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9 Things: And The Ball Keeps Rolling, AC Milan vs Spezia Calcio, 3-0

Milan continues to lay down their claim on the title race with another convincing win against a much weaker opponent.

AC Milan v Spezia Calcio - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs Spezia Calcio

Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per shot Possession
Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per shot Possession
AC Milan 3 1.8 16(5) 0.113 61%
Spezia Calcio 0 0.2 4(2) 0.05 39%

This game was not particularly close. There were small concerning signs during the match, but by full time, AC Milan had resoundingly won. While that was expected, it will hush some of the doubts from Milan’s Europa League match against Rio Ave FC on the first of October.

I will stay focused on this match though. Milan was playing a ball-dominant although the ineffective style of offense in the first half. There were small flashes of attacking flair prior to the interval, but the game did not truly break open until the second half. Hakan Çalhanoğlu was the primary reason for this change. His play split the Spezia Calcio backline and put other Milan players in locations where they were more likely to succeed. The Rossoneri attacked more intensely because of the lack of a coherent Spezia counter. With no defensive worries, Stefano Pioli’s men trapped the Serie B Play-off winners in their own defensive third. This is a strong example of how to produce offense against a lesser opponent. Pioli adjusted his tactics well going into the second half and his team reaped the reward.

2: Milan’s Starting Lineup Should Be In College

That was the youngest starting eleven I have seen in a long time. The youth movement for the red and black has been impressive, and the match against Spezia was a testament to that. While the match was not all positive, there were flashes of each player’s potential. The overall lesson was that the structure of an emerging core has arrived. Youth movements do not happen overnight and this match showed clear signs of offensive intent without the end product} In future matches, I would like to see more shot creation from the young players. Every player struggled at turning direct runs into shots. Generally, players learn how to do this through experience and playing time. Positively, the first forty-five minutes of the match were not completely open and devoid of structure. The youngsters maintained a defensive shape and broke players forward. Although I would have liked this control to have led to more shots, the kids did dominate possession.

Part of the reason Hakan blew the doors off of the match was that he has more experience generating shots. I have no concerns that Rafael Leão, Brahim Díaz, Alexis Saelemaekers, and Lorenzo Colombo will all learn how to create more in the upcoming weeks and months.

3: Rafael Leão Had A Tale of Two Halfs

First things first, Leão is twenty-one. I think we expect too much of young players sometimes and do not give them the space to fix their flaws. I would not be too concerned about one or two poor games from a player who could not legally drink in America until June tenth of this year. He will be fine.

Second things second, Leão played well against Spezia (in the second half). The Portuguese man can struggle with his tendency to dribble and dance himself out of attacks. There is an art to the take-on. Learning when to attack an opposition defender can take time. However, when he moved centrally in the second half, Leão turned into a space interpreting, explosive, and hard-to-handle striker. His first goal was a difficult finish. That ball was in the air and he was being challenged by the Spezia backline. I was impressed that he got a foot to Hakan’s cross. His second goal was more of a ‘right place at the right time’ type of moment, but he was at the right place at the right time. Something that some elite players do, namely Mohammed Salah, is playing the error or possibility. This means that they make moves to areas where the ball could happen to be because of an error or a fortunate bounce. The likelihood of Hakan’s cross reaching Franck Kessié’s head was low, however, Leão still acted as if the play was inevitably going to reach him. That shows his understanding of the space in front of him and some signs that he has learned how to exploit it. He has shown these signs before and, hopefully, will continue to.

4: The Game Changer Hakan Çalhanoğlu

The introduction of the Turkish attacking midfielder completely changed the course of the match. Milan had been creating offensive actions for most of the match, but Hakan added danger. He had the most xA of any Milan player, had three shot-creating actions, one assist, and probably should have had another assist. He also directed play sublimely. In his forty-five minute appearance, he generated the most progressive passing distance. This let the other Milan attackers have more freedom to dribble because Hakan had taken charge of the passing responsibilities. There needs to be a balance of offensive roles and Hakan’s introduction did just that. While Theo Hernández won the man-of-the-match recognition, I thought Hakan was the game-changing player.

5: Welcome Back to Scoring Theo

It will never not be odd to me that one of Milan’s core scoring contributors is a left-back. However, this is what is happening. Against Spezia, Theo scored one goal and had another dangerous opportunity. He had 497 progressive yards against Spezia with a whopping 270 while carrying the ball. Last season, Theo averaged 241.8 progressive yards while carrying the ball. That was the third-highest total of any defender in Italy last season. His ability to drive play with the ball at his feet was incredibly impressive. You could tell when he was about to bomb up the field as well. He has a funny way of putting his head down when he initiates one of these runs. I would not be surprised if Theo maintains this sort of progressive total for the rest of the season. He seems to understand which lanes to exploit better than he did last season. Maybe he does not score as much but his impact on each match might grow.

6: Sandro Tonali Shows His Range

When Tonali came off the field in the fifty-seventh minute, he had generated 328 total progressive yards (passes and carries). He was on pace for around 440 progressive yards if he had played all ninety minutes. That would have been an immensely impressive total. There are other aspects of his game that he needs to work on (he attempted six pressures and did not win any), but he has the tools to become an elite progressive player. Milan needed that aspect from the bench last season and the addition of Tonali provides that and then some. This was a great showing from the young Italian maestro.

7: I think Brahim Díaz Deserves a Shout

He probably should have scored, but what he did do was create shots. Of the four starting Milan attackers, Brahim was the only one who generated shots. He had 5 shot-creating actions with four of them coming in the first half. This was in tandem with him personally creating 0.3 xG (85th percentile based on last year’s season averages) while completing three of his four dribble attempts. There was a dangerous element to his game which he has started to show in his last two appearances. He has sky-high potential and if he can hit that sooner rather than later, then Milan will benefit greatly. Hopefully, he continues to grow his influence.

8: The End of the Window

This is our AC Milan October 5th, 2020 to December 31st, 2020. I like this Milan. Over the late-summer or early-fall window, Milan signed eleven new players and held onto three of their loanees from last season. Some of these players, like Pierre Kalulu and Diogo Dalot, are depth, and some, like Sandro Tonali, are key additions. Paolo Maldini had his work cut out for him and he succeeded with flying colors in my opinion. Yes, another center back would have been nice, however, there was a bit of a dearth in that market this season. Maldini will have time to fix this in the upcoming windows. Hopefully, these signings lead to more prosperity in the near and far future. Finally, there is a team to get truly excited about.

9: Overall Thoughts

This has been a strong start to the season. Milan seems to be on the front foot and showing their true talent. At the end of matchday three, the Rossoneri comfortably lead the league in xG differential (xG for minus xG against). Obviously, the team has not played a top half of the table team yet. However, these are the type of stats that a team has to lead in to be considered true contenders. There will be hurdles and falters during the season, but points never become less valuable. Milan needs to maintain their form in the coming weeks and hopefully, the team continues to increase their Champions League odds.

Next matchday Milan plays FC Internazionale. I think we all know each other’s feelings about them. So briefly, Inter Merda.