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9 Things: A Draw That Is A Win, AC Milan vs SSC Napoli, 2-2

I said Milan needed four points from these three games, they got seven. This match was a bit of a let down from the utter joy of the week, however, a point is a point.

Soccer Serie A, SSC Napoli v Milan Photo by BSR Agency/Getty Images

1: What The Analytics Said

AC Milan was not particularly good. They created 0.53 xG from open play and were fortunate to receive a penalty in the seventieth minute. SSC Napoli was sluggish, but they were by far the better team in the fixture. While the Giovanni Di Lorenzo goal was more fortuitous than the result of good build-up play, Napoli still deserved a goal from a set-piece. José Callejón and Theo Hernández had the two most dangerous chances of the game from open play. One was scored, the other was not.

The xG map and the final total speaks to the passiveness of this game. Both teams seemed tired and generally idealess. However, Napoli had slightly more energy than Milan and this was why they controlled most of the game. This match was more stressful than it was hotly contested.

2: Milan Looked Exhausted

This has been a brutal string of fixtures. After playing SS Lazio and Juventus FC, Milan was tasked with another fixture against a team in a European place and the winner of the Coppa Italia. This makes it incredibly difficult to rotate the squad and play different lineups to give players rest. What the lack of time off between games, or a string of tough games in a row, does is make every single player on the pitch look slow and idealess. It seemed like Milan had no real plan to break forward in offense or contain counter-attacks in defense. Napoli exploited this issue, especially early in the match. Without the ability to press or play with pace, Milan retreated into a shell and tried to contain the southern team. However, it did not fully work and Milan did things that directly led to goals against.

For individuals, it was evident that players did not have the energy to implement a press. This let Napoli recycle possession freely. There were a lot of sloppy plays that resulted in an unforced turnover or an unnecessary risk. As the game wore on, Milan was able to grab more control of the game, however, the basic lack of pace halted Milan’s ability to break upfield. There will need to be more rotation of the squad in the upcoming games. The Rossoneri have a game every three or four days until the end of the season. The depth will be tested.

3: Pioli’s Initial Game Plan Was Flawed

The backline and midfield organization were both acceptable, however, the attacking quartet was suspect from the announcement of the lineups. Lucas Paquetá was played out of position on the right, Hakan Çalhanoğlu in a central role, and Zlatan Ibrahimović looked exhausted. Because of their exhaustion, Milan was unable to press to play with any amount of tempo in attack. Ante Rebić did not press as much as he typically does, however, he still had more impact in attack than any of his other colleagues. The addition of Alexis Saelemaekers, and the subsequent subtraction of him, was noticeable during the match. His running gave Milan the ability to apply pressure to the Napoli midfield and backline. However, he foolishly got himself sent off.

If these four players are the current starters for Pioli, then I would politely ask for a formation change. Their tendencies would fit well into a 4-4-2 variation. However, it would most likely mean that Zlatan would sit. The need for pace in this system would mean that Rafael Leão would play striker. Leão and Rebić fit into this system well and have the ability to tear up opposing defenses. However, this is less of an issue when Samu Castillejo returns.

4: The Dead Ball Tactics

This has been an issue all season. Pioli’s defensive dead ball plan is to place the backline on top of the goalkeeper. While it prevents players from having a free path to the goal, it opens up options for the opposition to wreak havoc. The two most dangerous options are: a free-kick taker can place his delivery on goal, forcing the goalie into action, and it lets the attacking team run at pace onto headers, giving them an advantage in the air. Di Lorenzo’s goal was a fantastic example of the problems with how Milan sets up defensively for set pieces. Gianluigi Donnarumma had to make a save because the free-kick was taken on target. The save is admirable, but it comes with the price that if Donnarumma does not catch the ball, then the opposing team scores. Milan set up deep in their box for two freekicks and both created unnecessarily dangerous attacks from Napoli.

There was absolutely no need to sit this deep. The defensive team sets the line, not the attackers.

5: Andrea Conti Has A Truly Bizzare Game

The Italian fullback was solid offensively. He made some runs that exploited space and helped spread the field. However, he struggled enormously defensively. His most notable problem was how often he fouled. He lost more duels than he won, he committed five fouls, and struggled with his positioning. He was somebody that I thought needed to come off the pitch. Conti has not been inconsistent since in the restart and I would consider rotation at the right back position. However, Davide Calabria seems marooned on the bench so I expect there to be no reprieve any time soon.

6: Ismaël Bennacer was the Man of the Match

When he had control of the ball, Bennacer continuously broke down the opposition midfield and defense. He split the Napoli defense in the build-up for the first goal with an incisive and purposed pass to Rebić. The young Algerian also broke the Napoli press and had a lot of success winning the ball back. He showed some of his tricks and flicks and progressed play well with his feet. The Napoli midfield is nothing to scoff at, so Bennacer delivering another strong performance is fantastic. He has been a catalyst for a lot of Milan’s recent success.

7: The Open Play Goal

Quickly on the penalty. Giacomo Bonaventura got fouled in the box. His foot was kicked and he went down fairly theatrically. It was a penalty and was properly awarded. It was fortunate but I am glad it was awarded.

Now, the open play goal. What an unbelievable goal. The entire play was the result of of each player making a truly fantastic play. The pass into Rebić by Bennacer completely split the Napoli midfield and created space for the Croatian striker in the box. Surprisingly, Rebić turned around and played a delightful cross over the Napoli backline and Theo perfectly volleyed the ball into the back of the net. At every turn during the goal, a Milan player made the perfect decision and played the perfect ball. It might be the goal of the season.

8: The Europa League Race Now

U.S. Sassuolo Calcio has decided that they want a say in the race for Europe. However, Milan, Napoli, and AS Roma all seem to be in pole position to finish in the European places. This draw makes it harder for Milan to finish fifth, but not impossible. Napoli has a similar remaining fixture list to Milan, however, they have to play two teams ahead of them in the table. AS Roma probably has the worst fixture list to end the season, especially because they have to play Juventus to end the season.

Milan has one more incredibly difficult fixture, Atalanta B.C., and another tricky fixture against Sassuolo. Both games have the potential for disaster, however, I would expect Milan to defeat Sassuolo. There is a very real possibility that Milan drops points in one more fixture time this season and finishes fifth. Pioli cannot let any complacency drift into the team. These matches are not cakewalks, but they are not like the gauntlet Milan just completed.

9: Overall Thoughts

Winning seven points from these three games was incredibly impressive. Milan showed a resilience that I have not seen for years. The match against Napoli was not the explosive finale to the week that we all may have hoped for, but the Rossoneri did not lose. The Europa League is within touching distance and getting back into Europe will give Milan another path into the Champions League in 2021/2022. This is the time to maintain form and show the rest of Italy the new AC Milan. There is still work to do to climb out of this era of the Rossoneri, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.