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9 Things: Fast Start And Controlled Finishes, AC Milan vs UC Sassuolo Calcio, 2-1

This team is setting left and right, even a few international ones.

US Sassuolo v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

1: What The Analytics Said

AC Milan vs UC Sassuolo Calcio

Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG Shots (On Target) xG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 2 1.5 11(5) 0.14 32%
UC Sassuolo Calcio 1 1 15(5) 0.07 68%

In a refreshing manner, AC Milan started this match on the front foot, generated an early lead, and then formed a defensive wall. While UC Sassuolo Calcio fully deserved their goal - see above - they struggled to generate any sustained offense and only created two clear cut chances. Sassuolo’s offense was defined and coordinated by Domenico Berardi and Hamed Junior Traorè, but their play left a lot to be desired. Those two players generated 10 of the 15 shots for the Neroverdi and 3 of the 5 shots on target. More importantly, they generated 0.9 xG combined for Roberto De Zerbi’s side. However, their efforts were entirely in vain because of a poor starting plan from the in-demand manager. I made note of this during the match, but I thought De Zerbi got this game wrong and hampered Sassuolo’s creative edge. I will make sure to return to this.

On the other hand, Milan generated almost all of the teams xG in the first forty-five minutes. The only notable chance in the second half for the Rossoneri was Alexis Saelemaekers skied shot in the seventy-second minute. This match was won early and then Stefano Pioli backed off and created an impenetrable shield of white and red jerseys to see out the result. While an unfortunate compilation of errors led to a lead cutting goal, the game was never in doubt.

2: Fastest Goal Ever

If you are going to score early, do it in a cool way. Rafael Leão understands this idea and made his mark on this match, and world soccer, in under seven seconds. He has set the record for the fastest ever goal in the big five European leagues. For a player who is barely old enough to buy a beer in America, that is pretty cool. I might be jealous of this accomplishment (I am).

Pioli’s plan was smart too. His idea of overloading the right side of the Sassuolo defense let Leão and Hakan Çalhanoǧlu exploit a massive gap in coverage. Mehdi Bourabia, Jeremy Toljan, and Marlon all failed to stop the driving Milan attack. Bourabia was surprised by Hakan’s run and failed to attempt a duel, Marlon stepped up to try to duel but opened space up for Leão to run into, and Toljan never recognized any of these preceding events. The success of the two Rossoneri attackers completely trumped the succession of failures by Sassuolo’s midfield and backline. While the finish was all Leão, I want to make sure Hakan gets the credit he deserves. This entire play was started by him and he made the pass to open space for the Milan striker. Leão finished this chance sublimely and he then made history. Pretty cool if you ask me.

3: Back To De Zerbi’s Team

De Zerbi’s initial lineup gave me qualms about Sassuolo’s game plan. Personally, if they were physically able, I would have started Francisco Caputo and Jérémie Boga and pushed Traorè deeper in the pitch so he could play more as a mezzala (Caputo played forty-five minutes, I would have started him and taken him off at half if he was struggling). I also would have started Mert Müldür and Giorgos Kyriakopoulos from the beginning of the match. These changes would have provided more width for the Neroverdi and let the midfield duo, Bourabia and Maxime Lopez, support the center backs more, who were obviously struggling. De Zerbi made some changes at halftime to help provide more stability to the team, but these changes could not solve the two-goal hole. Pioli won this coaching matchup and it was evident throughout the full ninety-minutes.

4: Pioli’s Plan to Stop Sassuolo

For long stretches, especially in the second half, Milan switched into a 4-4-2 formation that looked to corral Sassuolo in midfield and limit their play on the wings. This worked because De Zerbi was unable to rely on the passing abilities of Manuel Locatelli to generate a focused attack. Milan’s wingers pressed the Neroverdi players with success and limited their attempts to cut inside. This led to Berardi falling silent and Filip Đuričić becoming isolated. Without a true distributor from deep, there was no true way to break past the Milan center backs. On a few occasions, Grégoire Defrel or Caputo found space in the box Alessio Romagnoli and Pierre Kalulu stepped in to stop the attack (Kalulu was sublime during this match). If the Neroverdi players had more time to break down Milan, they may have started to chip away at the visitor’s low block, but instead, they faltered.

5: Inefficiencies Rule the Day

Milan completed 74% of their 315 attempted passes. It was evident that the lack of successful passing led to a faltering offense and struggles to break out of the defensive third. In unison with this, the entire team generated low progressive numbers and had 20 passes that were turnovers (intercepted, offside, or out of bounds). There were larger problems from players like Theo Hernández, Davide Calabria, and Hakan, who were ball-dominant but consistently struggled to complete passes in attacking situations. Other players, like Sandro Tonali and Jens Petter Hauge, were incredibly inefficient but not particularly active (Tonali is much more concerning than Hauge in this respect). Milan needed to score early, and they did, and while Hakan struggled to pass, when he completed passes, they were dangerous. If the team completed more breakout passes and directed play better, then maybe this scoreline would be different.

6: Saelemaekers Had a Topsy-Turvy Seventy-Eight Minutes

This may be blasphemous, but the Belgian winger left a lot to be desired from a player who scored a goal. I know, this is a weird complaint, but he skied two different shots, one of which was a ridiculous volley attempt from the top of the box, a shot he seems unfortunately fond of. He also failed to generate any shots for others and was a periphery player for long stretches. My complaints about him may be nitpicky, but he still underwhelmed in some key spots during the course of play.

7: Davide Calabria Actually Underwhelms

It is now annoying that I praised him in my last article because he was simply not effective against Sassuolo. His defensive play was suspect and he struggled to generate progressive yards. He failed to put together the type of performance we regularly see from him. I was frustrated by this all match and it was evident that he was out of ideas. The team needed more composure down the right-wing and he struggled to provide any.

8: Overall Thoughts

We come to this early this week because I want to touch on what to do with Milan’s midfield against SS Lazio. I liked the general play from the Rossoneri and how they dispatched a competitor with ease. This was not a full-strength Milan side and they were still able to arrive in Emilia-Romagna and take three points while winning the xG battle. Every player maintained some type of defensive responsibility and did not shy away from increased demands as the match progressed. Everyone kept their focus. This sort of victory will need to be more common if the team wants to continue to march towards a title. This was a step, but more matches like this will come soon.

9: All the Midfielders Are Out

Going into the match against Lazio, I was already worried about Milan’s midfield structure before the Tonali injury news. Neither he nor Rade Krunić have shown enough skill to determine and direct play positively for Milan. Now, Tonali seems like he will miss the upcoming match leaving Krunić as the sole surviving midfielder. I saw some reports about Hakan serving as one of the players in the double pivot, but I would rather see a 4-3-3 be implemented with Calabria and Hakan in the center of the field. Calabria has already played as a midfielder, quite well I might add, in Serie A, and Hakan cannot play in a midfield duo effectively. I think playing a trio of Calabria, Krunić, and Hakan would be chaotic, yet serviceable. This would be my plan and I would make adjustments to the forward line as needed. All you need to do is survive this match and get to the Christmas break. That midfield trio would be capable of that.