The Ivorian applied pressure to Steven N’Zonzi as he looked for an outlet to start a Roma counter attack. This forced N’Zonzi to make an errant pass, which Davide Calabria reacted to perfectly to make the interception. Calabria’s first touch was heavy, but he stuck with it, beating multiple Roma players to the punch to get the ball to Gonzalo Higuain. Higuain, Milan’s new target man, became the provider. He put a perfect through ball on a silver platter for Cutrone, who timed his run perfectly. Cutrone didn’t even need to take a touch to settle it. Milan’s leading scorer from last season slotted the ball past a helpless Robin Olsen.
Gennaro Gattuso’s preferred style of play reflects that of the Milan teams he played on, the Milan teams that won two Champions League titles in five seasons. This goal offered up some nostalgia. If Milan can offer up more of this going forward, good times await.
Biglia Bounces Back
The best version of Lucas Biglia is the one that doesn’t stand out for glaring mistakes. Against Roma, Biglia recovered from a woeful performance at Napoli. The Argentine midfielder looked less like a liability and more like a proper regista.
Gattuso was thrilled with Biglia’s performance, offering a vote of confidence in his post-match comments to Milan TV that makes Biglia appear untouchable in the Milan XI.
“Biglia is irreplaceable. I’m very serious when I say this. I’m not biased, he has the specific qualities I need.”
This really isn’t all that surprising. Biglia, for his shortcomings as an injury-prone, aging player prone to mistakes, can still be a productive player when healthy and the players around him aren’t making bad decisions with the ball.
The numbers speak for themselves. Biglia was outstanding against Roma.
Lucas Biglia had a ridiculous 98,2% pass accuracy while attempting 56 passes (he completed 55 of them). He also had 5 interceptions, 3 clearances and 2 tackles.— TheMilanBible (@TheMilanBible) August 31, 2018
Excellent game. pic.twitter.com/vUjHoOT13N
Those stats are ridiculous. One misplaced pass. Stalwart defending in the midfield. Don’t expect this every week from Biglia. Regista still remains a questionable position for Milan. But if he can give 75 percent of that — and way less of what he offered up against Napoli — the Rossoneri will be in good shape.
Donnarumma will take years off your life
Gianluigi Donnarumma remains one of the best young goalkeepers in the world, but growing pains remain for the 19 year old.
Take a look at Federico Fazio’s equalizer for Roma early in the second half. The ball comes in off a corner kick, and Donnarumma’s punch falls right to a Roma player. Maybe you can criticize Calabria’s failed clearance seconds later, but he was forced into an unfortunate situation.
Donnarumma is an imposing physical presence. He had a significant height advantage on everyone involved in that play. If he is going to make an aggressively play like that, he should try to catch the ball. Punching the ball away is always a risky venture, and it backfired on that corner kick.
Why did Donnarumma come out to the penalty spot on that play, anyway? It doesn’t look like the Milan defense was at risk on that play. He did not need to put himself in that situation.
On his game, Donnarumma is a presence unseen in Milan since Dida, and he has the potential to be even better than the Brazilian great. But he remains a young, nervy goalkeeper prone to mistakes. Perhaps working with Pepe Reina will help raise his game. Milan fans can certainly hope.
Higuain producing, even without goals
Milan brought Higuain in for guaranteed goals. The goals will come, but in two games he’s proven he can be an effective player when he’s not scoring.
The assist was brilliant. That is the obvious highlight of Higuain’s performance. But even on the first goal — Ricardo Rodriguez’s excellent cross to Kessie at the back post — Higuain played a simple, yet important role.
Watch the way the Roma defense — a really shaky bunch so far this season, pretty much the reason Roma have dropped five points — marks Higuain. At times, three people look to be man-marking him. As the play develops, he obviously becomes the point of emphasis by virtue of being a dangerous No. 9 roaming hungrily near the penalty spot. As Rodriguez gets in position to make the cross, Kostas Manolas points out Higuain, urging one of his teammates to get over and mark him. With so much emphasis on Higuain, Rodriguez has the chance to put a brilliant ball to the back post, where Kessie is left open to tap the ball in.
Throughout the match, Higuain did a lot of tracking back. This is where I offer a mea culpa in regard to my post-Napoli observations. Last week, Milan were a mess playing through the midfield, and it looked like Higuain was trying to compensate for that. The win over Roma was a better team performance overall, and Higuain running back to help win the ball and get Milan moving forward was a positive contribution. Higuain did this a lot when he was with Napoli, and with midfield being the weak position for Milan, having him capable of doing that while also serving as a massive distraction for defenses — allowing his teammates to get into dangerous positions — and creating chances for his teammates is something to be really excited about.
Castillejo’s optimistic cameo
Samu Castillejo played about 15 minutes in his Milan debut, coming on for Hakan Calhanoglu in the 81st minute. It was a brief performance, but it was cause for excitement. The former Villarreal midfielder showed off his speed and his ability to cause havoc in the attacking third.
Like fellow newcomer and substitute Diego Laxalt, Castillejo was a positive infusion into the team late on. Both will play big roles in the team going forward. Will they be starters? Perhaps not right now, but they certainly made an impact as substitutes, and the manager was happy to gush about them after the match.
“We dominated the match but for 40 minutes their defence was perfect. Castillejo and Laxalt were the game changer. Samuel came on with a competitive ferocity I had not seen before in training. He seemed a little indifferent to me. Instead, tonight he showed the qualities that made us sign him.”
Castillejo offers a dynamic attacking option on the left wing, and Calhanoglu is certainly better suited as trequartista, but Gattuso’s vote of confidence for Biglia makes it seem like Milan’s 4-3-3 system is here to stay. That means Castillejo is likely to be a substitute for the foreseeable future. Milan fans should be OK with that. Castillejo, Laxalt and Cutrone are starters in most other teams in Serie A. Bringing those three off the bench makes Milan dangerous.
Plus, the first winger option on the bench last season was Fabio Borini. Castillejo is a definite improvement.