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9 Things: AC Milan Rejoin Europe with a Soft Result, AC Milan vs Celtic FC, 3-1

Milan won, but the scoreline flattered the team’s performance. Hopefully, this is a one-off match.

Celtic v AC Milan: Group H - UEFA Europa League Photo by Ian MacNicol - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs Celtic FC

Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 3 0.7 6(3) 0.117 54%
Celtic FC 1 0.9 13(2) 0.069 46%

This was not a good performance by AC Milan. The team was outshot, out-chanced, and inspired little confidence. Similarly to the derby, Milan created two chances early in the match and then coasted. Doing that against FC Internazionale, an elite team, was one thing, doing it against Celtic FC, a middling team, was another. The attacking quartet struggled to link with the midfield and once Milan took a two-goal advantage, the team stopped attacking. However, Celtic struggled to bother Milan. The total xG balance of the match was very low. People would say that this match was boring, and I would agree. Now, there were four goals, so that was fun, right? No. Neither team generated any “big chance” and both struggled to transition play past their defensive midfielders. The game was incredibly open, especially on Diogo Dalot’s flank, but the problem was that neither team had a plan to get into their opponent’s box.

The most impressive players on the pitch were Diego Laxalt and Samu Castillejo. Seeing me praise Laxalt might be frustrating to some, but he generated over 700 progressive yards (99th percentile or higher in 2019/20), had three successful tackles, generated two shots, and completed two of his three dribbles. He firmly won his side of the field and legitimately impressed me. I still do not want him back. Castillejo shined as well. He generated two shots, had an assist, and generated 371 progressive yards (83rd percentile or higher in 2019/20). He was the most impactful player for Milan on the night. Sadly, these two players did not have much company during the fixture.

2: But Doug, There Were Four Goals? How Can you Say It was Boring?

Well, my very quizzical reader, here is how. Milan took three shots on target all match, all three were goals and only one was a ‘dangerous’ chance. Celtic took two total shots on target and one was from a corner (resulting in their one goal). A game with only nineteen total shot attempts will usually be fairly boring. Why? Because teams typically struggle to create massive xG totals on a smattering of shots. The other non-analytic reason was that Milan’s tactics sucked the fun out of this match. The team sat in a compact shell of six defenders with Rade Krunić playing as a disruptor just ahead. In another boring development, Celtic were not skilled or tactically present enough to exploit the space behind the Milan fullbacks. While the Rossoneri’s backline remained tight, both fullbacks committed way up the field on a few occasions. Instead of exploiting that space, Celtic constantly and unsuccessfully played hopeful passes into the box..

If you were neutral and just hoping for a good match, you would have wanted Celtic to score first. This would have forced Milan to attack with more intent. Stefano Pioli let his wingers and striker try to break down Celtic while maintaining defensive solidity after the second goal. It made the game boring.

3: Boring or not, Milan Still Won

I think this game came down to score-effects. Milan scored early twice and then coasted. It would be more entertaining to see them really take it to Celtic, or other Europa League opponents in the future, but in this case they did not need to. Preferably, Milan will control games better when they ‘park-the-bus’ in future matches.

4: Diogo Dalot versus Diego Laxalt

What a preposterous matchup. Both players generated over 700 progressive yards. This is a comical number for two players playing directly against each other. Generally, one fullback would be more controlled by the other for most of the match, however, neither Laxalt nor Dalot subscribes to that line of thinking. There was a chance, and a slim one at that, that both players decided to make up for all the yards they lost from missing their respective ends of last campaign (Dalot, essentially, never played for Manchester United FC in 2019/20).

Jokes aside, I want to talk about their duel. Because of Theo Hernández’s pedestrian game, Dalot took over much of the ball progressing responsibilities for Milan (Davide Calabria has been doing this a lot). In terms of dueling, Laxalt handily beat Dalot. The Portuguese fullback struggled to dribble past Laxalt. There was one notable occasion where Laxalt sprung a counter-attack at midfield because of a poorly timed Dalot dribble. Offensively, Dalot had a goal contribution (pass that led to an assist, but not an assist) and passed better than Laxalt. However, Laxalt created more shots and took a shot of his own. I would call this part of the match a wash.

The total match went the way of the Uruguayan fullback, but both players had noticeably positive stretches. If I was the ruler of soccer, I would make these two play each other every match for the rest of eternity.

5: The Structure of The Midfield Was Questionable

I have said before that Tonali needs support when he plays. What that means is playing him in a midfield trio where Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer can give him cover. However, Pioli has held firm to his 4-2-3-1 structure whenever Tonali plays. We have seen the problems before, but this match showed them more clearly. In almost every game the young Italian has played he has struggled to progress play. It seems the reason for this is his lack of defensive awareness in a midfield two. Bennacer can progress play well because he has the defensive awareness to recoup possession. Tonali struggles to tackle and can get stuck in ‘no man’s land’ positionally. Against Celtic, Tonali needed this structure. Now, this does not mean that Bennacer needed to play, but he needed back up from Krunic. The failure to provide it was not Krunic’s fault as Pioli’s tactics had him playing as a center-attacking midfielder. I think the team needs another formation to help Tonali transition into the side. Without doing so, he could really struggle to reach his full potential.

6: Brahim Díaz Looked Lively

The young Spaniard scored again and progressed the ball well at his feet. His positional fluidity has impressed me so far and you can see how he views the game ahead of him. I would love to see him pass more often, but there are noticeable positives from this match.

7: Welcome to the team Jens Petter Hague

What a time to score your first goal. Jens Petter Hague was on the field for about twelve minutes when he scored his first Milan goal. Funnily enough, Hague had the highest xG impact of any player on the field. That will happen when you have the only one-on-one situation of the entire match. It seems that Hague has a more direct mindset than wingers like Alexis Saelemaekers and Castillejo but less direct than Ante Rebić and Rafael Leão. I think his skill set could beautifully blend into the team. He provides a role that Milan does not have quite yet. I would love to see him continue to play in situations like this or in games against much lesser opponents. Hopefully, he continues to grow into himself on the team.

8: Europa League Round-Up

I will do this every match week because I think I should. Currently, Milan sits second in Group H because they are one goal behind LOSC Lille in goal differential. Next, the Rossoneri play AC Sparta Prague. The Czech team will not play before their run-in with the Italian giants due to Covid-19. Milan has to win this game. I would not refer to any of the teams in Group H as a layup, but Sparta Prague is the most layup-y (new words are fun). As fans, we should want Lille to beat Celtic so that Milan only needs to worry about one team for the rest of the group stage. You always want to compete with the fewest teams possible so a Celtic loss to Lille would be helpful to the cause. After that, Milan could absolutely pull away from Group H with a win against Lille on November 5th and on American Thanksgiving.

In the other groups, SSC Napoli lost to an AZ Alkmaar that had half their team out due to Covid-19. Bayer Leverkusen absolutely destroyed OGC Nice. I like Leverkusen so it made the game a blast. Arsenal FC played a fairly dreadful match against SK Rapid Wien, but the Gunners still won. AS Roma stumbled against BSC Young Boys until they put in their core starters and finally flipped the game on its head. So far there has been one shocking result, Napoli, and a few other teams that looked slow out of the gates. For the most part, the Europa League has gone to plan after matchday one.

I will add the Champions League groups later as the third-place team in each group becomes more clear.

9: Overall Thoughts

Milan won this game. That was about all I can say about the actual performance on the field. The team needed some rotation and this match provided that. Celtic is not in good form and they have struggled early this season. There was a gauntlet to be thrown, but Milan did not. While one lackluster performance should not concern us too much, Milan’s upcoming schedule is jam-packed and full of tough fixtures. The next few weeks will be a test.

Milan takes on Roma next and then its Europa League match against Sparta Prague right after that. Milan has increased its depth, but that may not hold steady over this jammed season. I hope it does though and that Milan can continue their unbelievable form. The team scores and has been winning. I have not been able to say this for years. I can now.