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9 Things: Refs? Never Heard of ‘em. AC Milan vs AS Roma, 3-3

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Look, if you live to award terrible penalties and struggle to call basic fouls, you ought to be a referee.

AC Milan v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

1: I Have To Start with Refereeing

Some of my least favorite things in soccer are José Mourinho, Manchester United FC, FC Internazionale, and the online debates about referees and VAR. Sadly, Piero Giacomelli delivered one of the worst refereeing displays I have ever seen in Monday’s AC Milan vs AS Roma match. The crucial aspect of being a capable referee is maintaining control of a match and using the information available to you to make the best decisions. Giacomelli did neither in this match; He let the game become violent and then made two unbelievably foolish penalty decisions with no curiosity whatsoever about what a closer look on VAR might show. His too-late attempt to restore game management by displaying yellow cards for non-existent fouls led to a wildly unstable match, breaking the flow of play. His incompetent performance became the third competitor in the match.

I do want to speak more about the penalties because they were horrible. First, the Ismaël Bennacer penalty call was abhorrent. If anything, Pedro fouled the Milan midfielder in the box. While the initial decision was bad, Giacomelli’s failure to call on VAR to finalize his call was unbelievable. And he had company - Luigi Nasca’s failure to make Giacomelli look at the video monitor to reconsider his decision was the crowning problem. VAR was put into place to limit these ‘clear and obvious’ errors. Failing to use it to take a second look at a non-existent foul that led to a penalty was shocking. In recent memory, this was the worst penalty call I can possibly recall. Unfortunately for this refereeing team, their day got worse. I do not believe in make-up calls, but Giacomelli and Nasca obviously do. The Gianluca Mancini foul on Hakan Çalhanoğlu was not a foul and certainly not a penalty. You can easily guess why this decision was given, make-up call, however, the refereeing team should have gone to VAR. Instead, both teams received unbelievably undeserved penalties on non-existent fouls.

Reportedly, both Giacomelli and Nasca have been suspended for the next couple of match weeks in Serie A. Unlike the penalty calls in this match; their discipline is well deserved (I will never make a joke again).

2: What The Analytics Said

AC Milan vs AS Roma

Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 3 2.6 12(7) 0.217 55%
AS Roma 3 2.2 11(6) 0.2 45%
Data provided by FBref

Finally, my beautiful numbers. Milan barely eked out an xG victory against Roma. Now, I think Milan should have won this match because all three goals against came off of avoidable set-piece goals. I have already written about the poor penalty decision, but the other two goals were the results of terrible set-piece play by Milan. Based on all the xG created, Milan wins this game 50% of the time. This remains true if we take out the set-piece chances from the xG total. Milan’s defending on these two crucial corners was abysmal. I will talk more about this later, but there was little reason why either of these plays should have ended up in the back of Ciprian Tătăruşanu’s net. Positively, Milan was much better than Roma at creating dangerous possession. This can be seen from two statistics. First, as a team, the Rossoneri had more shot-creating and goal creating actions, more xA, and more touches in the penalty area. Secondly, Milan generated more open-play and non-penalty xG. This should be seen as a positive as Stefano Pioli’s men did control the direction of this fixture. Problematically, the team struggled to find success from set-pieces and it cost them all three points.

3: Some Tactical Views

Both teams’ tactics were influential during this match but far from the most notable aspect of the fixture. For Milan, Bennacer and Franck Kessié held their midfield line deeper than usual. This provided support for the center backs while giving the fullbacks space to flex further up the pitch. For long stretches, Rafael Leão and Alexis Saelemaekers were the two highest players for the team. Leão spent time in the left half-space to give Theo Hernández the freedom to run the right-wing. Zlatan Ibrahimović and Hakan both dropped deeper to support the defensive midfield line, but they still left a large gap between these two lines. This gave Milan a lot of verticality and width, but at times sacrificed link-up play through the center of the field.

Roma decided to play an off-center 3-5-2 type formation with Pedro playing closer to Edin Džeko than anyone else. Henrikh Mkhitaryan would transition between the midfield three and a front three to give the Roma attack more width. Rick Karsdorp was in charge of limiting Theo’s space, but in his success stopping the Frenchman, he gave more space to Leão. Lorenzo Pellegrini and Jordan Veretout succeeded in finding space in the center of the park (Pellegrini was the catalyst for this). They took advantage of the previously mentioned gap between Milan’s attackers and their defensive midfielders. Paulo Fonseca’s plan worked in its ability to prevent their opponents from quickly breaking through the center of the park but failed in limiting its width.

4: I Have Some Concerns About Romagnoli

I have not wanted to write about this, but Alessio Romagnoli has not looked himself in the new season. For two match weeks in a row, the Milan captain has been dominated by an opposition striker. Against Inter, I gave him the benefit of the doubt because Romelu Lukaku has been almost uncontainable in the young season. However, his play against Džeko was concerning as the Giallorossi striker is not the same quality as the Belgian talisman. The moments when Romagnoli was called into action were few and far between, but when he needed to stop Dzeko, he struggled. On the first goal, Romagnoli was completely outmatched by Džeko. The Roma number nine out muscled and out jumped the Milan captain. This should have been a winnable ball for Romagnoli, instead, he looked a step slow and ill-prepared. Now, the missed header at the end of the game was obviously terrible (you have to hit the target, simply have to), but he is a center back. Romagnoli has looked uncomfortable defensively and has struggled with his decision making. He has been stepping into the midfield too often and has allowed too many players to make turns around him in the box. I have a slight concern that he may still be injured, but still, he has to improve his play.

5: Ok, I Will Be More Positive

Folks, Leão has been on fire. Currently, he sits second on the team in goal contributions but leads the team in assists. In his last two matches, he has three wonderful assists. Against Roma, Leão placed two perfect passes into the path of Saelemaekers and Zlatan Ibrahimović that led to goals. He was the third most progressive ball carrier for Milan and had the most goal creating actions for the team. Currently, he leads Serie A in xA total and goals plus assists contributions per 90. The Portuguese man has incredibly high potential, so continuing to give him the space to excel will pay dividends for the club. Leão had a man of the match type performance, and without some poor refereeing, he could have continued to enforce his will on the field.

6: We Will Continue To Talk About Calabria

My player of the season so far has been the Italian right back. His performances in almost every match have certainly been a massive positive. Against Roma, he put together another strong display offensively and defensively. Calabria generated 438 progressive yards, won 4 of his 7 tackles, successfully completed 7 of his 15 pressures, and had two shot-creating actions. His influence on Milan has been noticeable this season and with Theo falling silent in the previous few matches, Calabria has stepped up. Hopefully, the two fullbacks can have an unbelievable game in unison. That may make Milan an even more difficult team to play against.

7: Tătăruşanu Struggled in His Debut

The Romanian goalie had an unspectacular day in goal for the Rossoneri, to say the least. There was nothing he could do on the penalty, however, the first goal was partially his fault. Now, Romagnoli, as I have said, should have done better with the cross, but Tătăruşanu made a run in the shape of an L towards the ball. If he had made a more direct and assertive move to the ball then he could have possibly caught the ball in the air and prevented Džeko’s goal. Other than this poor moment, Tătăruşanu struggled with his rebound control and was generally underwhelming when commanding the box. This was his first game playing for Milan, so maybe this was all nerves and unfamiliarity, but I was hoping for a more promising performance. The team did not get it and hopefully, he plays better against AC Sparta Prague.

8: Zlatan Had A Chaotic Day

The Swedish man may have scored twice but his poor defensive play directly led to Roma tying the game in the eighty-fourth minute. I understand that Zlatan’s role is to score goals, but his attempted clearance took the ball away from Tătăruşanu and put it directly into the path of Marash Kumbulla. This was the second goal off of a corner that Milan made a mess of defensively. Without these mistakes, this match could have easily ended in a win.

Positively for Zlatan, he and Leão seem to be building a strong understanding of where they will be on the field. This has already shown promise with these two combining twice in the last two games. The ‘King of Milan’ has been on scintillating goal-scoring form early in the season and leads Serie A in xG and goals for the season. While he may not remain at two goals per game rate, he could be high on the Capocannoniere race by season’s end.

9: Overall Thoughts

xG will say that Milan should have won or drawn this match, I will say that Milan should undoubtedly have won this match. Throwing away points because of poor set-piece play will always be unbelievably frustrating. This season has shown an incredible offensive focus from the Rossoneri, but there should be some concern about the defense. In the two matches against the stronger Italian sides, Milan has given up an average of 2.3 xG. That is incredibly high. It is feasible to make your way through the season by absolutely feasting on lesser teams, but it is a dangerous way to live. Both of the last two games have shown that Milan can easily dictate play now and remain dangerous. For my concerns, that is comforting. In my opinion, there is no reason not to feel very confident about the rest of the season, but with the reminder that this year will be full of unpredictable absences as Covid-19 makes players unavailable randomly during the season. However, AC Milan is top of the table and seems prepared to continue their attack on the Scudetto.