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What to Watch: AC Milan versus Juventus FC

AC Milan v Juventus - Coppa Italia: Semi Final Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

What Happened In the Reverse Fixture

AC Milan played a strong seventy-one minutes, then Milan went down a man and conceded a penalty. Milan created 1.34 xG during the fixture while Juventus FC created 0.53 xG from open play but 1.31 xG overall because of Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty. The drawback of Milan’s performance was the utter lack of discipline. Milan fouled aggressively throughout the match and Theo Hernández deserved his red card. It was not what I like to see from Milan and it greatly impeded Milan’s ability to win.

Milan created over one expected goal from open play against Juventus, which is not an astounding amount, but still solid. Ante Rebić scored the lone Milan goal. Zlatan Ibrahimović had 0.52 of an expected goal and 0.36 of an expected assist (these totals are impressive). Theo had 0.39 of an expected assist. The key offensive contributors since the turn of the year all performed well in attack during the game. Milan countered effectively and exploited the Juventus midfield for most of the game.

However, the defense failed after the seventy-first minute. Prior to that minute, Juventus seemed unable to break through the Milan defense and struggled to control almost any facet of the game. Milan isolated the Juventus midfield from the rest of the team. The forwards were trying to create without any midfield support and the defense struggled to progress the ball through the midfield. Juventus’s 4-4-2 formation struggled to create offense. Ronaldo drifted wide consistently, Paulo Dybala dropped deep to initiate ball progression and Blaise Matuidi sprung up as the furthest forward player for Juventus repeatedly. This left no real striker to make any attacking runs at Milan’s backline. Maurizio Sarri’s plan did not function as he would have wished. Milan took advantage and exacerbated Juventus’s problems.

Sadly, the game still ended in a one-to-one draw.

What to Expect From Milan

Above is the report of the lineup Milan is likely to play. The issue is that Milan is playing five midfielders and one striker (who likes to drift wide). Ismaël Bennacer will continue to play as a ball progressing defensive midfielder and Franck Kessié will continue to provide midfield support. The confusing part of the formation is where Lucas Paquetá, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, and Giacomo Bonaventura will be starting. Those three players all play down the left side of the field, all are mezzala or attacking midfielder style players, and are not box centric players. If the news about Davide Calabria playing left-back is true, then that complicates the lineup choices even more. One of the trio mentioned prior will need to support Calabria. While I think Calabria will perform his responsibilities well (and he should start on the right side in the future), I am worried because he has never played this position before. However, I had the same concern with him playing midfield against ACF Fiorentina, but he played well that game.

So, what do I expect? One of Paquetá, Çalhanoğlu, or Bonaventura will drift wide in attack to assume the space Theo typically controls on the wing. The other two players will float above the box and try to play quick passes or crosses into Rebić. Andrea Conti should run the right flank like Theo.

The problem is that Rebić could easily be isolated. Paquetá or Çalhanoğlu will need to make runs into the box, or support Rebić in attack. If the two attacking midfielders just simply sit above the box and do not try to create space with off the ball movement then the Milan attack could struggle.

What to Expect From Juventus

Rodrigo Bentancur scares me. The guy is a midfield freak. In the previous fixture, Miralem Pjanić struggled in midfield, which continued a theme from this season (I think he has taken a noticeable step back this season). However, Bentancur has taken a step forward in his progression and has turned into a force in the center of the field. He, by himself, will probably control the midfield, so supporting Bennacer in the midfield battle is going to be crucial. Luckily, Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi are not a particularly scary supporting cast for Bentancur. Both players have noticeably been behind the pace all season. Also, Khedira struggles to add anything to almost any game he plays in (I know this is harsh but he simply is not good enough). Matuidi is still able to have a strong game, but I would be surprised if he turned heads in his first game since the pause. This is about Bentancur though. He is truly incredible and the player to watch in this game. If he wins the midfield battle then I am not sure that Milan will have a chance.

Data from Wyscout

Expect Juventus to have both Douglas Costa and Ronaldo to invert and provide space for Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro to enter for support (crossing or ball recycling). Khedira’s role requires him to move the ball within two touches, so expect that. Paulo Dybala, he also scares me, will play as a false nine. The space Dybala vacates will be exploited by Ronaldo and Costa. Bentancur will provide protection to Matthijs de Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci, while also recycling possession from deep. Expect the Juventus game plan to look and play like a 4-3-1-2 (formations are fluid, but I am expecting something like that).

How Milan Can Win

Paquetá and Çalhanoğlu need to cover Bentancur. If Bentancur is free to dominate the midfield then the game is over. Bennacer will have the unfortunate duty of covering Dybala. Alessio Romagnoli will have to support Bennacer. If the two can cover Dybala then it is possible to take him out of the game. However, Dybala and Bentancur are the most dangerous on the field. Ronaldo can always pop up out of nowhere with a goal but from a creation standpoint, Dybala and Bentancur are the dangerous men for Juventus. Like I have said before if Dybala decides to turn into ‘La Joya’ then the game will be over. It happened to Milan in their league game at the Allianz Stadium.

In attack, Milan will need to exploit the space that Cuadrado leaves behind. Attacking down the left-wing, before Cuadrado can get back into position, may yield dividends. The hope is that it will stretch the Juventus backline and force a midfielder or a center back out of position and spring one of the Milan attackers free in the box.

Player fitness is a real concern in the first match back and taking advantage of the five substitution rule could be crucial. If anything is failing by the start of the second half, I would make a substitution. Hopefully, players on the bench are ready to jump in the game. Milan needs to score, so an aggressive game plan is smart. A smash and grab style game is not something Milan can plan to do against Juventus. I would rather lose because Milan attacked then wobble towards a goalless draw or a one to nothing loss. This is a tricky situation, but I do think Milan truly has a chance.