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9 Things: Something Is Brewing, AC Milan vs SSC Napoli, 3-1

How far could Milan go? This is the question on everyone’s mind now.

SSC Napoli v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

1: What The Analytics Said

AC Milan vs SSC Napoli

Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 3 2.7 15(7) 0.18 38%
SSC Napoli 1 1.7 19(7) 0.09 66%

I was surprised to see AC Milan win the xG battle against SSC Napoli, but it seems that the FBref/ Statsbomb model thought this match was not particularly close by game’s end. Tiémoué Bakayoko’s red card was the turning point in the match. Napoli had just caught Milan in terms of xG and seemed likely to absolutely grab the game by the throat. Instead, the French defensive midfielder picked up his second yellow card of the night and that let Daniele Bonera’s men take control of the remainder of the proceedings. Even with a man advantage, Milan failed to completely shut down Napoli for the remaining twenty-five minutes of the game. Andrea Petagna’s chance in the 90+3 minute was almost as dangerous as Jens Petter Hague’s insurance goal two minutes later ( based on xG data). Milan deserved to win the match given the actual events, but I want to make clear how close this match could have been if Petagna had struck his chance better. That would have brought xG difference within half a goal, well within plausible draw territory. There were still obvious wobbles in the Milan gameplan, but, in the end, the Rossoneri beat a top-seven team and won handily by xG.

2: First Impressions Matter

The initial twenty minutes of the match were absolutely dominated by Milan. In this period, the team generated five shots, three of which were in the box, and one of which led to a goal. This early strength generated slightly less than a full expected goal for the team while not allowing Napoli to take a single shot. It also encouraged Milan to sit off more as the game progressed - which was foolish - but there were obvious tactical successes in this stretch.

First, the attacking wingers were highly involved in all stages of the game. Alexis Saelemaekers and Ante Rebić were either making strong runs or dropping deep to support their fullbacks. This worked well against Napoli because of how offensively dynamic their wingers are and how little they track back defensively. It allowed the Milan attacking quartet space to break through the Partenopei backline with some ease. It also created overloads defensively and offensively for Milan. Rebić and Saelemaeker’s defensive depth helped create a 4-4-1-1 shape when out of position and the expansiveness of Theo Hernández pivoted the formation into a 2-3-5 when in attack (these are very simplistic formation descriptions). The defensive assignments of the Milan wingers provided the team with a defensive overload when out of possession and space for the wide players to run into when breaking forward. Gattuso did not adjust his tactics quickly and this helped Bonera’s side win the opening stage of the game.

Second, Hakan Çalhanoǧlu found success playing in the space between Bakayoko and Fabián Ruiz Peña and the Napoli center-back pairing of Kostas Manolas and Kalidou Koulibaly. This gave Zlatan Ibrahimović more freedom to find space in the attacking third and provided Milan an attacking pivot. Rebić used this added passing space to make exploitative runs into the box and thereby also relieved Zlatan from a more ‘on the shoulder’ role in the match.

3: It Falls Apart

From minute twenty-one to fifty-four, Milan did not generate a shot in the box and only two in total. What happened? Well, the wingers stopped controlling outlet passes, and then the fullbacks started to struggle even to pass accurately. Ismaël Bennacer and Franck Kessié lost their passing range and struggled to pass out of a press. Players held onto the ball for too long, did not look up enough to break out of the defensive third, and the receivers of these passes could not control the ball. This led to Milan being trapped and a long span of Neopolitan pressure in front of the Rossoneri goal.

In addition, set pieces were a major downfall of Milan defensively. From minute twenty-seven to minute thirty-two, the set-piece discipline and success of the Rossoneri fell apart and led to a massively dangerous flurry of Napoli chances, including a crossbar hit. I spoke about Milan’s set-piece vulnerabilitiesin my last article…. they are clearly still an issue.

4: Focus Does Not Last All Match

Koulibaly, Manolas, and Alex Meret all forgot their assignments for one twenty-second stretch and that let Ibrahimović take advantage of a fast break counter-attack. For all of the struggles Milan had in the previous thirty-four minutes, this breakdown of focus from Napoli set the stage for the remainder of the match. The two Partenopei center-backs failed to cover the Swedish striker and Meret never came to claim Rebić’s cross. This was slightly fortuitous for Milan because name and name rarely have this type of failure, but Milan did exactly what they needed to do, take advantage and score. Of all the chances of the game, this was far and away the most dangerous one.

5: Getting Your Hopes Up, Just To Dash Them Away

Dries Mertens’s goal came off some poor defending and a bit of luck, but the red card directly after buried most of Napoli’s chances to win. Bakayoko’s lack of discipline made Gattuso’s players’ task even more difficult. This was certainly a fortunate break for Milan, but sometimes you make your own luck. Theo was targeting multiple runs at the French defensive midfielder and his decision to do so had started to draw dangerous challenges. It was only a matter of time until Bakayoko missed a tackle attempt.

6: Alessio Romagnoli continues to be Concerning

Milan’s captain has had a spotty year that has only become more alarming. Romagnoli’s lack of defensive discipline and poor reading of matches has led to a worrying statistical profile. Against Napoli, he made poor movements towards opposing ball carriers and struggled to make clearances (this was strange because it is a strength of his recent game).Romagnoli’s defensive awarenesst took a step backward last season. Simon Kjӕr has certainly overtaken him in terms of defensive importance for the team. This weak stretch for the Milan captain started early in the year - 2020, not the season, and has only gotten worse. He has been at fault for a handful of penalties and failed to clear a cross leading to a goal against Napoli.

Twenty-five is not necessarily old for a center-back, but we should expect to see the peak of Romagnoli either this year or next year. He needs to recapture his defensive form from the 2018/19 season soon.

7: Hague Gets A Goal and Wins The Game

The young Norwegian player is living out a dream almost every week. Against Napoli, he scored his first Serie A goal in outstanding fashion. He made a strong move to blow by Manolas and then lofted his shot just enough to beat Meret. His goal put the game out of reach and solidified the result for Milan. I have been impressed by his ability to carry the ball past defenders in recent weeks. He wants to invert and is willing to drive towards the goal. I think he can certainly develop into an impressive young player, but we obviously need to see more of his play. However, not a bad way to open your Calcio account.

8: Tempering Expectations

This win was massive and should make every Milanista incredibly excited, however, it was only matchday eight. Currently, Milan seems like a real title contender but that can all change in an instant. Will Presnel and I both put the Rossoneri as the fourth-best team in Italy heading into the season and now I feel more confident in that opinion. FiveThirtyEight has Milan as the fourth-best team in Italy based on their SPI (link here to SPI definition) but has the team as the most likely to win the league. I disagree with this because Juventus FC still has the best players in the league and I think FC Internazionale is deeper and has more high-end talent than Milan. There is certainly reason to get excited, but I do not think that Milan is now the best team in the league. We still have a lot of weeks to go and the Rossoneri have a nice early lead, however, the team needs to remain hungry. We have seen leads slip away before in Italy.

9: Overall Thoughts

The last section was tempering, but this will be more exciting. Milan won! Beating Napoli does not happen very often so anytime we grab all three points is fun. Currently, Milan has the second-best xG differential in Italy, just behind AS Roma, but a two-point advantage in the standings over US Sassuolo Calcio (remember when I said they were good). There are a noticeable top six sides in Italy emerging, all within a goal of each other in terms of xG differential. Milan sits about two expected goals behind Roma but more than a goal over Inter. There is some cushion here but not a sizable one. It seems to take somewhere between seventy-two and seventy-nine points to finish fourth in the current Serie A. Right now Milan would need to win sixty-percent of the remaining points to finish with seventy-five points. That is certainly within reach and would mean that we see Champions League matches next season. For all of the tempering of expectations I did in the last section, the goal of fourth place is more than within reach. That should be the expectation and I might even argue the demand now. The team is more than good enough to complete the task.