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9 Things: Serie A is Back and Milan Start Hot, AC Milan vs UC Lecce, 4-1

Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s game of the season spurs on Milan to defeat the southern minnows, Lecce.

US Lecce v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan took advantage of a poor day from US Lecce. Milan scored four goals on their 2.56 xG. Lecce created 0.5 xG from open play but had a penalty, which they converted (1.26 xG in total). There was one poor period from around minute twenty-five until the Lecce goal at the fifty-fourth minute. During that time, Milan conceded space and was countered aggressively. Prior, Milan had not allowed Lecce to attack whatsoever. However, after scoring, Milan became chaotic with their defensive organization and allowed Lecce to grab a foothold in the game. Milan recovered and took the lead back from a fortunate bounce. Once Milan restored their advantage, they pulled away from the provincial side from the south. Overall, It was a strong performance from Milan that fully deserved three points.

Milan pressed to about their average intensity (around 9 passes per defensive action), but there were massive variations in intensity. Up to the first goal, Milan pressed aggressively and successfully. Ante Rebić and Samu Castillejo both press well in general, and against Lecce, they showed that. Castillejo does not get enough credit for his defensive work rate, which is immense. Rebić made a nuisance of himself as well and forced Lecce defenders into poor passes. The pressure cycled between relentless and lackadaisical (we will get to this), but overall Milan pressed well.

2: Hakan Çalhanoğlu Had a Day To Remember

Milan’s meeting with Lecce was all about Hakan Çalhanoğlu. His ability to create shots (making passes that lead to shots) was on display (he ranks 79th percentile for attacking midfielders and wingers). He had two assists and splendidly switched play to Andrea Conti for Rafael Leão’s goal. He contributed almost an entire expected assist against Lecce. From his ability to switch play to the shape he put on his switch to Conti to his assist for Rebić’s goal he showed flashes of what made him great in Germany.

My typical complaint about Çalhanoğlu is how wasteful he can be. However, against Lecce, he was efficient and effective with his time on the ball.

I was impressed by how the Turkish International continued attacks even if players made poor runs. During the first half, Rebić and Castillejo both made runs that took away Çalhanoğlu’s space, but he went wide and still got a cross into the box. This space interpretation and exploitation gives me hope about future fixtures. I am possibly overly critical about Çalhanoğlu, but I do think he can pick apart the smaller sides in Serie A. If he consistently delivers similar performances, it could make him an effective player to keep.

3: The Attack, Part One

This part, and part two, will be about the non-Çalhanoğlu attackers for Milan. Each player had their own moment of brilliance or they scored. Castillejo, Rebić, Bonaventura, and Leão all found the back of the net during the game. Some of these goals were good finishes, some were lucky.

Castillejo finally scored during the 2019/20 season. He has an expected goal total of 2.47, so hopefully, he meets that total, or better, by the end of the season. The goal itself showed intelligent attacking play from Milan. Bonaventura continued a move started by Castillehjo by exploiting space in front of him. He played a cutting pass to Çalhanoğlu who fired a low cross onto the foot of Castillejo. The Spaniard found the side netting with a deft redirection on a venomous cross. This got the scoring started. The three players connected fantastically. Their movement, on and off the ball, helped find space and break down the Lecce defense. Castillejo has deserved a goal so seeing him get one is a massive positive. However, Milan sat off Lecce right afterward.

4: The Breakdown in Milan’s Play

After Castillejo’s goal, the Rossoneri stopped committing to the game plan that had been successful to that point. Milan stopped pressing, the midfield began to make mistakes, and the fullbacks struggled with their assignments. Ismaël Bennacer and Franck Kessié did not communicate well and both left a massive gap between them and the backline. Bennacer began to miss-control passes and headers which led to dangerous Lecce attacks (a failed header in the first half was his worst play of the game). Kessié, who had been good to this point, started to miss-hit passes. He stopped putting the proper shape onto switches of play and forced players to halt their movement to recoup inaccurate passes. Those miscues led to dangerous Lecce counter-attacks.

Theo Hernández and Andrea Conti struggled to stay in position and make tackles. Conti had a few fouls during the period between Milan’s first and second goals. Most of those fouls came from him being beaten on the dribble or being behind the play. Conti did turn his game around and had a generally positive day. Theo, on the other hand, struggled all game with his defensive positioning and allowed Lecce to exploit space behind him. He was not convincing against Lecce.

5: Simon Kjær’s Injury Woes and Matteo Gabbia’s Pour Outing

Hopefully, Simon Kjær is not hurt for long. His collision with Riccardo Saponara was a weird play that buckled Kjær’s knee. It looked painful and left the Danish man limping off the field.

Matteo Gabbia came on and struggled to find his feet. What he found quickly was the referee’s notebook and he gave away a penalty. This penalty was unfortunate. Gabbia was not backing up as quickly as Khouma Babacar, the two made contact and the Lecce striker went down. It was a penalty, but it resulted from a strange coming together. Milan had been taking risks and letting Lecce get back into the game, but the Rossoneri responded well to the penalty. Almost every Milan player settled themselves and began to turn the momentum after being scored on.

6: The Attack, Part Two

The Return of the Attack.

Bonaventura spent all game finding space to exploit and trying to break through the Lecce backline. After Lecce scored, it quickly became apparent that Milan woke up and went back to the successful strategy of the first half. Bonaventura’s goal was fortunate. Gabriel spilled a shot right towards the Italian International, but this was the second of his big chances and this time he scored. Every goal is not pretty, but they all count. It is good to see him score after such a long absence. He was active all game and his success and overall good play got rewarded.

I respect Fabio Liverani’s (US Lecce head coach) set-piece plan against Milan. He sent every Lecce player forward in an attempt to take the lead in the fifty-seventh minute from a corner. This was the most aggressive set-piece tactic I have seen from a team in quite some time (when taking into consideration what stage of the game this occurred). Liverani’s plan legitimately shocked me.

Lecce’s corner failed and their secondary ball into the penalty box sprung a Milan counter-attack. Alessio Romagnoli expertly controlled the second ball in and played an out pass to Çalhanoğlu. The Turkish man then perfectly weighted a ball into the path of Rebić who had a free half of a field to run into. While the Milan striker had a lot of time to think about the finish, he still slotted the ball home. Two goals in two minutes, not bad.

Leão finished the game off with a forceful header. Again, Çalhanoğlu shaped a fantastic crossfield switch that found Conti in space. The fullback then sprinted forward and played a cross directly onto the head of the young Milan striker. The young Portuguese man then did as strikers do, he scored. Welcome back to the score sheet Leão. Milan, and Milanista’s, hope you keep adding goals.

7: The Midfield Duo Have Very Different Days

Other than a poor twenty minutes, Kessié had a good day. He maintained his defensive position, stopped Lecce attacks, switched play well, and progressed the ball. The Ivorian international took two shots from distance, one of which forced Gabriel into action. Kessié is not given enough credit for all of the work he has to do throughout a game. He supports almost every player in all phases of the game and creates a strong midfield duo with Bennacer. Against Lecce, Kessié showed his value. He made up for Bennacer’s poor day. He covered the young Milan midfielder and even made up for the lack of ball progression from his counterpart. Kessié has put together two good games since the restart, hopefully, he maintains his form.

Bennacer had a day to forget. He sprung Theo a few times, but generally, his timing was off. His greatest error came in the first half when he misplayed a Gabriel punt and accidentally sprung Gianluca Lapadula in on goal. The Algerian International struggled to dominate or even control the midfield, unlike what he usually does. His passing was off, his positioning left something to be desired, and he generally looked behind the play. This is two games in a row where Bennacer has looked poor. He has had dips in form before, but I believe that he can bounce back.

8: Overall Thoughts

I am going to include a section about the AS Roma game so I am ending the writing about Lecce one point early. Milan played well. Scoring four goals is always good, unless you lose, but Milan did not. Çalhanoğlu played splendidly and was the focal point for the Milan offense. He passed brilliantly, progressed the ball, and helped other players exploit Lecce’s defensive frailties. Hopefully, the Turkish International can continue this form against Roma.

Getting Theo and Bennacer going again will be crucial against the Giallorossi. Both had days to forget. Theo had his common problem of staying in position and Bennacer simply was behind the pace of play. For Theo, this seems to be a constant trend in his game and I do think Milan should focus on providing more cover for the Frenchman. Offensively, he was fine, defensively he was not. Bennacer will right his play, I am not worried about that. However, it would be nice to have one more game against a lesser team for him to find his legs. His game will come back to him.

However, these are two negatives that did not sink Milan (and the players were not abysmal, they were just not great). The key takeaway is that the Rossoneri played well. The offense clicked, players that needed to score did, and Milan came away with three points. I had fun in the second half and I hope you all did too. Maybe we can be happy after a match.

9: AS Roma… A Tricky Fixture

Roma started off the season on a tear. Chris Smalling seemed to recover his defensive talent, Jordan Veretout was proving the naysayers wrong (including myself), and Edin Džeko was still creating chances like a madman. However, that all fell apart at the turn of the year. Since then, Roma has gone 5-2-6 and conceded twenty-two goals while scoring twenty-three goals. They delivered one dominating performance when they beat Lecce four to nothing before the pause, but every other game was less than convincing. Some players like Smalling, Amadou Diawara, Cengiz Ünder, and Lorenzo Pellegrini have continued their form from the first half of the season. However, Veretout, Gianluca Mancini (who I actually think is a defensive midfielder), and Pau Lopez have struggled as the season progressed. They are beatable.

Expect the Giallorossi to play in a 4-2-3-1 with Mancini and Smalling as the defensive pairing. Bruno Peres will continue to fill in for departed ex-club captain Alessandro Florenzi at right back. Aleksandar Kolarov will most likely play left-back (he is the worst defensive fullback on either team). Diawara and Veretout will probably stay in their midfield duo. Veretout will provide ball progression and Diawara will make up for the Frenchman’s lack of defensive ability. In attack, Džeko, Ünder, and Pellegrini are all dangerous, however, those are the only players who truly scare me.

If Milan applies pressure to the backline of Roma, targets Veretout and Kolarov in the attack, and Kessié and Bennacer play well, then Milan can win. It is not a game to sit back and let Roma attack because they do have players that can pick an opposition apart. A win at home, against a team in pursuit of the same Europa League spots that Milan is after, would be a big morale boost. The top six is in reach and beating Roma would make a statement to the other teams in Milan’s orbit.