1: What the Analytics Said
MILAN WERE REALLY, TRULY, HORRID.
Last week I talked about how opening the game up, countering quickly, and resigning yourself to forfeiting chances is the best way to beat Atalanta. Milan did about none of these things and were punished in more and more comical ways. Milan’s only true chance was a Mussachio header in the first half. They then proceeded to create next to nothing and here is why it was surprising.
A) Milan had been creating a decent total of expected goals for about three weeks in a row.
B) Atalanta is not particularly good at defense.
C) Atalanta has played more games and were without more key players than Milan.
Here is why it was not surprising. Milan’s inabilities to break up field or counter quickly reared their ugly, yet predictable, heads. This was not the game to try to implement a slow game plan. The fluidity of positioning of attackers and shooting ability of Atalanta required Milan to fight fire with fire. The Rossoneri were unable to do this.
It needs to be said that Atalanta were truly fantastic. They pressed aggressively, overloaded the box, supported their striker and caused chaos in the box. They played defense in Milan’s defensive third or in the midfield. Gasperini made tactical changes throughout the game and was more fluid with his plan than Pioli. You could see the chasm between the two managers and teams
2: But Doug, How Did Atalanta Shut Down Milan so Effectively?
Atalanta presses about a full pass more than Milan per defensive action. So, that means that every 8.5 passes, Atalanta will duel, compared to Milan’s 9.3, the difference between 5th and 9th. This is a sizable gap, made even wider after this game.
How did Atalanta do this against Milan? The easiest answer is that they man-covered the centerbacks in defense and Malinovsky man-marked Bennacer. Bonaventura and Kessie then had to beat the two midfielders in front of them, which is a tall task. The entire situation got worse, because Hakan made himself difficult to pass to by occupying the same space as Bonaventura. As a result, there was no width, and Castagne could either press Rodriguez, float free, or cover center. Suso had to deal with a matchup against Gosens and Djimsiti. Leao, then, had to essentially beat all three centerbacks. The Atalanta defensive marking, and their ability to run, required Milan players to defeat each individual player in their matchup. Milan could have escaped this if they allowed themselves to become stretched and played an aggressive counter. Quick passing would have given Milan players a crutch to break around Atalanta. Instead, the buildup was painfully slow. Atalanta could press and create offense with ease in Milan’s defensive third.
Like a well-drilled team that plays fast vertical football? Atalanta Bergamo might be your cup of tea. pic.twitter.com/OsOQRPEhRu— Between The Posts (@BetweenThePosts) December 24, 2019
3: The Midfield Struggles
This is a symptom of not putting on another press breaker. With Bennacer being marked out of the game, Milan needed another inventive passer. Bonaventura is serviceable in this role, but not enough to beat a team like Atalanta. Kessie is a true box to box midfielder. While he does not get involved a lot, his defense, and positioning makes him valuable. Pioli needed to help Bennacer by putting on Paqueta. The young Brazilian can break a press, progress the ball, and be an offensive creator. While Kessie is possibly a better defender, Paqueta would have offered much more against Atalanta. Milan needed the passing support from the midfield, and without Bennacer’s passing and Bonaventura trying to be an offensive outlet, Paqueta could have broken a press and bridged a gap. It was a terrible failure from Pioli, and it brings more worry as to why Paqueta has not been used in the starting eleven.
4: No Attack for You
First Reference I hope you all understand.
Suso and Hakan are not counter-attacking players. They both slow down offense in the attacking third, and struggle to run past any of their defensive markers. Leao struggled to press and needed more support. I would have taken Hakan off for Rebic, and then thought about Suso for Piatek or Samu. These subs would have done better in a counterattack and been able to generate space in behind the block of Pasalic and Marten de Roon (It is very Banter Era Milan to have a comparable midfield of loans or academy kids that Milan let walk). If three attackers, with pace, could have broken between the lines of the midfield and centerbacks, and then played quick passes behind the defense, then Milan could have generated at least a little offense.
I do not mean to pick on Suso and Hakan so much. I do think that Suso could work on a Europa League level team, Hakan not so much. They both play very odd forms of their position, and I do not think it works for Milan anymore. However, Milan needs to push the pace more than they have been. It has become increasingly easier to pass around the worse teams. Milan can still easily do this, as seen by the last few games. However, the teams vying for Europe play a much faster style of soccer, and Milan needs to reach this speed. Pace has been an issue, and a team like Atalanta will exploit this weakness because of their total team fitness.
5: Andrea Conti Horror Show
I love to watch my right back get consistently nutmegged by attackers on the way to dangerous chances, or goals. Papu Gomez is the best player on either team, so Conti gets a bit of pass there, but not a full one. The Atalanta plan in the first half was to attack solely Andrea Conti. That left Mussachio to cover an extra man, as Conti could not keep an Atalanta player in front of him. Conti then struggled to progress up field and be available for any attacking play. His two good games have been offset with multiple poor games in a row. I still do not think that he is a suitable starter, and that the team needs to go back to Calabria. While I did not think Calabria was awesome, he at minimum was keeping the play in front of him and tried to slow down Illicic on his goal. You would like your goalie to make a save there, but sometimes he does not. Atalanta did not attack Calabria, who was playing on his wrong side, as much as they attacked Conti. They knew who was struggling more, and victimized Conti for it.
6: The Back Line Puts in a Shocker
The Papu Gomez goal is on Conti, the Pasalic goal is on Romagnoli, the second Illicic goal is on Calabria, and the Muriel goal is on Donnarumma and Mussachio. Every defender in the second half had a bad error. Rodriguez was the only Milan defender that did not, which is not shocking to me, despite all his detractors. On a day where the back line was going to have to step up, they all failed in differing ways, fun fun. Romagnoli struggled to read late runs behind him, Mussachio struggled with pace, Conti just struggled, and Calabria had an issue with a take on. Bennacer did what he could, which was tackling well, but the mistakes from the four backs killed the game for Milan. If Donnarumma had stopped one of the early goals then Milan might have been able to hold on slightly, but most of the goals were not directly his fault
7: THIS IS NOT HOW YOU PLAY STRIKERS
Ok, so Leao gets left on an island for sixty-five minutes, then Piatek is brought in, and then Leao moves to left forward, and is left on the same island. The passing at this stage in the game had become so disjointed that getting the two players to function seemed impossible. Both could have made more runs, but where was the service going to come from? The answer, nowhere. The formation needs to change to make the strikers function. I doubt the formation changes against Sampdoria and I expect instead that Pioli only rotates strikers. More change is required, and it seems unlikely it will happen
8: Where Do We Go from Here? I am not Feeling This
Second reference I hope you all understand.
Milan has struggled to hire an attacking coach for years. The two more recent coaches, Gattuso and Pioli, have a passing and defensive rigidity that usually do not allow runaway results like this one. Shockingly enough, this game happened. What I was more concerned about against Atalanta was that Milan would not attack well. Those fears were made real. The constant struggle to pass up field, break a press, and generate any attack really sank this game.
What Milan should do is really think about how it is utilizing their attackers, full backs, and right center midfielder. I would rotate these positions and try Rebic, Leao, and Piatek together. I would play Rodriguez and Calabria at the same time. I would put Paqueta in the midfield. Milan currently has the ninth ranked attack by expected goals. Pioli needs to show more fluidity to generate an attack. His lack of rotation, and his seemingly set ideas about the only players he can use will help sink Milan further. While the Atalanta game is an easy time to pile on, Pioli showed the worst possible side of his tactics. If he cannot make a tactical change in game, then issues that start in the first half will only get worse in the second. I have big concerns against the more attacking teams now. While the players were bad, the coach was worse.
When Boban said that they will move forward with Pioli because they were happy with what he did aside from 5-0 loss to Atalanta, I agreed with him- that sums up how much Milan have fallen that a manager that collected 12 points in 10 games is now seen as satisfactory— David Amoyal (@DavidAmoyal) December 23, 2019
9: Here Is A Little Fun Fact
This is Milan’s worst loss since I was a little over nine months old. Great.
The Banter Era’s greatest trick was making us think it was winding down, it is not. Milan needs more consistency with their organizational direction. While the goal is always to bring the club back to former glories, the way this has been done has varied too much. There needs to be consistency with a manager, or between the messages delivered from all fronts. Maldini and Boban need to figure this out on their own, so far, they have yet to get it right.
I hope everyone has a good break from Milan. Hopefully, we see wins when they return.