1: What the Analytics Said
Oh Boy, this was bad.
Verona created 1.21 expected goals with their two biggest chances each worth around 0.5 of an expected goal. Milan on the other hand took twenty-four(!) shots and scored only once for an expected goal total of 0.85. I have not said this for a bit, but Milan went right back to quantity over quality. It would be easy to lazily say that no Zlatan meant no good Milan, but that was not the issue. Lack of creation from the midfield stifled Milan. Hakan, while he scored off a deflection (emphasis on deflection), could not pass directly enough to affect offense. During the second half, after failing to penetrate the box, Paqueta, and Theo fell into Hakan’s habit of taking long range and hopeful shots. There was no directly central play, no cutting passing, and an almost allergic reaction to entering the box. Bennacer is typically the catalyst for direct attacking. The game against Hellas Verona showed Milan’s lack of depth in Bennacer’s role. There are players to replace Kessie if he gets hurt, but if Bennacer goes down then there is no one. That should be obvious and Milan needs another plan without Bennacer in the squad. Hakan has been tried in the deep lying role before, however, he has never been able to succeed there. His skill set is safe passing (backwards and sideways), some pressing, and long-range efforts. Pioli not realizing that the 4-4-2 was no longer viable without Bennacer is an issue. The team needed to switch formations to something that would give Milan a simple progression of players. The lack of the formation change helped sink Milan’s efforts. Milan will need to address this lack of depth. Bennacer is back for the Derby so Milan will look better from his presence alone.
2: What Makes Shooting Tick
Draw a basketball three-point arc around the opponent’s goal - that is the area to penetrate. This is a simple visualization, but it generally illustrates where teams should shoot from. It is essentially a yard or two wider than the goal and goes about to the penalty spot. If teams shoot from within this arc, their expected goals numbers will balloon. Milan’s shot map is devoid of these shots. What Milan did have was thirteen shots from outside the box. Milan, in the last several matches, had been doing well to get the strikers involved, playing penetrating passes, and shooting from in close. What Milan did against Hellas was to cycle the ball about thirty yards away from the box, slowly creep closer to the box, reach the top of the box, fail to pass into the box, and shoot from the top of the box. I expected this would happen with Bennacer out. Pioli’s plan to play the same formation and system without Bennacer was a wrong one.
Kessie did well to rotate deep in the field and I thought he had a fine game. The introduction of Paqueta for Bonaventura should have helped with passing, however, it generated more of the same rotation. Both Paqueta and Hakan did about the same things throughout their time on the field. I would have taken one player for the other. With Bennacer back, I expect the team to go back to generating offense. I would simply not consider Hakan as a backup in Bennacer’s role.
3: How Did Hellas Verona Help Stop Milan
On the lineup sheet, Hellas showed a 3-4-3. In the game they played a fluid 3-4-3, 4-3-3, 4-4-2, and when Amrabat was sent off they shifted to a 4-4-1. Zaccagni, Lazovic, and Verre carried the majority of attacking impetus throughout the game for Hellas Verona. Their long ball and direct approach to counter attacking helped spring their forwards past mainly Matteo Mussachio. Romagnoli put in another strong effort, but Mussachio’s constant tackling failures allowed Hellas Verona to take chances. The two major defensive blocks that Hellas Verona generated helped close passing lanes. The lack of Milan rotation near the box made it easy for Hellas Verona to collapse onto their goal, however, they were smart to capitalize on a problem that Milan was making for themselves. Hellas Verona did well to make Milan try to figure out how to break them down. They crowded shooters from the top of the box, crowded Milan’s left side, and marked Rebic out of the game. The way Milan needed to break this down was to involve Samu and Calabria more. When Milan began to do that, the team played better. However, Milan sorted this out too late to effectively break down Hellas Verona.
4: Wing Play Issues
This was the first time that all four wing players truly struggled to affect the game. The most notable action by any of the four was a poor defensive play by Theo that led to a goal against. It is telling that that’s the biggest moment that the wing players had. Theo struggled crossing and breaking down the Hellas Verona right side and the passing from the midfield struggled to implement the right side of Milan’s attack. Samu had an ok day, along with a medium chance at the end of the game. Bonaventura was almost entirely ineffective. He registered a low expected goal total and no expected assists. Calabria had more expected goals than expected assists, but it still did not register highly. It was drab from these four.
5: The Goal Against
Mussachio moved to cover space and maybe cut out the cross but found himself in No Man’s Land. Romagnoli then had to rush to cover Verre who made a run in behind Mussachio. This left Romagnoli and Theo covering Verre and Faraoni. Theo noticed but did not pick up Faraoni who was coming late into the box. Faraoni ran around Theo and latched onto the cross. That is brutal defending from the Frenchman. He never fully tracked Faraoni once he made his run. If Mussachio did not misread the attack, then Romagnoli might have been able to cover for Theo. However, this goal was predominantly on Theo who failed to show defensive acumen.
6: Strikers Were Quiet but This Was Not Their Fault
If the team cannot pass or cross into the strikers, then what are the strikers supposed to do. Generally, the idea is for them to drop deeper in the pitch and do more ball carrying. Rebic did some of this in the first half, however, he stopped in the second. This appeared to be a tactical adjustment from Pioli. Milan became more focused on the midfielders attempting build up, then attempting to cross, but usually shooting from distance. Rebic and Leao could have done more to get involved. However, the creation of chances failed because of how poor the midfield was playing. Bennacer’s return will help this.
7: Scoring on Deflections
Hakan’s goal - now two of his recent three - took a massive deflection to beat the goalie. His habit of shooting from outside the area persisted. Hakan took four shots, not one of which was worth more than about 0.05 of an expected goal. While Bennacer rarely takes overly dangerous shots, his shot totals are never this extreme. Hakan must remove this habit from his game to be more effective, however, it seems like he will not. As I have said before, Hakan’s goal does not deserve heaps of praise. He was not effective in open play and his goal took a major deflection.
Calhanoglu levels it with a deflected free-kick! pic.twitter.com/4d4IPuReDY— MilanGifs (@MilanGifs) February 2, 2020
8: Overall Thoughts
This game could be a contender for the second worst Milan game of the season (nothing will touch Atalanta). Hellas Verona has played better than I expected this season, however, they were down to ten players for the last fifteen minutes. Unbelievably, Milan squandered this advantage, even as Hellas Verona deteriorated in the absence of a player. Milan reverted directly back to shot quantity over quality. The discipline to limit long range attempts has been lacking at Milan all season. The 4-4-2 formation change appeared to fix this problem, but it is apparent now how crucial Bennacer is to the tactical identity of Milan. Milan needs his presence back in the squad. Hopefully, the squad will readjust for Sunday as losing four games in a row to Inter is unacceptable. Milan has to come out strong, be prepared for Inter’s inevitable onslaught, and Pioli will need to outthink and outplan Conte. That is no easy task.
9: Looking Ahead to Inter (Merda)
It is Derby week y’all.
So, Conte will run out a 3-5-2. With no Lautaro, expect Lukaku to start along Esposito or Sanchez. The five in the midfield will most likely be Young, Eriksen, Brozovic, Sensi, and Moses. The backline should be Godin or Espositio, De Vrij, Skriniar. The new Inter wing backs have pushed the team to a slightly more defensive shape. What that gives Inter is the ability to be more offensive with their midfield. Expect whoever plays on the opposite of Brozovic to do the majority of the midfield pressing. Lukaku will have more traditional striker responsibilities but expect him to excel in this role.
Milan will need to be prepared to play the wingers in behind the wing backs. There is a way to create a four on three overload in attack. If Milan wants to create two low blocks with a support striker doing the lion share of shot assists alongside Zlatan. This will be a test of Bennacer and Kessie. If both start, then expect them to need to rifle passes forward in order to help Milan break out of their defensive shape. Milan’s wingers and fullbacks may be able to overload the wingbacks for Inter, however, that may give the Inter midfield more license to move forward. A 3-5-2 is a difficult set up to break down and was a formation created to stop a 4-4-2. However, if Milan prepares to counterattack Inter, then there is a chance that the Rossoneri can win. Atalanta dominated Inter the most of any team this season. Their man marking strategy in defense helped shut Inter’s attack. Milan could do this as well. Removing Brozovic and Lukaku, which is not the easiest of jobs, from the game should end any Inter chance of attack. The wingers will need to force the Inter wing backs into a more defensive posture. Remove their width with strong play from the fullbacks and wingers, nullify Brozovic and Lukaku, then Milan can win.