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11 Things: Halfway Through and Let’s Take a Look, AC Milan vs the League, 10th

Milan’s early season struggles took a turn for the better at midseason’s close. Positive play and results may even revitalize the year. Match week Nineteen and the Coppa Italia Round of Sixteen are in the books, so it is time to take stock.

AC Milan v SPAL - Coppa Italia Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Milan landed in 10th place with twenty-five points at midseason, exactly where expected points put them (25.6 points expected). At 24.71, Milan is in twelfth in of expected goals total; better, Milan is seventh in expected goals against at 25.86. These are middling numbers, but Milan began a strong upswing in their last two games. This seems relatively sustainable and Milan could see themselves rise in the table.

Milan is playing a new formation, 4-4-2. Let’s look at the players who can continue the momentum.

1: The Goaltending

Goaltending is not Milan’s main concern. Last season Gigio Donnarumma saved six more goals than expected. This season he is 0.5 of a goal below expected. Torino is the most notable game where he allows more goals than expected. The strange thing about Donnarumma’s season is that he has yet to have a truly ghastly game. Donnarumma has been fine, and while I think he could be better, I am not overly concerned.

2: Right Back

Fun start to the season at this position. Calabria’s early red cards, and Conti’s poor play cause concern at this position. I like what Calabria brings more than Conti, and I think that Calabria deserves to be the regular starter. He played well against Cagliari and gave more attacking support than Conti. The game against SPAL was not fantastic from Conti, as he struggled to drive up the field. Conti is an odd player as he is more of a wing back or right midfielder than he is a right back. Calabria has been a more progressive passer and better crosser per 90 minutes than Conti. Calabria passes into the box more and completes about twice as many of these passes. Conti duels defensively more than Calabria, but Conti is much less successful than Calabria in these duels. So, the two win the same number of duels during a game. Conti is targeted by opposition attacks more often than Calabria (Calcio noticed the difference), which inflates Conti’s duel numbers, but not for a good reason.

Milan needs more of what Calabria can bring than Conti.

3: Right Centerback

Matteo Mussachio has been the consistent starter at the position. He duels more than any other centerback, has the second highest success percentage in these duels, but he intercepts less than the other centerbacks. Mussachio can be error prone but has been a part of a few games where he had to deal with covering space left vacated by Conti or Calabria. There has yet to be a game where he is solely at fault for a loss. Mussachio is a serviceable player, but Milan should look to replace him. Possible upgrades for Mussachio include Fabian Schar and Stefan Posch. They are similar to Mussachio perform the role better. Schar is twenty-eight years and Posch is twenty-two. I would pick the two younger options.

4: Left Centerback

Alessio Romagnoli is a ball playing centeback who is fantastic at dueling with individual players. He provides another passing outlet deep in the field. He has been consistent this season. He can struggle at times with spatial awareness during set piece plays, but there is not much to be concerned about

In fact, Milan should count their blessings that they have a player and leader of his quality.

5: Left Back

Theo is a fantastic attacking left back, though at times a suspect defender. I can live with the defensive issues if he continues to show the attacking prowess we have seen so far. A 4-4-2 formation should help provide Theo with cover when he strides forwards. Theo was a good purchase this summer. Milan is rumored to be looking for a young backup left back, and they should, for either January or the summer.

6: Right Center Midfield

Bennacer is clearly the starter here. He has been the Milanista of the year, for me. He has deserved glowing reviews almost all season. He passes forward, duels significantly, passes well into the penalty area, and completes a sizable chunk of through passes. He is fantastic, and the complete defensive midfielder that Milan has been missing.

7: Left Center Midfield

With Bennacer taking on almost all the defensive responsibilities, his midfield partner will be the more attacking of the two. Paqueta is most likely the best option for this position, but he has not been used yet. Kessie was admirable as the true box to box midfielder against Cagliari. Krunic played well as a left center midfielder who would slide forward in attack. Both allowed Milan’s play to be fluid throughout their respective games. If Paqueta were to play, he would add passing creativity, with a loss in defensive acumen. He is the middle ground between Kessie and Krunic. Per 90 minutes, Paqueta duels and plays the third most forward passes. The two ahead in both statistics for Milan are center defensive midfielders. He has the highest long pass accuracy of any midfielder, but the second worst forward pass accuracy. Paqueta has the tools to be a good central midfielder and he would start for me.

If Krunic and Kessie are the only two options Pioli will consider, then I would pick Kessie. He passes into the penalty box more, he intercepts more, crosses less, passes forward more, and completes longer passes more often. As I said above, Milan’s left center midfielder must be a capable central attacking midfielder and Kessie could struggle with that. He is a better option than Krunic, but I would still start Paqueta.

8: Right Midfielder

Samu Castillejo has already been strong at right midfielder in his two appearances. He contributed the most expected assists during the game against Cagliari and floated in his position against SPAL. His speed, and willingness to cut inside gives him a different dynamic than Suso. He is at .17 expected goals per 90 and .21 expected assists per 90. Suso is playing at .09 expected goals per 90 and .25 expected assists. Small differences in these metrics are vaster than it seems. Samu ranks slightly above average in top five European leagues in expected goals per 90 minutes, while Suso is near the bottom in the same metric. Now, Suso has been in harder games, but Samu’s style of play would suggest that he could replicate his outputs more consistently. Samu also presses like a madman compared to the rest of the Milan’s wingers, and especially Suso. Samu duels a full four more times per 90 minutes than Suso. If the right midfielder is going to be more supportive, and play less crosses, then Pioli should stay the course with Samu, and bring Suso off the bench. Suso has struggled, and Samu could easily find the form he had at Villareal.

9: Left Midfielder

Bonaventura is the most attacking of the Milan wingers. He is more of a mezzala, but he could play as an inverted winger. Hakan has more expected assists per 90 than Jack, but Bonaventura has more expected goals per 90. Bonaventura is a more direct passer than Hakan as well. Bonaventura passes forward more accurately than Hakan, even if it is less frequent than Hakan. Jack passes To the box more than Hakan, and has more dribbles per 90 minutes than Hakan (dribbles per 90 is a fun stat and can show how aggressive a player is with his runs). Bonaventura also enters more duels than Hakan per 90 minutes and is more successful with his duels. Hakan can assist better, but Bonaventura is better at the goal scoring side of soccer. Bonaventura should be the starter.

10: Right Striker

This seems to be the Zlatan and Piatek role now. These two traditional number 9’s will be the focal point of most attacks. They will be the true finishers whenever they are in the lineup. Zlatan will most likely continue to be the starter; there were major positive signs for Piatek from Milan’s win against SPAL. He made strong runs, found himself free in space a lot, and finished a chance along with providing an assist. It was a better day from Piatek, and maybe the man who wears the number 9 shirt can rebuild his form.

Zlatan’s presence added a lot to Milan’s attack as a sub and as a starter. Hopefully he sustains this. It cannot be diminished that his introduction has changed Milan already, and helped pushed the team into a new formation. The attack already looks better and has two strong performances under its belt.

11: Left Striker

Rafael Leao and Rebic are the two support striker options for Piatek and Zlatan. I would start Leao, and Rebic would be my substitute. Rebic was inventive during his run out against SPAL. While everything he did didn’t necessarily pay off, he was able to complete crosses, and progress play well. Pioli has needed to play him more; I am not sure why he has been held out of the squad for so long.

Leao is Milan’s attacking future. If he can continue his form, and maybe progress with his creation per 90 minutes, then Milan may have solved their striking dilemma for years to come. He should be the primary starter. His potential is high, his immediate skill is high, and the results will come. In Zlatan’s first start, it was Leao who showed the best. He created more expected goals than Zlatan during the game. While they both scored one goal, it was Leao who was the more impressive. The two worked well in tandem, and they seem like a strong strike pair. He and Zlatan should get run outs for the foreseeable future.

Milan made sizable changes in the last week. The team will need to understand what makes a 4-4-2 play at its best. It is evident that Milan is headed in a better direction. I am excited for the game against Udinese and you should be too.