Ninety minutes into their Europa League campaign, AC Milan are at the top of Group F.
That’s the important stuff. You don’t need to read further.
But, if you really want to, we can talk about that disaster of a performance a little more.
Milan won, but this could have easily turned into a colossal night for Dudelange and an embarrassing disaster for the Rossoneri. The hosts didn’t do much in the way of attacking, but they still gave the Italian giants a run.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the highs and lows from Milan’s win.
Hey, Samu Castillejo is good
Castillejo was a bright spot for Milan. Making his first start, the Spanish winger was a positive influence in the Milan attack. The Rossoneri were really lacking when it came to the final product, but the build-up play was promising.
Of course, his greatest impact came in the form of an assist on Higuain’s winning goal. Castillejo collected the pass then quickly played the key ball into space for Higuain.
This will start to sound like it’s coming off a broken record, but Castillejo will have a big role to play in Milan this season. Whether it’s off the bench or in a modified formation (seriously, Milan should be considering a 4-2-3-1), the added attacking depth Castillejo provides will prove beneficial. Gonzalo Higuain has been deprived of service far too much in these opening matches. Castillejo showed he can be a service man.
Plus, he’s versatile. He played on the right in place of Suso, but he has been deployed on the left in his two Serie A appearances. That’s a big boost for Gennaro Gattuso’s squad.
There could be a lot of reasons for Milan’s underwhelming performance, but at least Castillejo showed why the Rossoneri were so keen to bring him from Villarreal.
The midfield really is a problem
A lot of the problems for Milan in Luxembourg were born out of the lack of cohesion in the midfield — a trio of Tiemoue Bakayoko, Jose Mauri and Andrea Bertolacci.
Look, it was perfectly reasonable of Gattuso to try out this combination in this match. Dudelange are the inferior team in the group, and with a packed schedule going forward, rotation will be crucial. Plus, it was nice to see Mauri and Bertolacci be given a chance.
But the entire trio struggled through the match. Bakayoko showed glimpses of his strength, but more often than not, he failed to retain possession, and his performance was nothing more than lackluster.
Obviously, none of the three are regular starters, but they will be called upon again, and this match leaves little room for optimism they will answer the call in a positive way.
Milan really, really, really need another midfielder or three.
If you can’t break down Dudelange...
Credit to the champions of Luxembourg; they played a compact, disciplined defensive match. But Milan had plenty of opportunities to break them down and get to goal and failed.
This doesn’t include the notable, impressive saves made by Joé Frising, but plenty more chances resulted in blocked shots, wayward passes, dispossession or a sloppy play resulting in a goal kick.
Scoring goals has been a problem early on for Milan, even with Higuain spearheading the attack. Castillejo was promising, but Fabio Borini was — more or less — Fabio Borini out on the left, and the midfield was just about useless.
Far too often, Milan settled for low-percentage shots, looking seemingly incapable of breaking down the back line of a vastly inferior team. Again, it was generally a second-string front six from Milan, sans Higuain — who probably only played because of Cutrone’s knock — but Milan’s second string should be capable of better. Even with how lackluster the performance was, this could have been 3-0.
Milan’s inability to finish in front of goal has cost them already this season. If they have any hope of competing in the Europa League and finishing in the top four in Serie A, they need to start finishing their chances.
They’re too reliant on the stars
Unsurprisingly, things picked up a bit when Hakan Calhanoglu and Franck Kessie entered the match, but that highlights concerns many had about Milan entering the season.
The first XI isn’t too shabby, but when you get beyond that, what is there?
Again, the midfielders and Borini were really uninspiring. With the importance of rotation for clubs competing on two-or-three fronts, Milan need to be able to rely on depth. Right now, it doesn’t look like they will be able to do so.
Obviously, there are reasons for this. Milan is working with tight pursestrings right now, and the rebuild will take some time. But in the immediate future, the buzz is far from palpable.
So, about the chances of winning Group F...
Olympiakos are good. Real Betis are good. Milan at their best should be fully capable of winning this group.
But will we see Milan at their best?
The points raised above all flow into each other, and they paint a really worrying picture. This team was incredibly underwhelming and had some glaring weaknesses exposed against the worst team in the group. What’s going to happen when they go to Greece and Spain in search of crucial points?
The fixtures only get harder from here, and the surrounding Serie A fixtures do, as well. Milan’s next two Europa League fixtures are preceded by a trip to Sassuolo and a Milan derby, respectively. The trip to play Real Betis is followed by a clash with Juventus three days later. Rotation is going to be a problem for this team. Gattuso will find himself relying on his stars or being forced to prioritize one competition over the other. This doesn’t bode well for the Europa League, where it is far from unreasonable to think Milan could very well crash out in the group stage.
Finishing third is definitely more than a hypothetical scenario right now.