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Deja Vu

Milan matches fall into the same pattern: Get a lead, hang around, and then give it up at the end of the match

WOOF, Milan has been tough to watch over the last week. On Sunday AC Milan will wrap up a ten-day, four-game slog that featured the Rossoneri competing in three Serie A fixtures and its first Europa League Group F match. Last Thursday Milan slinked past Dudelange at home, the Luxembourg squad’s first UEFA League group stage match. Ever. And yet Milan’s 0-1 win was hard fought. Three days later Milan hosted a fiery Atalanta squad fresh off a devastating 2-0 rout from SPAL. Two minutes in, Gonzalo Higuaín scored on a beautiful ball from Suso and the collective anuses of the Rossoneri faithful puckered, hoping Milan could, for the love of God, hold onto three points. Of course they’d go on tie Atalanta 2-2. Coach Gennaro Gattuso, obviously frustrated, calling his squad “two-faced,” continuing to say “this is a young squad and it is growing, but we can’t fall by the wayside. In the final 30 minutes, the team was unrecognizable.”

Against Empoli on Thursday, Milan was…consistent. A lucky strike from Lucas Biglia put Milan up only ten minutes into the match. Anuses puckered. Milan let up. Empoli equalized. Immediately after Empoli’s goal, Gattuso exchanged Fabio Borini for Patrick Cutrone and Hakan Calhanoglu for Samu Castillejo. But it was too little too late, and Milan could not rally a late goal. Back on the podium, Gattuso again lamented, “We are not a great team and we are not efficient.” The clock struck 6:00am, it was February 2nd again, “I Got You Babe” played in the background.

Let’s throw out some mediocre stats about this team: Milan is the ONLY Serie A club to have yet chalked up a clean sheet (even the goalless Frosinone have managed one); Milan has dropped more points from a winning position than any other team thus far (6 points); Milan is 11th in goals scored.

Yes, Milan has a game in hand. Yes the season is early. Yes we’re only six points away from a Champions League spot. But this team is stuck in the mud.

Why? Well for one, they can’t seem to keep pressure on their opponents by creating or finishing scoring chances. Fabio Borini is not good. In the days leading to Thursday’s away fixture, reports trickled out that Higuaín was suffering some discomfort and Cutrone wasn’t quite 100% from his ankle injury. Milan’s top two strikers were unavailable to start, and Higuaín didn’t even travel. Borini took the start and none of us were surprised by his performance. He’s played every position on the pitch besides CB and GK, and he doesn’t fit ANYWHERE on this team. Against Empoli he was weak on the wing, barely servicing anything viable into the box. He was repetitive and rote in the box. Milan’s ability to maintain pressure in the offensive third and weak midfield yet again led to an unnecessary breakdown of the defense.

I understand Borini is easily Milan’s 3rd or 4th option at striker, but it speaks more towards the squad’s depth and their inability to finish than anything else. We’re only a month into the season and already Milan is searching to its bench. That is the double edged sword of European competition. But already it is an issue for this team. Can Milan not show up without star scorer Higuaín? Is there no viable replacements for Franck Kessié in the middle of the field? Can Calhanoglu play a complete match in top form? If this squad can’t close now, how will they fair in December when the grind is on and points aren’t cheap. As a result Gattuso is under fire, and many are calling for his head. The pressure is not unearned. Gattuso needs to be more proactive on subs, and certainly needs to find something to motivate this team.

There are bright spots, though. Diego Laxalt looks as good as Borini looks terrible. When the going got tough on Thursday, it wasn’t Calhanoglu that finally managed late pressure on the wing. It was Diego Laxalt streaking up the wing and playing balls in. Suso has come into form over the last two matches, creating and taking good scoring opportunities. Castillejo is quick and hungry, and we’ve seen more heart out of him than anyone else wearing the red and black right now.

Moving forward, I don’t know what to make of this team. No result on Sunday at Sassuolo would surprise me. Sassuolo is playing exceptionally good football right now and leads the league in goals. Is two days enough time for Gattuso to whip this squad in a fury? Reports have Borini starting again…so maybe not. But Milan is running out of time. The rest of the top teams in Serie A are either coming into top form or quickly remedying their weaknesses. But Milan is stuck somewhere in the middle, like a boat taking on water: paddling while bailing out water. If the Rossoneri want to wear a UCL patch next year, Gattuso needs to plug the holes or risk sinking.