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9 Things: Painting the City Red, AC Milan vs FC Internazionale, 2-1

Would you look at that? Kings of Milan again.

FC Internazionale v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

1: What The Analytics Said

AC Milan vs FC Internazionale

Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 2 2.2 10(3) 0.22 45%
FC Internazionale 1 2.4 18(5) 0.133 55%

Not the prettiest of AC Milan performances. Similarly to last year’s 4-2 defeat, Milan generated two massive chances early in the match and then coasted. Now, the majority of FC Internazionale’s xG total came in stoppage time, but this victory was not sealed well by the Rossoneri. Prior to stoppage time, Stefano Pioli’s men kept Inter to a plethora of very small chances, holding the Nerazzurri to long-range shots and headers. Generally, these types of chances are not particularly dangerous because of the difficulty or range of the shot. However, in stoppage time, Inter began to take shots, with their feet, in the box. A Romelu Lukaku miss and a Nicolo Barella miss-hit let Milan secure all three points.

Do not let this take away from Milan’s first ninety minutes. The team held Inter back and generated a few massive chances. In truth, the lead should have been extended from any of the Milan counter-attacks. Instead, the score remained close for, possibly, far too long.

2: How the Match Shaped Up

The theme of the first half was Milan using their press-breaking abilities to blow by the Inter formation. When out of possession, Milan took advantage of the lack of structure in the Nerazzurri midfield. This allowed Zlatan Ibrahimović to press Stefan De Vrij and let Alexis Saelemaekers and Rafael Leão press two converted fullbacks. The backline structure for Conte was already in doubt with two-thirds of his starters testing positive for Covid-19. Aleksander Kolarov played at center back in the fixture. He has never been a good defensive fullback, so putting him at center back was questionable. This problem compounded because Ivan Perišić was the wingback on his side. Davide Calabria took full advantage of the Croatian’s defensive frailties and consistently drove down his flank. Inter did win Theo Hernández’s flank. Achraf Hakimi proved to be too much for the Frenchman. Theo was pedestrian during the match and Hakimi made Milan pay on a few different occasions.

Romelu Lukaku was probably the most impactful player on the pitch. He had the most personal open-play xG and the largest xG plus xA impact of any player on the field. For all the things that Milan did well, the Belgian striker almost ruined all of it. I will get back to him.

3: What Milan did Well and Inter’s Midfield

Milan pressed aggressively but found most of its success when they sprung the Inter man-marking press. Many Nerazzurri players over-committed on challenges that let Rossoneri players break into space ahead of them. This was the case in Milan’s first goal. Calabria blew past Barella with a move and then took advantage of a miss-timed step up by Marcelo Brozović. Arturo Vidal stepped to neither the pass nor Hakan Çalhanoğlu, which gave the Turk the time to pick out Ibrahimović who just avoided De Vrij, the only true center-back on the field for Inter. Obviously, this play led to a penalty, but it was the lack of midfield structure from Antonio Conte’s men that led to the opportunity.

Milan was able to cut through the Inter midfield with ease. Generally, if a team can simply bypass their opposing midfield there is probably something awry with their adversaries. For Inter, the issue was that all three players were unaware of their role. Barella, Brozović, and Vidal each wanted to play an all-action role. This led to positional difficulties and the Milan backline flying through the center of the field.

4: Counter-Attacking Should Go Better

This was a massive problem all match. Counter-attacking soccer is dependent on maintaining pace. Leaving a single pass short, slowing a run, or rushing a play can stop a counter-attack immediately. Saelemaekers had a bad match when it came to maintaining counters. On multiple occasions, he completed a ‘forward’ pass just short enough to stop a Milan player in their movement. That let the Inter defense get back into position and quell the attack. Saelemakers was not the only problem. Almost every Milan attacker struggled to push attacks forward and maintain a tempo. The xG total from the match appropriately does not include these attacking movements, but these missed opportunities should be noted in any review of the match. Milan had many chances to increase their shot and xG total, but these failed counters squandered any chance of that.

5: Milan’s Midfield was not Necessarily Good

Neither Franck Kessié, Sandro Tonali, Rade Krunić, nor Ismaël Bennacer held their midfield line particularly well. They won a shockingly low percentage of their pressures and struggled to progress the ball forward. Some of their struggles came from a lack of support from Theo and the wingers. As the Inter wingbacks pushed forward, their midfielders became more intent on entering the box. This forced the midfielders and center backs to add players to cover. However, Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjær did not backup which kept Milan in too high of a line. Kessié and Bennacer covered the gaps earlier in the match, but Krunic and Tonali struggled to keep its strength. This may be an issue with those two players, however, Milan was playing with fire prior. Personally, I would be hesitant to play Tonali when the team is under siege. Maybe Kessié was out of energy, but the game got ugly for Milan right after he came off the field. Tonali will be ready for ‘crunch-time’ soon, but maybe not yet.

6: The Collapse At The End of The Match

This was when the problems shot to the surface. The midfield and Romagnoli struggled to contain Lukaku. Romagnoli’s issues were likely a result of his long absence due to injury. However, it was evident that Lukaku was targeting Romagnoli and he was certainly winning their duel. Now, I am not sure that anyone could have contained Lukaku in this match, he was in inspired form and could have easily scored a brace. However, none of the other Milan players prevented passes into Lukaku. It’s clear Pioli recognized this was the core problem because he placed Rade Krunić on the field to add a defensive nature to the central attacking midfield role. This failed because Pioli continued to implement a press. As the team was stretched, the coverage on the left side of Milan’s formation failed. Typically, teams who ‘park-the-bus’ effectively use fewer attackers but maintain some form of a 4-4-2 or 5-3-2, however, Milan did neither. There are a handful of teams who can play that stretched while holding a lead, but the Rossoneri are not one of them.

I liked the mentality to an extent, however, I would prefer to see ‘9 men behind the ball’ and not seven.

7: Let’s Talk About Someone Who Was Good, Davide Calabria

Calabria spent the entire match trying to one-up Hakimi and make up for Milan’s backline issues. He was the second most progressive out-field player and was one of the more successful tacklers for the Rossoneri (Milan tackled poorly in this fixture). Calabria broke through the Inter forward and midfield pressing lines in the lead up to the first goal. He kept his defensive shape and held Perišić at bay. He has been strong this season and this was another good display.

8: Leão Puts on a Display

The Portuguese winger showed his full bag of tricks in the derby. Without Leão blowing by Danilo D’Ambrosio, Ibrahimović would not have received the set up for his second goal. He completed both of his dribble attempts, carried the ball the fourth most of any Milan player, and had an assist. I thought he played well enough to stay on the pitch for the entire match, however, he was pulled in favor of additional defensive strength. That being said, Leão read space in front of him, generated passes, and played well in combination with Ibrahimović. I like their chemistry and I think Pioli should use it more in the future.

9: Overall Thoughts

The Rossoneri won again! This was the first match this season where Milan lost the xG battle, but this was more self-inflicted than anything else. The final ten minutes of the match were concerning, however, the team survived. Tactically, this game became a bit of a mess as it progressed. Pioli will need to revise his end of match tactics, again, but there were positives that he can tinker with. Hopefully, the counter-attack will continue to fix itself over the next few matches. If Milan can continue to put these tools together then watch out Serie A. This was a massive match to win both for the points and for the mentality of the team. Milan has struggled to win this fixture, so getting to this game early will hopefully give the team a morale boost for the rest of the season. The largest takeaway though will always be Forza Milan. I love beating Inter and doing it this year has really boosted my spirit.