After a dramatic win against Rio Ave on Thursday, AC Milan will look to continue its strong start to 2020 against Spezia Calcio. The newly-promoted club will be playing its third Serie A match of the season, having just won a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Udinese on Wednesday. Manager Vincenzo Italiano prefers to run a traditional 4-3-3, with two classic wingers, a false nine (of sorts) and three central midfielders. Spezia frequently employs a press when the opposition is in possession; the three forwards drop into the defensive third and look to force turnovers. After playing 120 minutes on Thursday, it is crucial that Milan does not overlook this match and takes all three points.
Spezia’s four-man backline is nothing short of chaotic right now, seeing 7 different starters over its first two matches. After the disaster against Sassuolo, Italiano benched Martin Erlić and Jacopo Sala, while club captain Claudio Terzi returned from suspension in place of Cristian Dell’Orco. Unfortunately for the newcomers, it took Terzi just 60 minutes to draw two yellow cards, meaning that he will miss the fixture against Milan.
Spezia’s defense is well-organized and does not often get caught out, as the two full-backs generally do not advance too far up the pitch. The Ligurian side also benefits from the steady presence of Matteo Ricci, who plays as a holding midfielder just above the two centre-backs. Ricci is a distributor, receiving the ball above the defense and looking to play to either the wingers or the two more advanced midfielders. Though the 26-year-old is not the best of tacklers, Ricci is rarely out of position and provides a strong defensive presence in the centre of the pitch.
Interestingly, Spezia’s left side has proven to be much more competent than the right so far, allowing only 3% of the club’s shots against. Juan Manuel Ramos, the primary left-back, is a solid defender, winning 43.8% of his pressures so far. Also on the left, winger Emmanuel Gyasi has a high defensive work rate. The Torino academy product drops back often to challenge attackers, which allows Ramos to stay deep and close the gap between himself and the left centre-back.
While Spezia has a few quality pieces, this defense is simply not talented enough to threaten Milan’s offense. The backline gives away possession in its own half far too much and is weak individually; its players have been beaten one-on-one 24 times in the last two matches, according to whoscored.com. That said, Milan’s offense will be drained and is still missing its two star forwards, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ante Rebić. The Rossoneri’s attacking depth will certainly be tested in this fixture, but Stefano Pioli’s side should be able to grab at least a couple of goals in this one. Look for Milan to focus play down its left side, as Theo Hernandez should be able to use his pace to take advantage of either Sala or Salva Ferrer at right-back.
At its best, Spezia’s attack plays fast-paced, using combinations on the wings to advance forward and whip in crosses into the box. At its worst, it is slow, unorganized and plays too many long balls. Spezia often does well in possession, keeping the ball in the midfield and finding open players with short passes. However, once it begins to venture into the attacking third, the offense often stalls, lacking both the creativity and the talent to generate chances. Spezia’s offense relies on two wingers, two central midfielders and striker Andrey Galabinov, while holding midfielder Ricci is often behind the play in a supporting role.
Galabinov is by far Spezia’s most intriguing and threatening offensive weapon. The Bulgarian has scored all three of his side’s goals this season, two of which were headers. At 31, Galabinov is incredibly slow for a lone striker and prefers to play as a false nine, dropping in front of the central defenders and looking to quickly play the wingers out wide.
This unsuccessful attacking play is indicative of Spezia’s general offensive strategy. After Gyasi wins the ball, two centre-mids, Ricci and Maggiore, combine before finding Galabinov. The striker does not press high initially, playing a few yards in front of the centre-backs. Then the Bulgarian drops into space, receives the ball from Ricci and plays a fantastic one-touch pass to the wing. This allows Verde to venture into the space behind the striker, which opens up when a Udinese defender tracks Galabinov’s run. Immediately after passing the ball, Galabinov charges forward, positioning himself between the lines and remaining unmarked in the box. This is a classic false nine move that also explains why Spezia prefers to play on the wings. The club lacks a true attacking midfielder, and offsets it by focusing its creative play out wide. Only 23% of Spezia’s attacks have come through the middle, one of the lowest numbers in Serie A through two weeks.
Spezia’s two wingers are important to its attacking success. The aforementioned Emmanuel Gyasi plays on the left, while the right wing will be home to either Genoa loanee Kevin Agudelo or Daniele Verde. Agudelo, a 21-year-old prospect, was one of Spezia’s best players against Sassuolo. The Colombian is skillful and dynamic, completing 3 of 7 dribbles and registering two shots in his only match. He is also incredibly active defensively, registering 28 pressures, 4 tackles and 2 blocks in just 71 minutes in Spezia’s debut match. Bizarrely, Agudelo was benched for the Udinese match in favor of Verde, who was in poor form and was taken off after 67 minutes. The former Roma player lacks creative ability and is not particularly helpful in the defensive third.
Much like the defense, Spezia’s offense is not particularly threatening, though it does have a few solid players. Milan should have no problem shutting down the wingers, even with Alessio Romagnoli still out, while Galabinov’s false nine play will almost certainly be neutralized by Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer. There is always a possibility that Spezia grabs an unlucky goal, but Milan should be able to stretch its Serie A clean sheet streak to four before the international break.
While Milan’s unbeaten streak has to come to an end eventually, it would be shocking if that occurred against Spezia on Sunday. Fatigue and injuries may be a concern for the Rossoneri, but Stefano Pioli’s side has showed thus far that it is capable of balancing the Europa League and Serie A play. Brahim Diaz, Rafael Leão and Sandro Tonali are all great options off the bench, while Davide Calabria and and Matteo Gabbia have been solid on the backline. Milan should continue its winning ways at the San Siro, hopefully taking a full 9 points into the upcoming international break.
Predication: AC Milan 2, Spezia 0