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9 Things: A Crucial Win in the Race for the Europa League, AC Milan vs AS Roma, 2-0

Sometimes games can be boring and still have wild things happen. This game was a perfect example of that.

AC Milan v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

Before we talk about the xG total I would like to provide an important preface. Milan’s xG for the match was 2.26 of which 1.22 xG came from one play. This is because Understat valued all three shots leading to Ante Rebić’s goal. This is an issue when there is a flurry of attempts immediately preceding a goal. You cannot score more than one goal from one opportunity, and even though there were three shots, this play is one opportunity (this is different than when a team applies an immense amount of pressure for five minutes). This goal should be thought of as having a maximum value of 1 xG. For Milan, that means that each individual shot was incredibly dangerous, and Milan scored one goal. However, it does not mean that Milan created 1.22 xG from this play, they created 1 xG.

Milan had another 0.76 xG come from Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s penalty (penalties in Understat’s model always equals 0.76). The penalty was deserved as Chris Smalling stepped on Theo Hernández’s foot. It was an impressive run from the Frenchman and his movement resulted in a penalty.

In any case, Rebić’s shot that scored had a higher expected value than all of AS Roma’s chances combined. It would be wrong to say that Milan did not deserve to win. Roma looked idealess, especially after halftime, and created one chance of note. The Milan system and tactics came alive after two substitutions, Rebić scored on his one chance all game, Çalhanoğlu missed a dangerous header but scored a penalty, and Alexis Saelemaekers had his best performance in a Milan jersey. Overall, it was a good day and Milan won. There are lessons to be learned about both sides after this match.

2: The First Half

Part of the issue with Stefano Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 is that it is not being utilized properly with the current healthy Milan players. Giacomo Bonaventura, after playing well against US Lecce, showed the issues that he has at central attacking midfielder. He struggled to figure out how to effectively support the players around him. In some moments Bonaventura would drop deep and try to help push play forward, but then he would be late to support the attackers up the field. If Bonaventura stayed forward with Rebić, then he struggled to connect with the rest of the team. Simply, the Italian International struggled against Roma, and while he was not terrible, he was behind the play and hurt Milan’s attack. Bonaventura seems more suited to play as a mezzala or in a deeper position. If Milan switches to a three-man midfield then I would expect Bonaventura to be more consistent with his form.

The other ten players did not have much to do in their first half. Ismaël Bennacer started slowly but began to come alive closer to halftime. Neither full-back had much to do and the same with the wingers. Franck Kessié continued his fine run of form and continued to shield the backline. The only defensive issue arose from the Edin Džeko chance in minute nineteen. Alessio Romagnoli, Theo, and Çalhanoğlu all left Džeko open in the box. None of the three players decided to follow the Bosnian man’s run and this left the striker with a free header in the box. Fortunately, the Roma striker skied his chance and did not put Milan behind.

Çalhanoğlu missed a header in the thirty-eighth minute that could have easily turned into a goal. The cross was a little high, however, it is one that I expect to be at least on target. It was not and Milan went into halftime tied.

3: Substitutions Turn the Game

Saelemaekers and Lucas Paquetá came on in the fifty-fourth minute and completely changed the game. Bonaventura and Samu Castillejo were subbed off for the two players (Castillejo was not playing poorly, he just was not playing well). Paquetá’s introduction was the more pivotal of the two substitutions. He gave more purpose and positioning to the central attacking midfielder role than Bonaventura. The Brazilian did this by becoming a ball carrier and working to support players making runs around him. He did not make the attacking runs that Bonaventura had been, but he did not take himself out of position. Paquetá’s cross to Saelemaekers was a crucial part of Milan’s first goal. It was not his best ball of the game, but he and Saelemaekers did well to make that specific attack become more dangerous. There were still some issues of wasteful dribbling or poorly timed shots, but overall he put together a great appearance from the bench.

Saelemaekers performed his assignment well against Roma. He crossed well, entered the box with intent, and was a key contributor to Milan’s first goal. If Saelemaekers does not connect on Paquetá’s cross then Milan does not score (his one-touch pass to Kessié was very impressive). Most of his appearances have been at the end of games so seeing him get an extended period to play (for him) was good. He took advantage of his run-out and showed Pioli what he can do.

4: The Second Half Overall

Roma stopped playing offense. Some of the issues I spoke about for Roma in my last article came true in this game. Without Amadou Diawara, the Giallorossi struggled to shield their backline. Jordan Veretout and Bryan Cristante do not have the requisite defensive ability to control a midfield battle. The duo could not hold possession or retake it for the entire second half (Diawara provided more stability). Roma’s attack, which had not been good, stopped linking together at all. Henrikh Mkhitaryan did not create any dangerous chances all game, Justin Kluivert was invisible, and Lorenzo Pellegrini struggled to support any of his colleagues. There seemed to be no attacking plan for Roma and once Džeko left the field, the Gialorossi fell apart.

Bennacer and Kessié took advantage of Roma’s midfield in the second half. When the offense for the capital side had evaporated, Milan threw more players forward without concern of a concentrated counter-attack. Gianluca Mancini and Chris Smalling both had their faults during the game (Mancini in open play and Smalling gave up the penalty). As the players in front of them failed, the center back duo became responsible for covering most of the Milan attackers. The fullbacks, midfielders, and some of the attackers had no answer for the Rossoneri’s grasp on the game. Smalling and Mancini paid for the failure of the rest of their teammates.

5: Ante Rebić Scores Again

This goal is preposterously funny.

The entire play would not have happened without a terrible pass by Davide Zappacosta. Milan did well to continue the attack and Saelemaekers deserves a lot of credit for the goal. The cross from Paquetá was fine, but not great. The young Belgian winger did well to volley the ball back towards the attacking players. Kessié’s volley forced Antonio Mirante into a save which fell to Rebić. The Croatian’s first shot was parried away, but the second shot was placed into the roof of the net by the striker. It was a frantic goal, but fun to watch.

6: Çalhanoğlu Slots Home a Penalty

I had never seen the Turkish man take a penalty, so I am glad he scored. The penalty was fully deserved because Smalling stepped on Theo’s foot as he drove into the box. Clear cut penalty and Milan ensured their win against Roma.

7: Strikers and Utilization

Without Zlatan Ibrahimović in the lineup, Pioli has struggled to adapt his offensive tactics. Milan has a few different attacking tactics, but one that occurs consistently is a direct style of play (think route one). It works with Ibrahimović because he has the height and the ability to play knockdown and hold up soccer. However, Rebić does not possess this skill and I am not sure that he is a striker. When he was at Eintracht Frankfurt he played on the left of a narrow attacking trident with Luka Jović and Sébastien Haller. Trying to replicate this role for Rebić would pay dividends. Milan has already done so when he supports Ibrahimović, however, it needs to happen without the Swedish striker. In these games, the Croatian International should play on the left with Rafael Leão leading the line. This would keep both players in their more natural positions and help Milan play more directly. I would certainly try it in a future game.

8: How this Affects the Europa League Race

Almost every game broke Milan’s way this match week. We, as a fan base, must now cheer for SSC Napoli to finish within a Europa League spot (an additional place goes to seventh if they finish in those spots). Roma is most likely out of reach, but the other guaranteed Europa League spot is not. Milan is three points behind Napoli and the Rossoneri look strong. Hellas Verona FC and Parma Calcio 1913 both dropped points in astounding fashion. The Hellas Verona match against US Sassuolo Calcio was absolutely insane and everyone should watch the last forty-five minutes. This means that Milan has breathing space at this moment. This cannot be taken lightly as Milan plays three teams ahead of them in the standings over the next four match weeks. Getting a result or two against those teams could be the difference between the Europa League or mid-table obscurity. This is a tough part of the season, but if Milan maintains their form from the last two games, then there is more than a chance that Milan will play in Europe next season.

9: Overall Thoughts

This was a massive win. While it was not a fantastic performance, it was certainly a good one. Roma played incredibly poorly, and I am not sure they had any real attacking plan. Milan did well to take advantage of Roma’s frailties in the second half and that spurred the Rossoneri to victory. Hopefully, Milan shows more of a process in the next game instead of relying on a handful of dangerous attacks (mainly in the second half). The first half was the main concern, as Milan created next to nothing, although they did not allow Roma to attack. The team does not always need to play their opponents off the pitch, but a more complete game would calm some nerves.

The next match against SPAL is not necessarily easy, but it certainly should not be hard. This is a must-win game. Milan faces SS Lazio, FC Juventus, and Napoli in that order after the SPAL match. These games will be incredibly tough, but if Milan can win at least one of these matches then their European dreams will stay alive. It will be a great boost if, Ibrahimović can come back in time for these games, but we shall see. This is a massive upcoming two weeks for Milan. Let’s hope they keep up their form.