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9 Things: There Are Positives, There Are Negatives, There is Frustration

Milan plays, better, but a few glaring flaws rear their ugly heads and undermine a generally strong performance.

AC Milan v Sassuolo - Italian Serie A Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Soccrates/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

The Rossoneri dominated overall, but mainly the second half. Lucas Paqueta changed Milan’s offense immediately. While Kessie was not demonstrably poor, he did not generate offense to the same level as Paqueta. Milan needed the introduction of Paqueta to change the outlook of the game. Milan’s domination of Sassuolo should have led to a goal. Instead, Sassuolo’s goalie, Pegolo saved two full expected goals. Unfortunate.

Milan’s defense dominated immediately after Paqueta’s introduction. However, this is another good sign of Milan’s defensive structure. While there were a few performances on defense that were poor, the overall defense was solid. That is a constant for Milan this season, so this not surprising. Finishing is something that can disappear for a team (look at Juventus versus… Sassuolo, huh). Milan produced well, but there is still a way for Milan to be better. However, this has been Milan’s best performance by expected goals so far.

2: Fixing the Left Side of Attack

To allow Theo to patrol the left, Hakan plays closer to central midfield. However, Hakan does not separate himself from Bonaventura, so they both do similar things from the same position. What a successful 4-1-4-1 should do is facilitate player movement into the box. If Theo is going to take the wing and Bonaventura is going to take a position slightly above the box, then Hakan mast supports the striker. A successful pas plot would show Hakan to be in line with Piatek, maybe even on top of him. Hakan is not a true left-winger, he is more of an attacking midfielder or center forward. However, lining him up out wide takes away his drive to the box.

This is a Hakan issue. Suso and Kessie can be near each other because Suso plays like a wing-back in attack with his depth and crossing, while Kessie will overlap but more centrally (Kessie does provide some box support for Piatek). However, Theo plays the left-wing in the attack, and thus Hakan, or whoever the left wing is, need to cut inside. This was one of Hakan’s least effective games of the season. Bonaventura attacked more, drove the box more, and had Milan’s most dangerous chance. Every week it becomes more apparent that Hakan has some role in buildup play, but struggles to implement himself in the attack. Leao or Rebic could play left wing in name only, and in practice, drive towards the box to provide support for Piatek. Milan should still allow Theo to drive forward, but another player needs to enter the box with consistency. Hakan has yet to be that player.

3: Leao Changes the Striking Ability

So, he must start. Pioli needs to figure out how to put him into the side. Without him, there is a dearth of shooting ability from the striker. He and Piatek play striker much differently. He is a better shooter than Piatek, but Piatek plays crosses and knockdowns better. Milan will need both. They can either play the two in tandem, drop Piatek and play Leao, or drop Hakan for Rebic and play Leao (I would play Rebic and Leao). Rebic’s Eintracht Frankfurt of last season had the sixth most expected goals, but the highest expected goal per shot. He had a combined expected goal and assist total of 12.78, good for twenty-fourth in Germany. Last season, only Suso bested that total from Rebic. The issue is the implementation of the Croatian man, not himself. He should have started from the offset. He has not been and that has caused Milan to suffer in the attack.

Leao’s shooting has been impressive when he gets the opportunities, and him hitting two posts is simply unfortunate. He has shown more flashes of ability than Piatek, and the simple technical ability makes him playable. He deserves to start against Atalanta, and if Milan can fit both strikers into the system, or play a different system, then that will produce offense. Milan just produced a lot of offense, Piatek was only responsible for less than .25 of an expected goal in seventy-nine minutes, while Leao created about .1 of an expected in eleven minutes. By rate, Leao won this competition by a lot. He deserves more time.

4: How to Maximize the Midfield to Generate Offense

I did not mind Kessie too much. Milan’s issue came from the fact that if the ball went to Hakan, he struggled to progress the offense. Taking Kessie, who is not part of build-up typically, off the field for Paqueta means that another player is put on the field who is creative. Paqueta is consistently roaming around the field as well. Paqueta is more technically gifted than Kessie, and offensively he greatly outshines the more industrious Kessie. Milan could easily play a 4-1-4-1 with Paqueta and Bonaventura in the midfield. Paqueta’s defense is not as poor as some may guess. Bennacer is more than able to cover any gap, and if the right-back will not venture forward, then there will be cover for Paqueta.

The way to make this work is simple. Play a different left-winger, who ventures centrally and in line with Piatek. As of now, Hakan presses some, but much deeper than Piatek and Suso. To maximize everyone, leave Bonaventura where his pass map location is, play Paqueta in support of Suso, and let Theo control the left-wing in the attack. Bennacer can still sit deep and mop up issues, and he also presses a surprising amount. The only issue with this, is that the forwards Milan would be using would not be particularly good at defense, except for Rebic, if he is used. Pressing is important, but Milan presses by having Piatek sprint at players poorly, and Suso cannot press or really play defense.

5: Pressing, An Art Form

Implementing a press is one of the harder things to create as a coach, however, it can become one of the most important things a team can do. Since Pioli’s appointment, Piatek has pressed though running by himself, while Hakan has been Milan’s best player through tackling and interceptions per the oppositions 30-yard line. Hakan also involves himself in duels. This is understandable as he sets himself deeper in Milan’s lineup. This allows him to take part in challenges that a midfielder would usually make in the attack. This would be fantastic if he was a midfielder, except he is not. Rebic and Samu are also aggressive in a press and do offer value in one. If the three all played together, then that press could be suffocating.

Milan presses more than average in terms of Serie A sides. Hakan presses the most and presses the best of the current front three. Piatek and Suso are very poor at pressing. For forwards and wingers, Suso and Piatek rank in the bottom twenty-five for interceptions per opposition 30 and Suso has yet to make a tackle on a press. Piatek mainly just runs around at whoever the ball carrier is until he gets tired, and Suso does not press particularly well.

Passes per defensive action (PPDA for short) measures how many passes a team allows by their opponents before they attack a ball carrier on the opposition, which can be a foul, tackle, interception, or a possession winning duel. The lower the number, the more aggressive the press is. Milan allows 8.95 passes from the other team before a player on Milan makes a tackle or interception. League average is 10.43 passes per any defensive action. While Milan does not come close to Bologna or Torino (both are top five pressing teams on the planet at 7.47 and 7.61 respectively), they do press more than teams like Liverpool or Atletico Madrid. Liverpool does have a smarter press than Milan though. Their trigger for a press is used less but is more effective. Milan also presses more than the top five league average, which is 10.99 passes before a player makes a defensive duel. What this means is that Milan presses a lot but fails to do much with these presses. However, Milan completes a defensive action more than the top five league average and Serie A average. This generally means that Milan is dueling and tackling a lot but struggling to win the ball upfield, or pressing in the midfield. Bennacer presses a lot, which is odd for a center defensive midfielder. The press either needs new personnel or needs a new trigger, that means the reason why you start pressing, so that it may be more effective. Without that, Milan will struggle to shorten the field and create quick turnovers.

While Hakan presses well, by putting Rebic on the field you can replace what Hakan gives you in a press and add the offensive creation. Rebic has pressed more than Hakan and will add more in the attack. Replacing the two seems like an easy fix.

6: Paqueta Comes in and Shows Up

Paqueta attacked the box. He was willing to go deep into the eighteen-yard box and he shot. The way to generate more offense is to start him on the right side of the midfield. Bennacer can take on the defensive responsibilities that will come from a Paqueta and Bonaventura midfield duo, but Paqueta is not bad at defense. Against Juventus, Paqueta was tasked with stopping the left side of the Bianconeri’s attack and did so with aplomb. Because offense has been a struggle for Milan all season, playing an incredibly inventive player can only help with that. While this tweet is about Leao, look at where Paqueta continuously pops up. In the box, supporting the striker.

7: The Centerbacks Played Well, but the Outside Backs were Poor

Theo and Conti had a shocking day of defense. Conti was targeted by Jeremy Boga and Sassuolo as a whole. Theo continued to track up and down the field again, but he was not targeted to the same degree as Conti. The positive for Theo was that he attacked, Conti did not. This breaks a string of two games where Conti played well. Instead, he struggled to control Boga throughout the match. Boga is an underrated player, but Conti was not tested much and struggled to tackle successfully. It was a poor showing from him. I would still like to see Calabria rejoin the team, because, yet again, he was fantastic last season and has been dropped because of two incredibly weird games.

8: Something is Coming Together Though

The midfield has been strong for weeks and the defense has remained rigid. Milan is starting to generate expected goals to a high degree more consistently as well. The major issue is that Milan ranks third to last by expected goals per shot. Quantity has outweighed quality, but some of the tactical changes above would fix that. Milan is also sixth in expected goals against, this means they give up the sixth least. Donnarumma is breaking even again on goals saved above average. Milan has not necessarily deserved to rise the table that much yet, however, there has been a run of three games where Milan has been legitimately good. Atalanta is a crucial test, and if Milan can go to Bergamo and take a win, then this positive play will slowly turn into maybe a good run of form.

9: Overall Thoughts for Next Week

Atalanta is most likely the second or third best team in Italy. They have the best attack and, shockingly enough, the fourth-best defense. Per Wyscout, they should have the third-highest point total in the league, however, some poor finishing and poor goalkeeping has put them in sixth. They should make the Champions League again. They are a team not to be taken lightly, and even though they lost last week, they still dominated Bologna. Expect them to be aggressive against Milan and to play Papu Gomez and maybe Zapata. The game can be allowed to be a back and forth affair, and Milan should have the players to hold Atalanta. If Milan attempts to soak up pressure, then Atalanta will dominate. They are simply just too good at offense to be allowed that much time on the ball. The offense will need to continue and will need more support from the full width of the pitch. Personally, I would drop Hakan and give another attacker a chance. After that, Milan should have the ability to take on Atalanta. This is a measuring stick game; Milan will need to step up.