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9 Things: Deus Ex Machina, AC Milan vs Rio Ave FC, 2-2 (Milan Win On Pens)

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Milan is now called ‘Mania Milan’ when they play in the Europa League. I am sorry these are the rules. Do not blame me though, I merely thought of them and then enforced them.

UEFA Europa League 2020/21 Group Stage Draw Photo by Harold Cunningham - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

I want to say this before we get into the article. AC Milan did not win this game, they survived this game. If someone said to me that Milan does not deserve to go to the Europa League, I would not argue with them. Rio Ave FC is not a particularly impressive team, and yet, they took the Rossoneri to within thirty-seconds of their European life. This was an unacceptable performance. Let’s understand why it was so problematic.

1: What The Analytics Said

By xG, Milan should have won. However, the penalty awarded in the final minute of the game accounts for a third of all of Milan’s expected total. The team struggled to progress the ball upfield and had even more issues when asked to break down Rio Ave’s defense. At the end of regulation, Milan had created under 0.75 of an expected goal. That is preposterously poor. Rio Ave is a fine enough team, but the fifth-best team in Portugal should not be a particularly taxing test. Luckily, Milan’s defense maintained its structure for the first hour of the match. Then, the team fell victim to a brilliant finish by Francisco Geraldes that was the final play of an intense counterattack from the Portuguese side. Rio Ave may have been lucky to end regular time drawn, but Milan is equally to blame. This was a repeat of the Rossoneri games from the early stages of the 2019/20 season. The team fell back into bad tendencies when they became frustrated. This led to long-distance or hopeful shots that had next to no chance of scoring. I had a concern that the team may do this when I saw the lineup and my fears were correct.

2: That Lineup Has No Drive

Alexis Saelemaekers is a true winger who can play right-back. Samu Castillejo is a full-blown true winger; he does not cut in much. Daniel Maldini is currently positionless, but he is not a striker. Maldini is more likely an attacking midfielder or forward than he is a striker. Hakan Çalhanoğlu has shown his quality in an offense that he has to drive himself, but if he has an off-night, then things can become ugly. When these players start together then Milan has absolutely no center drive. Sometimes, the most dangerous thing a striker can do is generate runs that pull apart a backline. However, when a team plays two attacking midfielders and two right-wingers who like to stay wide, then there can easily be a massive hole in the team’s attacking thrust. This happened against Rio Ave. For long stretches of the match, Maldini seemed unable to make prying runs through the Portuguese team’s backline, and the rest of the team could not force their own attackers into the center of the field. There were many moments in which Milan lined four attackers in a horizontal line with none of them making a run. This stagnation ruined any offensive intent that was created deeper in the field. Milan needed to get either Lorenzo Colombo, Brahim Díaz, or Rafael Leão on the field. When Stefano Pioli finally made a change, the team was revitalized.

3: However, This Only Solved Some Issues

The other massive issue was the constant dribble attempts. I understand wanting to beat your defender to create a better passing or scoring chance, however, the volume of take-on’s was unacceptable. This was a decision making problem. The Milan attackers needed to back away from their skill moves and embrace their passing abilities. Every single forward struggled with this and it led to Milan looking toothless. Hopefully, this is a one-off moment, but it is something to be painfully aware of.

4: Unlike the Match Against FK Bodø/Glimt, Çalhanoğlu was Quiet

I understand Hakan scored the match tying penalty, but he struggled for long stretches of the match. When Hakan takes control of a match, then his passing and shooting decision making reaches new heights. He will make completely beautifully weighted and shaped passes and spring players into space. Milan’s number ten did not do that against Rio Ave. He had a tendency to force passes or failed to get crosses above the first man. It was evident that he could see the space he had available to him, but his ability to break into it was suspect at best. His struggles were only amplified because of how little Milan progressed the ball. This part was not necessarily his fault, but when almost everyone struggled to complete forward passes, Çalhanoğlu’s invisibility only intensified. This match was not his fault, but he was certainly part of the problems.

5: Franck Kessié Takes A Supportive Role A Little Too Far

I talked about this during the last match, but it should be repeated. Kessié has noticeable problems with his progressive play. Generally, his defensive play can make up for his lack of ball progression, but against Rio Ave, his defensive efforts were more than surplus to what was required. Milan needed to push the play forward, and his lack of passing intensity led to offensive stagnation. His switches of play were laboriously slow and he rarely made vertical passes meant to break a line of the Rio Ave defense. Ismaël Bennacer took over some of Kessié’s responsibility, but it will always be better not to force one player to do the work of two. Hopefully, the Ivorian midfielder focuses more on his passing in upcoming matches.

That said, the second Rio Ave goal was not his fault. My problem with Kessié’s play was how he handled his progression. His defense was acceptable.

Franck Kessié’s statistical play from 2018/19 to 2019/20

6: Leão Needed a Strong Day, He did not have one

Returning from COVID-19 was always going to be difficult. Living with that virus and the effect it can have on someone’s lungs is scary. I used to compete in a cardio-vascular sport and I know how hard it can be to return after a lengthy illness. These factors are important to remember when we analyze Leão’s match.

Leão was poor. He looked off the pace and attempted way too many dribbles. It seemed like his shoes were working against him as well (if it is raining a lot and a player keeps slipping, then it is probably his shoes). However, he needed to adjust his style of play during his appearance. I would have liked to see him move centrally, focus more on how his movement could generate space, and take one to four fewer touches per attack. These are small things, but taken together, they can make an attacker incredibly dangerous. I was sad to see him struggle so much, but hopefully, this was a one-off match.

7: The Goal

Saelemaekers made no mistake on this shot. His technique was solid and he struck the ball well off of an aerial clearance. Luckily, the ball was not touched and Davide Calabria was not ruled to be impacting the path of the ball. As we know, Milan could not hold onto this lead.

8: I have never seen a shootout like that before

I have watched soccer since I was about five. I have seen teams win the World Cup and Champions Leagues with penalty kicks. I have watched teams sub-out their goalie for a shootout. I have seen teams sub-on players specifically for a shootout. What I have rarely seen is a shootout that takes over twelve rounds and has both goalies shoot. Milan should have lost that shootout three times, Rio Ave should have lost it twice (the second time they did). To say I was speechless would be an understatement. It was truly the least fun I have ever had while watching a match. Nobody shot particularly well and it took a long time for Gianluigi Donnarumma to lock in on the Rio Ave shooters. This was an ugly performance.

9: Overall Thoughts, Initial Group Stage Thoughts

Oh no. Lille OSC, Celtic FC, and AC Sparta Prague are a brutal trio of teams to draw in the group stage. Each team qualified for European competition for the 2019/20 season. Celtic and Lille both played in the Champions League (Celtic was knocked out during the second-to-last round of qualifiers and Lille was out in the group stage). Sparta Pague, much like Celtic, was knocked out in the second-to-last round of Europa League qualifiers. Celtic went the furthest in Europe last year as they were officially removed from continental competitions when they lost to FC Copenhagen in the round of thirty-two in the Europa League. To put this as bluntly as possible, Milan is in a terrible group. The other terrible group is F, but those four teams do not have quite the same depth as Milan’s group. This draw will force all of group H to stay on their toes and be prepared for incredibly tricky fixtures. I think Milan can advance, but the task just got that much harder.