1: What the Analytics Said
Here is the frustration. At minute sixty-one, Dalbert was sent off for a soft red card. AC Milan was barely leading the expected goals battle 0.44 to 0.39. After this, Milan added another 0.32 of an expected goal. If that rate were constant over the course of a game, Milan would not even hit their average expected goal total per ninety minutes. That is truly terrible offensive creation while at a player advantage. Stefano Pioli obviously told Milan to sit off ACF Fiorentina and not continue the push to score. He was complacent with the lead, and managed the team poorly. This is the second time he has failed to let Milan attack with any impetus while up a player.
What is the problem with this inexplicably passive approach? Fiorentina countered with offensive aggression. After Dalbert was sent off, Fiorentina, while down a player, created 1.59 expected goals. Admittedly, 0.76 of this 1.59 of expected goals came from a just penalty, however, that means Milan was out performed 0.44 to 0.32 expected goals with a man advantage. That is unacceptable. There really is no other way to say that. The players struggled, but the management was worse. Pioli deserves the lion’s-share of the blame.
2: Why Pioli was the Culprit
Two of the substitutions, because of injury, were out of Pioli’s control, however, his plan for Milan to go into a shell and not press a poor defensive structure from Fiorentina is questionable. He then took off the most creative player on the field, Samu Castillejo, to keep Hakan Çalhanoğlu on the field, an even more questionable decision. The plan to let Fiorentina control minute sixty-nine to minute eighty-nine was a tactical error. Zlatan Ibrahimović pressed ineffectively, Çalhanoğlu had been non-existent all match and continued accordingly, and the two full backs were struggling to impose their will on the game. Milan needed to implement a stronger press, and be more willing to attack ball carriers in the defensive half of the field. Instead, the attackers for Fiorentina were able to sit on the ball. It was a poor tactical adjustment to a game that Milan should have put to bed. Being a player up should lead to more space and more offensive creativity. Pioli directed the Milan players to sit back. It was a costly choice.
3: What Do We Know About the Milan Attack
Milan’s creative force still comes from the right side, and still primarily the right wing. Rebić has added the ability for the left winger to be a true goal scoring threat. Zlatan has played well as a striker who can help facilitate an attack. Theo Hernández has been quiet the last few games, but I would expect he will snap back into form soon.
The weakness is the lack of a truly strong attacking midfielder. During the Fiorentina game, Çalhanoğlu was effectively non-existent. He struggled to pass and generate any movement off of Ibrahimović. Milan desperately needs an attacking midfielder who will impose himself on the game more. Çalhanoğlu has struggled to do so. If Pioli wants to maintain the 4-2-3-1 formation, then he either needs to rotate more players through the center attacking midfielder role, or change the responsibilities of the role.
4: The Central Attacking Midfielder
Milan does not have one. Lucas Paquetá and Çalhanoğlu have been poor when called upon. Paquetá has averaged 0.17 expected goals and 0.11 expected assists per 90. Çalhanoğlu has averaged 0.16 expected goals and 0.15 expected assists per 90. The top thirty players in expected assists per 90 in Serie A, filtered to a minimum of eight hundred minutes played, are all over 0.2. Castillejo is currently at 0.35 of an expected assist per 90 which puts him second in Italy. Castillejo has been great.
This cross from Castillejo is sublime.
What is concerning is that Milan is still generating offense primarily down the right wing, and is struggling to break down opponents’ midfields. Milan has done extraordinarily well playing low and quick crosses to defeat opponents’ wings, however, the attacking midfielder has been primarily bypassed. When Çalhanoğlu plays, he struggles to take risks which hurts his offensive effectiveness. When Paquetá plays, he struggles to pass, but generally makes correct decisions. Both have struggled, but there could be a fix.
5: It is a Bit of a Fixer Upper
Milan should drop Çalhanoğlu for Rafãel Leao in central attacking midfield for the match against Genoa and see if the young man can perform the role effectively. It would give Milan three striker type players which may be too much offense, but fun. However, Ibrahimović has struggled to press and make runs in the last two games. He could use a player who starts from behind him and bursts into the box. Rebić can play a similar role, except that he will come from the left wing and invert centrally. This may be too offensive, but Milan needs to solve this issue.
The other option is to play Paquetá as an anti-ten. This means that his job is to play as a defensive attacking player. He played this style against Torino FC and excelled at the defensive aspect. His tackles helped create multiple counters, and his recovery in the first half led to a goal. This plan may work better as it is not as totally offensive as putting on Leao at the attacking midfielder role. Milan should try the Leao option against Genoa C.F.C, and the Paquetá option against Juventus FC.
6: Milan is Gifted a Red and Has A Deserved Penalty Called Against
The Dalbert red card was a poor call. I understand that Ibrahmović was possibly free into goal, however, he dived aggressively, taking a step and then falling down in grandiose fashion. This was a yellow card in my opinion and Milan were fortunate to receive the man advantage. Why did Milan not make use of it? I will never know.
Romagnoli fouled Cutrone. You cannot try to reach the ball by going through a player. Romagnoli mainly hit Cutrone on his trailing leg. This was a foul in every sense. It was a generally poor play from Romagnoli as he misread what was happening in front of him. The penalty was deserved and Erick Pulgar scored. Frustrating.
Ibrahmović’s goal was also rightly called off. The hand ball rule is bad, but that the ref is not at fault for that. It is not a goal in the eyes of the law.
Ibrahmović simply dives.
7: Minute Sixty to the End of the Game
This is why I talk so often about making substitutions effective. For the (not) fun of it, I tracked substitutions before minute sixty-five since December first. Pioli has had forty-five available subs, he has made only ten before minute sixty five. From minute sixty to full time, Milan has created 14.74 expected goals to the opponents 15.71 expected goals against. That is a negative 0.97 difference in the last thirty minutes of matches. Milan has a positive 5.88 expected goals differential in the prior sixty minutes. In the last thirty minutes, Milan maintains their offensive output, but the defense begins to fall apart. Generally, this means that Milan needs to fix their press, through substitutions, or put on a defensive option at full back, which is also through a substitution. What cannot continue is Milan’s consistent deterioration in the last thirty minutes of a game. There is a strong attack and a stout defense for sixty minutes, then it falls apart. To fix this, Pioli needs to make one sub at minute sixty, another sub five to ten minutes later, then a final one by minute seventy five. This allows the substitutes enough time to make their mark on the game. It will allow Milan to maintain their press, and possibly push on for more goals (those are fun right?).
8: Rebić Continues His Streak
Ante Rebić has 2.22 more goals than expected. He currently has the lead for most goals for Milan this season, at six. I wish he would score every match. We should all enjoy this incredible run of form. Rebić has been Milan’s star player since January first.
Guess who scored? Ante Rebic! That was an easy one, wasn't it? pic.twitter.com/nU5LoSipX7— Milan Fans Macedonia (@MilanFansMK) February 22, 2020
9: Overall Thoughts
I still am not a fan of the coach. He is a good manager for sixty minutes, to give credit where it is due. He has an interesting tactical identity but his blind spots are noticeable. He struggles immensely at substitutions and is not good at in-game tactical switches. The team needs to stop being passive, and be willing to throw on attackers to solve a defensive issue. Every game, the press falls apart as Ibrahimović, Çalhanoğlu, and Rebić tire. Pioli needs to start taking one of these three off for a fresh player. Making the necessary changes would be easy, because Pioli often fails to use all three subs. While complaints about poor substitution calls are moot in the Fiorentina game because of injuries, the tactical adjustment is not. Pioli obviously wanted the team to hold onto a lead, instead of trying to add to it. Milan is simply not stout enough defensively in the second half to reliably maintain a close scoreline. Pioli must stay aggressive through subs, and allow the team to finish games off. Sitting on a small advantage is incredibly risky. It was poor management and I have been saying this too much recently.