1: What the Analytics Said
Milan was good, not great. Between the Posts model says that Milan would win this game about 42% of the time and Brescia 32%. Not exactly a wide margin. The new 4-4-2 formation has been a positive, but against Brescia, some of the challenges of playing it became apparent. Hakan and Samu struggled to track the entire field, the full backs quiet in buildup play or out of position in defense, the midfield was being overrun. Bennacer still passed well when he received the ball, Theo Hernandez assisted on Milan’s most dangerous chance of the game (Zlatan’s flubbed shot) and Leao was able to generate space to cross or pass early in the game. This was still better generation than Milan had prior to the formation switch. Hakan and Samu struggled to be involved and the fullbacks did not defend particularly well. These issues stunted offensive production and allowed Brescia to cross dangerously.
On a positive note, Donnarumma was good when he was called into action. Brescia shooting was generally poor, but when a save was needed Donnarumma delivered.
2: Brescia’s Attack and why it gave Milan fits
When Brescia was not crossing, Sandro Tonali was making magical passes. Brescia attacked the left side of Milan’s defense as the hole between Theo and Romagnoli was massive throughout the game. This allowed Brescia to have one of Torregrossa, Aye, or Romulo split the Milan defense and get off a shot. Brescia targeted Milan’s right less often, but still found success generating space there. When the space was created, they crossed. That was Brescia’s game plan - beat a full back, then cross. If that did not work, it was time for Tonali to make a pass out of nothing. The plan worked.
3: What Are the Difficulties of Playing a 4-4-2
A 4-4-2 is a strong formation because it provides width and allows the strikers to play off one another. A 4-4-2 is a difficult formation to play because the wingers should play inverted, yet with defensive responsibilities. The wing backs should run the entire and deliver crosses in attack. The center midfielders must be strong against a possible overload in the center of the park. In the performance against Brescia, Hakan played slightly ahead of Bennacer who played slightly ahead of Kessie. Samu played wide and on the right with Conti just behind. Theo Hernandez played the entire left channel by himself. Leao and Zlatan were a clear strike pair. Hakan moving into an attacking midfield role should have created a pivot into the strikers. However, what it did was generate a chasm between Theo and Romagnoli, which allowed Brescia to play into that space.
Why has it worked before but not now you may ask? Bennacer was too forward in the pitch in buildup, Samu became isolated from the rest of the attack, and no one supported defensively down the left side. Hakan has mediocre defensive numbers. Bonaventura or Rebic would have been better additions to the squad. Because Hakan did not track back well, and struggled to invert himself, he removed himself from the game. Samu pressed well, but the space between him and Kessie allowed the Brescia midfield to break Milan’s midfield four-man midfield. After that, the gap between Theo and Romagnoli was large enough that passing into that channel became easy. If Pioli wants to invert his wingers and have them press, then Hakan will not work, he does not run enough. Pioli should also be conscious about how much ground Bennacer needed to cover in the role he had against Brescia. There was an overcommitment in the midfield and to the left and that hurt Milan’s creation and defense.
4: Fullback Woes
Theo attacked well most of the game. Andrea Conti was non-existent. They both pushed forward slightly too much and both struggled defensively. Milan could not prevent crosses, and the two allowed significant gaps between themselves and the centerbacks. If they want to push forward, that is fine. However, they must fall back in line more often. It is possible that Milan could change their defensive shape to allow the full backs to be more advanced, however, in this formation, they must track.
5: Hakan Simply Does not Bring It Again
Another game, another no show from the winger. His one major involvement was a shot from thirty yards out. Not exactly what you would want from a starting left winger. He floated centrally and struggled to enter the penalty area. He did not pass well and was not involved in any of Milan’s more significant chances. It is frustrating to watch him play this poorly, especially after two weeks of more active, and inventive performances from Bonaventura and Rebic. While I complain about the full backs taking too many risks, the wingers are supposed to be creating offense, taking risks is crucial in that. Hakan loves to pass laterally or backwards and made only a few forward passes all match. He struggled to generate offense, which has been the theme all season.
6: Maybe Rebic Was Good the Entire Time… Oh Wait… He Was
Rebic’s introduction was an adept sub by Pioli, however, I would have taken off Hakan instead of Leao. Rebic immediately was willing to drive at players, enter in counters, and play off Zlatan. While Leao was doing all this early in the first half, he had become quiet in the second half. Seeing Rebic score for the third time in two matches made me overcome with joy. Why he was not played by Milan for the first half of the season will never make sense to me. Rebic being good is no surprise. He simply needed to see the field.
7: Leao and Zlatan Put In Inconsistent Performances
Leao struggled to generate tangible offense, however, he did manage to get crosses into Zlatan. He seemed unable to get his play into the box. It was a tough day for the young man as he had an expected goal of 0.2. His expected assists of 0.08 was not particularly impressive either. I will say that one quiet performance is admissible. Leao was a substitution candidate, especially in the second half, as none of his ideas were turning into offense. The young man is good, but sometimes you have a bad day.
Zlatan on the other hand was inconsistent in a different way. The most dangerous chance of the game was Zlatan’s missed shot in the thirty-ninth minute. It was worth around 0.5 of an expected goal. You would assume that if he got that shot again that he would score. Some of Zlatan’s numbers inflated because of poor analytics tracking. Understat credits Zlatan with an assist on the Theo shot that rang off the crossbar, but it should have been unassisted. However, the Swedish International still maintained his part in buildup play and had solid expected goal numbers, even if most of it was from one chance. I’d expect him to score soon, it just requires some finishing, or maybe some luck.
8: Donnarumma’s Strong Numbers
Donnarumma was good. He made the saves that were asked of him. However, Brescia could not hit the broad side of the earth with four of the six shots within ten yards. Donnarumma’s two most impressive saves were the header save he made around minute thirty-three, and Ndoj’s shot in minute fifty-four. Both were examples of Donnarumma reacting quickly to either a good cross, or a fantastic ball, and then setting up perfectly to get in the way of the shot. That’s strong goaltending from him. The rest of the dangerous Brescia shots either blocked or missed the net. A few of those chances barely trickled wide. There were four shots right above the six-yard box that either missed or were blocked. Donnarumma made the saves required and kept his clean sheet.
9: Overall Thoughts
Milan is not going to dominate every game. They will have games where they are slightly better than the other team. It is fine that this game was not the drubbing we might have expected, but the way Brescia opened Milan is cause for concern. When Milan plays a team like Inter, Juventus, Lazio, or Atalanta, expect those teams to find the same gaps, except when they do, they will score, especially Atalanta. Milan needs to sort out the back line. Turnover in players is fine, however, Milan needs to determine who starts on the right side of the back four. I have not liked Kjaer’s and Conti’s play this season. My choice would still be to play Mussachio and Calabria. They simply offer more than the other two.
Pioli has done well to quell the concerns of this Milanista. Suso and Hakan could be on the move. It is frustrating we did not sell them in the summer, but I do think Suso and Hakan can go somewhere else and revitalize their careers. Milan’s current play style does not support their tendencies. The new attacking core seems able to generate offense, even during off days. Rebic, Bonaventura, and Samu have become strong contributors in the last three weeks. The team will move forward and continue their progression back into the European Spots, and I would expect to be firmly in sixth sometime soon. The team is good again in my opinion.