1: What the Analytics Said
Milan should have won, but again, no one could score. The open play chance creation was not fantastic, but the set piece play was of high quality (generated 1.00 expected goal). Zlatan, especially, was adept at reaching balls played into the box, sadly every attempt was directly at the goalie. It is always good to produce 1.84 expected goals, but Milan should be focusing on generating more through open play.
Milan did not truly begin to attack until Leao and Zlatan came on in the fifty-fifth minute. The two of them added a dynamic duo that Milan had sorely lacked, a support forward and a striker who can join in link-up play. Piatek struggled, Hakan struggled, Bonaventura did not do a lot moving forward, but he was better at controlling the midfield than Hakan. The negative is Milan only generated 0.84 of an expected goal from open play. The set pieces were a legitimate positive of the Milan game, however, there should be more attacking ability from open play. It is evident that Piatek is faltering, and the only way to get Suso and Hakan to function is after substitutes, and even then, they still struggle. A total overhaul is needed. Bringing in Zlatan can help, but without a structural change to the attack and formation, the woes of Milan will continue. Zlatan cannot fix everything, Pioli will need to adjust his tactics.
2: Welcome Back Zlatan
While I do not love the message that this signing is sending, I am always glad to see him come back. To be clear, the message is that Milan is trying to solve the lack of goals by signing a club legend, which will generate positive media buzz, instead of focusing on the formation or other poor performers.
On Zlatan, I think he needs more support in his position, and I thought he and Leao created interesting plays in attack. Milan needs more attacking chemistry and ideas, which seems possible with the two of them. I would keep running with the duo in the next match week. Zlatan played in a supportive 4-2-3-1 in Los Angeles and will most likely need a strike partner in Italy. Leao could be just this player for Zlatan in Milan. He has played as a center forward before. This position is different than striker as it is supposed to provide support to a player of Zlatan’s style. Milan needs to switch formations and allow Zlatan to be a finisher. I did appreciate Zlatan dropping a bit to get more players involved in attack. I think there is something here with Zlatan, but it will require Pioli to change the formation and personnel.
[ LIVE - beIN SPORTS 3]— beIN SPORTS (@beinsports_FR) January 6, 2020
⚫️ Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back ! pic.twitter.com/Ice1WbEadM
3: What I Think Pioli Should Do
Milan must switch into a 4-3-1-2. The back line could remain the same and Bennacer, Paqueta, and Kessie should be the midfield trio. Bonaventura should sit behind Leao and Zlatan. However, this will require Pioli to break from his rigidity in the system. Paqueta and Bonaventura can play as passers into the penalty area. Leao and Zlatan can play off each other as a strike pair, with Leao doing more running than Zlatan (because Zlatan is old). Kessie can continue to play as a disruptive box to box midfielder, which he has played well. He is Milan’s best option in that role. Bennacer, Paqueta, and Bonaventura can control the forward passing, while Kessie can make runs either into the box, or provide defensive cover. Sometimes, someone needs to not constantly demand the ball, and Kessie can provide this quality.
Bennacer must remain at defensive midfield as well. I am not sure why the idea of Bennacer as a mezzala has come up. If a player has been fantastic at his position, why move him. He is a defensive midfielder, leave him there.
Calabria and Theo can still venture up field, Bennacer and the two centerbacks can provide cover. The outside backs should provide most of the crossing, and most of the width. Paqueta and Bonaventura can provide central passing, and Leao and Zlatan can focus on creating space for each other and themselves.
4: If Pioli Does not Change from the 4-1-4-1
The 4-1-4-1 has given Milan a tight midfield, but no identity in attack. To help allow attack more, Pioli should consider a more attacking trio. Pioli should play Bonaventura and Paqueta in the midfield with Kessie on the right wing in name only. Kessie will play as a box-to-box midfielder, while Paqueta or Bonaventura will be allowed to play as support to the forwards. Kessie will fill the space that Paqueta and Bonaventura leave open. Zlatan should start, and Leao should play left forward. Leao can play in support of Zlatan and stay forward to press out of possession. There will be moments where the 4-1-4-1 shape will be visible, especially when both teams are playing in the middle of the field, but the formation will be incredibly fluid, to help Zlatan as much as possible.
Dropping Suso and Hakan would show a positive sign of change, and I think that is necessary. Constantly watching these two outside players throw cross after cross into the penalty box or shooting whenever they hit the top of the box is maddening. It has not worked all season. It actually started to fall apart towards the end of last season. Milan has not found a perfect system yet and it needs to change and change soon. There is a way to salvage the season but playing a constant 4-1-4-1 is not how to right the ship.
5: What to Do with Hakan and Suso
Hakan can be a backup center attacking midfielder or a Paqueta sub. I would sell him in the January window if there is an offer over twelve million Euros, preferably he goes for fifteen. Suso’s days at Milan should be numbered and if the Sevilla rumors are true then Milan should cash in on the right winger. If Suso stays, then he will need to learn how to play a new position. Suso needs the positional flexibility to function within the squad, especially if the formation changes. If Suso can understand attacking midfielder, then he could stay as a substitute. Unfortunately, this has been a long running issue with Suso, and I doubt he can play centrally. The Spaniard should move on to greener pastures, like Sevilla.
6: What to Do with All the Strikers
Fabrizio Romano is sensing a possible exit of Piatek to Aston Villa. If Milan can receive close to what they paid for him, then Milan should accept. That leaves striking options as Zlatan, Leao, Samu, and Rebic. Boban and Maldini should not purchase another forward because that is adequate depth. Rebic needs to be given time, as he was an important contributor to Eintracht Frankfurt last season. He did not lose all his ability in one summer. The attacking duo to start should be and seems to be Leao and Zlatan. They should be a strong duo in attack.
Piatek has been better than his goal record says. He has an expected goal total of 6.88, which means he should be close to seven goals now, but sadly he is not. I have faith in him if he moves on, and I also think that Milan can solve his issues if he comes on as a substitute. However, the current attack is not what he needs, and Milan needs to adjust.
7: I am Gonna Talk About Bennacer Until My Days Are Done
Is he the best Milan player? He is not not the best Milan player. Bennacer, again, passed fantastically, shut down Sampdoria attacks, and had one strange moment where he won the challenge, but the ball ricocheted kindly to Gabbiadini. I thought Bennacer was going to get an assist towards the end of the game. His ball into Zlatan was sublime, and sadly was not converted into a full-blown shot. Bennacer solved one of Milan’s largest issues last season (ball playing central midfielder) and his quality has shown through every week. He is my player of the season so far.
Ismaël Bennacer (22) vs. Sampdoria :— Futbol Scout (@FutbolScout_) January 6, 2020
• 131 touches
• 13 ball recoveries
• 1 key pass
• 1 tackle
• 6/10 long balls
• 4/5 dribbles completed
• 8/12 ground duels won
• 3/7 aerial duels
• 3 fouls drawn
Even with Milan in dire straits, their regista continues to shine. ⚫ pic.twitter.com/F973ae8XlB
8: What Seems to Be Happening in January
Zlatan came in and it seems that a Tobido or Christensen transfer is coming. Adding Tobido or Christensen will give Milan two sets of centerbacks. Milan does not need a midfielder and should focus on how to use the outside backs more effectively. If a single rumor comes out about Milan signing a striker, then Milan fans should lose their minds. There are too many in the side already. If Milan sold Hakan or Suso, it would make this SB Nation writer very happy. Milan should try to hold onto Paqueta. The idea that he was the next Kaka was foolish. He is a good central midfielder, who can attack, play defense, and has high potential. Kessie also falls into this description, high potential, good central midfielder, and is better than Paqueta at defense. Milan should keep both and push Bonaventura up the field to attacking midfielder.
It seems that Rebic will go back to Eintracht Frankfurt, which I think is a massive failure of both coaches and the Maldini plus Boban duo. If Rebic stays, then he should play. Rebic was of high quality at Eintracht Frankfurt. I cannot believe he showed up to Milan and immediately could not make it into the squad. I would try to keep the rest of the squad together.
The only possible position to add to is center attacking midfielder. The formation will need to change first, but Milan needs depth at attacking midfield. This will most likely have to wait until the summer. There is no solely attacking midfielder on the team, and Milan needs one who is a pass-first player. Dani Olmo, Donny Van De Beek, and Alex Iwobi would all be good options. Milan needs something fresh at that position. All three of those players are feasible purchases.
Milan are considering Chelsea’s Christensen as an alternative to Todibo for the center back position https://t.co/CLtzYfkiUN— David Amoyal (@DavidAmoyal) January 8, 2020
9: Overall Thoughts
There are some things that I saw during this game that gave me hope. I do think Zlatan can add something that Milan has not quite had. He is better at reading a defense than any of the other attackers so his ability to adjust his play within a game will help generate chances. Bennacer was fantastic again, and Leao played well throughout his appearance. There is still something here, Pioli just needs to find it and soon. Per Wyscout, Milan is only two points off what is expected from them, however, that leaves them in tenth by expected points. While Milan is currently in 12th in the actual table, there is some potential to rise up the ranks in the table. Expect Cagliari to fall apart, they have been terrible this season. Most models have Cagliari in the relegation zone, fantastic finishing from them and poor finishing from teams against them have kept them high in the table. Another team will fill the gap they leave in the European spots.
What Pioli needs to understand is that the strategy and formation has been poor. The tactical plan does not push players into the box. Milan needs to stop being a passive attacking team and needs to start driving more passes central and into the box. Crosses can still happen. They should always be in the game plan, but they cannot be the only way a team breaks into the box. A formation change, one purchase, and the selling of a few players could right the ship quickly. Milan can turn this season around, but it needs fixes and needs new ideas. Hopefully, the next match week is more fun and a win.
I will be doing something a little different next week, but I think you all will enjoy it a lot. I hope you all have a good week.
Also, The Tifo Football Podcast speaks about AC Milan at the end of their most recent podcast. I recommend a listen. I thought a lot of it was smart. If anyone has any questions you can always ask me @DouglasARamsey on twitter.