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9 Things: Uninspired Soccer Leads to Frustrating Result, Juventus FC (1*-1) AC Milan

If you recorded this game to watch it later, I would recommend that you simply do not. This is a review of the two legs.

Juventus v AC Milan - Coppa Italia: Semi-Final Second Leg Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

I am using Statified Football for my xG map. Unlike most other public domains, they actually published work for the Coppa Italia match. Obviously, AC Milan was dominated. Quickly, PSxG is post-shot expected goals. This changes the xG total based on the accuracy, bend, and speed of the shot. So if someone beautifully catches a volley from outside the box and it swerves towards the goal, then the shots expected goal value goes up, thus post-shot xG.

Milan was bad. No two ways about it. Over the two legs, by rax xG, Milan lost 3.63 to 1.54. That is not particularly close. The correct result happened, which is Juventus FC playing SSC Napoli in the final, it just happened to occur in a very frustrating way. Milan deserves credit for playing well win the first leg. However, the second leg was absolutely chaotic. There was no press, no tangible plan, and Milan created nothing. Somehow, they still achieved a draw. The first half started poorly as Milan could not break out of their own half. The attacking quartet could not link up, and the rest of the team defended desperately. It shows in the xG. Milan took three shots in the box. There was simply no attack and the defense spent the entire fixture under siege. I sparse moments, Milan would push forward, however, most of these attacks did not result in a shot. The penalty conceded by Andrea Conti was the key moment of the first half. Juventus slowly chipped away at Milan for the rest of the game. The lack of a transition strategy for Milan led to much of their demise in the first half. A substitution would change the dynamic of the game for both clubs.

In the second half, Miralem Pjanić was subbed off at minute sixty-two and replaced by Sami Khedira. This change pushed Rodrigo Bentancur, who had been dominating Milan’s left flank to that point, to center defensive midfield (a big reason for Juventus’ xG domination in the first half). In turn, Davide Calabria had more time to compose himself on the ball and then push forward. Khedira lost control of his defensive assignments and was generally poor. This exposed the left-wing for the Milan attack. However, Bentancur shut down Ismaël Bennacer and made Milan’s ability to break on the counter all that more difficult. Prior to the change, the right-wing was the only viable lane of attack for Milan. After the switch, the center of the field was shut off by Bentancur, but the wings were free to exploit. The time allowed to Milan’s backline grew during the second half and this substitution is directly linked to that. Prior, Milan had not time to build from the back, and thusly, created nothing.

2: It is the First Game Back and it Showed

The passing, the movement, the attack, the decision making, all poor. Ante Rebić was left on an island for his seventeen minutes on the field and did not do much (we will get to the card in a second). Bennacer had a chaotic game, he started fine at best and then slowly fell apart during the second half. Both of the fullbacks, Andrea Conti and Davide Calabria, were dreadful for most of the first half. Conti started performing decently in the second half and Calabria did turn his game around (he had a tall task playing left-back). Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Lucas Paquetá, and Giacomo Bonaventura were either wasteful or unable to string two good actions together. Seven of the starting eleven players were all somewhere between dreadful and chaotic. From my perspective, that is bad.

However, Franck Kessié, Simon Kjær, and Alessio Romagnoli were between fine and good. For Milan, Kessié was the best outfield player. He prevented runs from getting past him, passed effectively, and did not lose his position. The Ivorian International did exactly what was required. Kjær and Romagnoli both performed admirably in their positions. They were under siege for most of the game and still kept their cool. Kjær had the better game of the two, with his heading and passing a notable plus. Romagnoli broke up play with some strong sliding tackles. He struggled to pass at the beginning of the game but righted himself and produced a solid performance.

3: Stop Fouling

Two red cards over one-hundred and eighty minutes is a pretty sure-fire way to lose a two-legged tie. Theo Hernández was sent off for an accumulation of cards, which I guess is acceptable compared to Rebić’s actions. For those of you who did not see the play but want to recreate it, here is the play by play. Have a family member lob the ball in the air and get your sibling to try to head the ball away. What you need to do is channel your inner Karate Kid and flying kick your sibling in the chest. Now you might say “Douglas that sounds dangerous” or “Douglas why would someone ever do that”. Well, Rebić did this in a competitive match. He was rightly sent off.

However, the overall lesson is that Milan needs to stop fouling when they play Juventus. In each of the three games, Milan challenged dangerously and should have seen more cards shown. I will never condone that style of play and Milan continues to do it against Juventus.

4: Speaking of Fouling, That Was An Undeniable Penalty

If you are unsure, watch the replay again. If you move your arm towards the ball (which Conti does) and make contact with it, then that is a penalty. There is no argument there. Every handball does not need to be wildly blatant, they can be subtle and be a penalty. Conti cannot show that lack of discipline with his appendages within the box. This is not a situation where a cross hits his arm while he is bracing his body, Conti moves his arm towards the ball. It was a shocking act in a shocking play.

5: At Least Gianluigi Donnarumma was there

Here is the last player who I thought played well (man of the match for me). He saved a penalty, made a massive save on a Blaise Matuidi shot, and cleared the box well with his punches. Overall, he had a good day. Without him, this game probably ends two goals to nil. Also, saving a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty should get you a statue, so get on that everybody.

6: The Tactical Side of AC Milan

Stefano Pioli got this game wrong. There was no press, no tangible plan to play without Zlatan Ibrahimović, and no substitution strategy. Milan has a short selection of attacking strategies, and one of them is to bypass the midfield and play the ball directly to Ibrahimović. This works because the Swedish International is strong in the air and can hold up play. This does not work when Rebić plays striker. There is, at a bare minimum, a four-inch difference between the two, Rebić is shorter, with a vast discrepancy in terms of aerial ability. Instead of changing tactics to make up for this difference, Pioli chugged forward like Ibrahimović was there and it did not work. There was no hold-up play, there was no support from the other attackers and Rebić lacks the skill to get past the center back duo Juventus fielded. To put it lightly, this plan does not work without Ibrahimović.

When Rafael Leão came on, the team doubled down on the long ball plan. It did not work again. Milan tried to bypass the Juventus midfield and threw hopeful passes towards the lonely striker. Leão did slightly better than Rebić, but it still did not work whatsoever.

7: What Did Work

Some of the quick passing, mainly initiated by Kessié, successfully transitioned the ball upfield. Paquetá did well in possession to continue the progression but still struggled with superfluous dribbles. Çalhanoğlu and Bonaventura, together,had one strong foray forward that led to a semi-dangerous opportunity, but that was the full extent of their offensive contribution (Bonaventura deserves a bit of a pass, it is his first game back from an injury). Dead ball play was strong as well. Defensively, it got chaotic, but offensively, Kjær and Romagnoli both had crosses played to them that posed some threat. None of these set pieces led to goals, but, at a minimum, they gave hope to Milanistas.

8: Reactions Over the Two Legs

Stop fouling. It is really that simple. This was not a tie where Milan had to foul because Juventus was playing in full form. These were not tactical fouls, a la Manchester City FC, Milan players were just reckless. Almost every player on the pitch over the two games had some form of foolish foul that accomplished next to nothing. Everyone can complain about a foul here or there or that the ref gave Milan fouls because they were playing Juventus, but two Milan players were sent off over two legs. That is just simply unacceptable. If the plan is to simply foul Juventus until they retreat, then why was Milan thinking so negatively? There is a way to beat Juventus, but beating them up is certainly not it.

This second leg was not a good game from Milan, simple as that. However, Milan still thoroughly outplayed Juventus in the first leg. The Bianconeri were saved by a penalty (I have more qualms about that penalty than the Conti one, infinitely more). Milan deserved a one-goal lead going into the second leg, however, life is not always fair. The second leg was a drubbing. While Juventus did not score, they did create dangerous build-up play and did not allow any space for Milan’s attack. Milan looked ill-prepared and unsure about how to handle Juventus. It showed all match. I do not think Milan deserved to go to the Coppa Italia final. I understand this game ended in a draw, but Milan created absolutely nothing and caused most of their own issues. If that game is played again, expect Juventus to score, at a bare minimum, once.

9: Overall Thoughts

You can probably tell I am annoyed by how Milan handled themselves over the two legs. This was the first game back from a long pause and it showed. The passing was poor, the spatial recognition was non-existent, and there was simply no attack. Milan did well to get players game time and at least this is one of the more difficult games over this final stretch. The next fixture against US Lecce should be easy, but this is not confidently said so rotating the squad and fixing the tactical weaknesses will be important. Milan has lost one of their routes into the Europa League, so performance in Serie A will be crucial. Pioli needs to get this right.