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9 Things: Really Tried to Throw It Away Didn’t We, AC Milan vs UC Sampdoria, 2-1

Maybe don’t leave players wide open in the box at the very end of matches from here on out?

Sandro Tonali of AC Milan kicks the ball during the Serie A... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs UC Sampdoria

Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 2 2.5 13(4) 0.19 61%
UC Sampdoria 1 1.1 11(3) 0.1 39%

First and foremost, NPxG in this match was 1.8 to 1.1 in favor of AC Milan. Why am I bringing this up? It provides a better understanding of what Stefano Pioli’s men can sustainably generate from a match. The Theo Hernández penalty call happened on a fairly routine play that was not particularly dangerous. Even if the French fullback played a ball across the UC Sampdoria box, that play would be incredibly less dangerous than a penalty. Getting penalties from that area of the pitch is unlikely and is not a sustainable way of creating offense. The other 1.8 xG is a better representation of how Milan played and it shows that the team played well. For forty-five minutes, the Rossoneri took the game to the Genovese club and generated almost every chance Milan had throughout the match.

By halftime, Claudio Ranieri’s men had been controlled and left unable to generate any focused attacks. Albin Ekdal, the Sampdoria goal scorer, and Adrien Silva, the player Ekdal replaced, contributed over half of the team’s total xG. Fabio Quagliarella and Manolo Gabbiadini were held to less than 0.2 xG combined. Essentially, those two players almost did not need to be on the field to have the same effect. The Milan tactical plan limited their involvement and limited Sampdoria to a handful of chances, none of which were particularly dangerous.

2: When It Works, It Works

I have talked about Pioli’s press before and a lot at that, but it was absolutely suffocating in the Luigi Ferraris Stadium. Per PPDA (passes per defensive action), which is a measurement of how aggressively a team presses (the lower the number, the more aggressive the press), Milan committed to a pressing duel every five Sampdoria passes. That is suffocating. Currently, the Rossoneri operate the eighth-most aggressive press in the top five leagues and the second most aggressive in Italy. In this fixture, Milan took that aggression to a new level and showed Serie A what their press can look like when fully activated.

An important note about the press though. Franck Kessié’s role is to maintain shape and provide support to the rest of the team (that is why his microstats - xA, progressive yards, duels per 90 - are all low) so his midfield counterpart needs to activate in these moments. Sandro Tonali succeeded defensively in that role as he generated the most pressures of any Milan player in the match. Generally, Ismaël Bennacer takes on this duty, but in his absence, the young Italian midfielder at least maintained the defensive activity of our favorite number four. This does not take away from the pressing activity of every attacking midfielder, winger, and striker other than Brahim Díaz. They all generated over ten pressures with Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Ante Rebić, and Alexis Saelemaekers putting on the most notable pressing show

3: Those Players Worked, Why Did Brahim Not

I want to start out by saying that Brahim is only twenty-one and still has incredibly high potential. However, this does not save him from deserved criticism. Players with incredible dribbling skills can fall back on these skills too often and try a lot of moves and only succeed in half of them. There is a lack of efficiency that can plague young footballers that the individual either figures out or never does. Against Sampdoria, Brahim held the ball for far too long and overlooked easy passing lanes to instead try to break past a player directly in front of him. This led to his small progressive yard total and his low xG and xA totals. His overall play was made more frustrating because he was popping up in dangerous situations but executing these plays poorly. It is important to let Brahim continue to figure out how to weaponize his play more. He still put up an incredible display against Celtic FC in matchweek five of the Europa League. Heis twenty-one, off matches, happen to twenty-one-year-olds (I mean I am twenty-three and I still screw up at least a few things a day).

4: A Focus on A Fun Stat Line and A Bad Play

Samu Castillejo had a goal, 0.3 xG, 4 progressive passing yards, 2 progressive ball carries, and 3 ball pressures. Essentially, the Spanish winger caused a bunch of chaos with his first touch of the ball and did next to nothing else from a statistical standpoint. I respect it immensely.

What I do not respect is his terrible defensive awareness on Ekdal’s free header in the ninety-fourth minute. If you rewatch that play, you will see Samu vaguely pick up Ekdal in the box, and then as the ball is played in, the Milan winger stops moving. Every other defender keeps tabs on their assignment except for Samu. This presented Sampdoria an undeserved equalizer and almost sunk the Rossoneri’s impressive match to that point. Lapses like this will be punished by better opponents and need to be trained out of the squad, especially before January sixth.

5: Rebić Goes Wild, Does Not Score

Milan’s Croatian striker ended the day with 1.1 xG, 0.3 xA, 6 shots, 5 shot-creating actions (the last two stats are different), a goal creating action, and a solitary assist. Sadly, he did not bulge the back of Emil Audero’s goal. This was certainly not for a lack of trying. He was a menace to the Sampdoria backline and Ranieri seemed unable to quell Rebić’s constant prodding. If Zlatan Ibrahimović plays as the ‘fox-in-the-box’ for Pioli’s side, then Rebić can be the team’s attacking wasp. He is constantly annoying, you are always aware of where he is because of how ‘in your face’ he is, and he will sting you if you let your guard down. This analogy proves how much I know about bugs as a history major.

6: The Fullbacks Go Wild

I think both of these players love progressing play. Theo generated 807 progressive yards - 447 from passes and 360 from carries - and Davide Calabria generated 508 progressive yards - 369 passing and 139 from carries. Almost half of Milan’s progressive yards were created by these two players throughout the match. They also contributed a third of Milan’s 1.4 xA with Theo generating 0.4 xA in the game. I thought Calabria had an unbelievably strong defensive game. He helped stop Sampdoria attacks and created some short field counterattacks for the team. These two had the match that I have been waiting to see, both of them hitting their stride in the same ninety minutes. They were devastating and almost uncontainable for anyone on Sampdoria. I would like to see any team in Serie A try to stop them.

7: Gianluigi Donnarumma Deserves More Praise

In the seventh minute, a mad scramble in the box and a wildly ricocheting ball cannoned toward the head of Lorenzo Tonelli. Incredibly, Gianluigi Donnarumma shot his hand up and made a miraculous save. This chance would be marked as the most dangerous of the game for Sampdoria. It is hard to put into words how athletic this play was, but I think we can all appreciate a fantastic save just by looking. This should go on the 2020/21 Donnarumma save mixtape. It was just that good.

8: View From Around the League

Milan now sits comfortably at the top of the table in points and xG differential. Currently, the Rossoneri are +12.4 in xG differential which is 2.4 xG better than the next closest competitor, AS Roma. The strangest aspect of this team is that they are undershooting their xG. Milan has generated 24.3 xG and has scored 23 goals. This could be partially explained away through the squad missing three penalty kicks this season. However, I would expect more goals in future matches if this chance generation rate continues.

In terms of competitors this season, a chasing pack of four teams, with one pretender, has come together. Roma, SSC Napoli, Juventus FC, and FC Internazionale have all separated themselves from the rest of the league (I know Atalanta BC has been left off). The two teams that concern me the most are Juventus and Inter for obvious reasons. Both of those squads have the depth and superstar power to make up for whatever deficiencies they may have. Obviously, Milan has already taken half the possible points off of Inter this season, but Juventus is an entirely different story. If the Bianconeri stay within touching distance of the top spot in Serie A, then the six points up for grabs in the two meetings with the Rossoneri could be season-defining. This is why I made note of January 6th earlier. It is the first meeting of these Italian giants. If Milan can win a game or even draw both fixtures, then the possibility of a Scudetto goes up immensely. I do not want to be too dramatic and say those are the games of the season, but here we are and I am saying that. To be more blunt, January 6th is more than three weeks and multiple major holidays away and I am already nervous.

9: Overall Thoughts

Milan won a match that they should win. While the final seconds may have made everyone sweat, the final xG and the scoreline should let us all sleep soundly at night. I like Sampdoria, and I love their stadium, but they are not a threat to teams competing for the Champions League (if you have the opportunity to go to their stadium, you should; it is gorgeous in a dingy sort of way). There are lessons from almost every match and this fixture was no different. We learned that Milan has the mental fortitude to win matches balanced on a knife’s edge. This has not been the case in recent years, but finally, there is a group of players able to hold onto results. It feels a little weird to be able to say that, but it is certainly refreshing.

On another note, Football Slices was shut down at 3 pm (15:00) eastern standard time on December 10th, 2020. This is crushing for me and some of my writing. I will always strive to give you as much fantastic coverage as possible, but I will be light on percentile rankings for the time being. To the people who ran that site, I commend your work.