1: What the Analytics Said
Milan generated over one expected goal from open play. The passing changed from this game compared to the last. Against Parma, Milan struggled to pass into runs that were going past the defender. There were no runs past the center backs into space behind the backline, and there were no passes to force strikers into that space. Milan tried these passes more against Bologna, and while they were not always successful, it at least is a good change. Theo’s goal is a positive example of this type of pass.
Piatek’s goal represents all of Milan’s set-piece expected goals. Piatek ran impressively into space and was the reason for the penalty. Overall good running from him and a solid penalty take. While it is not a goal from open play, it was a step in the right direction.
The defense was strong for the most part. It is always good to limit a team to 0.15 expected goals from open play. Milan shut down Bologna, and only gave up chances from two terrible mistakes. Mistakes are fixable, but the team did a good job of limiting chances.
2: Important Note on Milan’s System
The formation is a 4-1-4-1. The defense plays in a slightly curved back four, with Theo being the most progressive. In attack, both fullbacks will push forward, with Theo generally getting further forward and more central. Bennacer occupies his own block between the midfielders and the backline. The wingers drop deep and fall in line with Bonaventura and Kessie. Piatek is left alone up top. A 4-1-4-1 can work if the Wingers tuck in, but Suso and Hakan do not do that. Suso dominates the right side of the field and the formation in general shifts left. Milan has a large gap between the left side and the right side of the field. Bennacer is also shifted left to cover the space that Theo leaves in defense, with Piatek as the only player who truly plays centrally. Bonaventura and Hakan play almost in the same space, with Hakan marginally further forward. Both are not necessary. Play Bonaventura and drop Hakan because of his lack of ability to drive into the box, where he needs to be. Kessie plays to the right, and away from Bonaventura and Bennacer. He lines up in the space slightly behind and in between Suso and Piatek. Suso plays further forward than any other non-striker. This formation forces either long lateral passing between both sides or for the striker or the central defensive midfielder to be the attacking pivot. The left side lines up too deep to consistently attack the box, the right side has a better overall formation.
Leicester City plays this formation as well. Ndidi plays as a stopper, while Maddison and Tielemans play a fluid attacking and passing form of central midfield. This should be familiar so far. However, The wingers, typically Perez and Harvey Barnes will venture centrally and help provide support to Vardy. Pereira and Chilwell will go wide to cross or play Barnes and Perez into space. Tielemans will generally sit slightly deeper than Maddison, as Maddison will enter the attack consistently. Milan should take a lesson from this. Narrow the forwards, allow the attacking midfielder to attack and provide support to the striker. It is a simple change, but it has paid dividends for Leicester this season and could for Milan too.
3: Suso Plays Better, Hakan Struggles
A theme this season is that Hakan and Suso have failed to play well at the same time. Against Bologna, Suso passed well and passed on the ground. Too often this season has Suso reverted to crossing to try to find the isolated striker. Against Bologna, the right side of the field, mainly Suso, was involved with 40% of the attacking attempts and accounted for slightly less than 1 expected goal. It’s easy to identify who Milan wants to be the creative force in attack. Suso did assist on a goal (he created 0.68 of an expected assist). He made 3 recoveries in the opponent’s half and won 5 of 8 duels he entered. He also completed 36 of 47 passes. However, Suso only attempted 2 through passes and connected on one for the Theo goal. He still needs to be more aggressive with his passing, but he is trying. Suso does rate out as the third most active passer into the penalty box per 90 minutes in Serie A. However, he is struggling to shoot more efficiently and create space for his strikers. He generates the 43rd most amount of expected goals from his shooting per game. Suso has to move centrally more often. This is a solvable problem though.
Hakan, on the other hand, was poor. He has to provide more as an attacker. He struggled to affect the game to even the level of Bennacer in attack. Hakan contributed 0.09 expected goals and he had no expected assists. The left side of the field struggled in general, but Hakan made less impact on the game than either other players on the left side. He cannot be so inactive. Bonaventura had more forward passes, the same total of progressive passes, and the same completed total of passes to the final third. Hakan was not able to better the left-center midfielder.
4: The Midfield Shines Again
For multiple weeks, Milan has found a way to slow down the opposition midfield and limit chances. Bonaventura entering the trio has helped a lot, and Bennacer continues to be a steady presence. The control that Bennacer brings to the midfield is something that Milan has not seen for years. He has deservedly become Milan’s go-to center defensive midfielder. The only complaint is that Bennacer puts Marco Verratti to shame accumulating yellow cards. Hopefully, he will figure out how to avoid them soon. Kessie has also started to put in good performances more consistently. His willingness to rotate position and become an offensive player has been a nice additive to his game. Bonaventura, Bennacer, and Kessie trio is dependable and can join the attack. When they start, the midfield is a source of strength for Milan. Even when the team played Paqueta, Bennacer, and Krunic against Juventus, the midfield still prevented caps and played defense effectively. Positives are coming from this everybody.
The king Giacomo Bonaventura ⚫️ pic.twitter.com/2vF4Si6uOf— ACMGIF (@ACMGIF) December 9, 2019
5: Theo Hernandez Scores, but is Poor
The own goal is unfortunate. There is not a lot to say about with such a strange play and bounce.
Theo made a great run into a fantastic pass from Suso that leads to a goal. It was Theo’s best play of the game, even if it did not end up with a goal, luckily it did. Theo found that space and moved into it. This needs to happen more. He has been offensively strong.
Theo Hernandez is one of the signings of the season— Uncle Sharma (@unclesharma) December 8, 2019
4 goals from a left-back in December. Putting up crazy numbers.pic.twitter.com/2qynBif0nu
Defensively, Theo has a lot of room for improvement. He does not track particularly well and either forces Romagnoli to drop deep or Bennacer to shift left to cover the gap he leaves. Milan shifts left to cover the hole that Theo constantly leaves open. While tracking forward is fantastic, he leaves a large gap between himself and Romagnoli. Theo then also giving up a penalty on possibly the worst tackle of the season canceled out his goal. Theo does a lot offensively, but the defense always is concerning.
6: Strikers Play for Ninety Minutes, not Sixty
Piatek delivered a strong performance for about forty-five minutes, then he disappeared in the second half. Some of this came from the midfield struggling a bit after Bennacer was taken off, and some come from the same general issues I have written about. He struggles to pass, he would run himself into trouble and then not pass out of it, and he struggled to hold up play. What Piatek did well was press, however, he seems to be a one-man press for long periods. The 4-1-4-1 shape that Milan has been playing in can isolate the striker in a press, but Piatek is at least trying. However, he could still use more support, and a player like Rebic could easily deliver that. Paqueta could be interesting as well, however, that would require a formation switch, which seems unlikely. Leao needs to see more time soon, and a game at home against Sassuolo could be the perfect game for that.
7: The Substitutes Did Not Subtract From Milan
Paqueta and Samu at least played some offense, even though they failed when they hit the final third in the attack. They both ran at the defense and were able to counter somewhat. Both needed to be more aggressive in the final passes leading into a shot. They both struggled with that. Countering has been an issue with Milan, mainly because of tempo, but Paqueta and Samu maintained attacking impetus while countering.
Olha lá o @LucasPaqueta97 de volta e fazendo gol! #SempreMilan ⚫️ pic.twitter.com/CG4Hcdwyf5— AC Milan BR (@acmilanbr) December 5, 2019
Biglia struggled to generate breakouts from Milan’s defensive third. He also struggled to tackle. Understandably, Biglia needed to come on because Bennacer received an early card, but again, he does not do enough to make an impact on the game. He was not a total negative as he has been in other games, however, he rarely does enough to change the game.
8: Please Play These Players, They are Lonely on the Bench
Having attacking depth is good if you use it. Pioli is not using any of the other strikers consistently enough. Leao and Rebic need to see the field more. Milan needs to play these two in unison soon. If Theo is going to patrol the entirety of the left flank and Bonaventura is going to play as an advanced left center midfielder, then the left side needs a player like Leao or Rebic to go towards the box. Rebic or Leao could both play a very central left-winger and help Milan generate more chances in the box. It does not make sense to keep trying this duo of wingers that do not enter the box. It has yet to help both wingers play well and has only helped Piatek once. He needs help.
Minutes afforded to Rafael Leão in Milan's last six matches:— Sean Gillen (@SeanGillen9) December 8, 2019
Spal - 0' ⏱️
Lazio - 37' ⏱️
Juventus - 24' ⏱️
Napoli 5' ⏱️
Parma - 26' ⏱️
Bologna - 0'⏱️
Total - 92' ⏱️
Is this good for him? Already on his second coach of the season too. pic.twitter.com/RLfVxIzIjK
Rodriguez and Calabria need another start soon. I have liked Calabria when he has played so far this season. If Milan wanted to have the defensive solidity on the left side with the attacking prowess down the right, then that would be workable. This is the opposite of what Theo and Conti do they play. Remember, Milan used this duo all of last season, and both were strong. Giving the two time against Sassuolo would be smart. This would be three changes and could give Milan a new dynamic in attack. It would be useful to understand where both players are too.
9: Overall Thoughts for Next Week
While the game against Bologna was a step in a better direction, Milan still needs a more concentrated attack. Milan struggled for the last sixty-five minutes of the game. While Pioli is still ironing out some of his overall game plan, Milan needs to try some new players in the formation. If Milan can consistently generate more chances and continue to play with the defensive solidity they have had, then Milan turns into a legitimate European threat. There are eighteen possible starters for Milan when at full strength. Pioli needs to learn how to use all of them effectively. Milan can strengthen on-field performance and allow key players to rest.