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9 Things: A Frantic First Half Leads to a Dull Second Half, AC Milan vs U.S. Sassuolo Calcio, 2-1

AC Milan punches their ticket to the Europa League with a win against the team from Emilia-Romagna.

US Sassuolo v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

By xG, AC Milan won this game comfortably. However, the manner in which Milan won was not because of their domination in open play, it was because U.S. Sassuolo Calcio could not maintain their defensive discipline. Throughout the first half, the Rossoneri sat deep and attacked with purposeful counters. These broke down the Sassuolo defense when they occurred. However, many of the Rossoneri’s attacks came from a Sassuolo defender passing the ball directly to a Milan player. While the counter-attacks were effective - one led directly to Zlatan Ibrahimović’s first goal - they were somewhat dependent on Sassuolo failures in possession. However, Milan deserved to win this match.

Ibrahimović had his most impactful game of the season. In one match he had 1.68 xG and scored two goals. His first goal registered as 0.9 xG which is massive. For another game, Hakan Çalhanoğlu showed his attacking ability. He created 1.36 xA during the match and provided two assists. He and Ibrahimović dominated the first half which led to Milan winning the match.

2: The First Half Was Fun

A half of Serie A with three goals, a red card, a penalty, and crunching tackles will always be fun. Both teams played an expansive style of soccer and showed real offensive fervor. Domenico Berardi seemed like he was going to pose a real threat down Milan’s left side. Alessio Romagnoli and Franck Kessié handled their defensive responsibilities with the utmost skill. Çalhanoğlu and Ante Rebić grew into the half, and once they hit their stride, they became handfuls for Sassuolo. The game seemed to be on the precipice of becoming a wild affair.

3: Zlatan Ibrahimović Has a Half to Remember

The Swedish striker absolutely mastered his role against Sassuolo. He exploited defensive weaknesses and read space perfectly. This led to his three massive chances in the first half and one more chance in the second half. Ibrahimović has had some struggles in recent weeks with his connection to the rest of the side. However, games like this remind everyone of the danger he can bring to any individual game.

Ibrahimović did have his moments of curious or poor decision making. His rabona at midfield was questionable at best. There are still things that the thirty-eight-year-old could improve on. Since the restart, he has seemed to have somewhere around forty-five to sixty minutes in him. It is evident when he gets tired. This is not necessarily his fault, but Stefano Pioli needs to recognize when Ibrahimović starts to fatigue.

However, Ibrahimović scored twice and his second goal proved to be the game-winner. That now means he has seven goal contributions since the restart.

4: I Guess Everyone Gets Hurt Sometimes

So, I used to row earlier in my life (crew). There were stretches of my rowing career where I had fourteen races over the course of six days. These races were short so I had time to recover. However, at the end of these insane weeks, I would be on the edge of three or four injuries. I cannot imagine being a professional athlete playing every three days in the wretchedly hot conditions facing the Serie A teams. If the physio staff for any individual team is not up to par with the demands, then so many players will get hurt (SS Lazio). Against Sassuolo, this was in full effect.

Now, I do not think that the Milan physio staff is as helpless as it was last season, but, some of the players were unprepared for this match. Alessio Romagnoli seems unlikely to complete the season, based on current reports. Andrea Conti, who I do not think should have started, had to be replaced mere minutes into the match. Çalhanoğlu picked up a knock early in the match that seemed to be muscle related. Injuries can compound on themselves, and since the turnaround for each match week is short, Milan needs to be careful about over-working players.

5: The Second Half Was a Snooze Fest Defined By Ugly Soccer

Mehdi Bourabia was sent off at the end of the first half for a horribly timed and executed sliding challenge. The second half would be defined by that sending off. When Milan has a man advantage, the team sits off their opponents and makes the opposition break through. When the ball is regained, Milan then counter-attacks aggressively to exploit the man advantage. While I understand the tactic, I do not necessarily agree with it. The match against ACF Fiorentina was a perfect example of the danger of doing this. Milan let La Viola back into the match and eventually gave up a penalty and almost lost the game.

Against Sassuolo, Milan was spared such an outcome. Roberto De Zerbi’s substitutions lost him the match. While down to ten players, there was still a way to win the match, however, once he began to make substitutions, the offensive creativity went away. Milan’s backline was not tested and the Rossoneri were able to break forward almost unimpeded. There were two moments, one for Giacomo Bonaventura and another for Ibrahimović, that should have resulted in goals. This half did not teach us anything about either team. It was simply uneventful.

6: The Goals

The first goal was facilitated by some horrid marking by the Sassuolo backline. Bourabia failed to cover Kessié’s run into the box, so Marlon Santos stepped forward to mark the Ivorian man. This left Ibrahimović completely open in front of the goal. Milan did not expertly pick apart the Neroverdi defense, instead, a massive defensive lapse led to the opening goal.

The second goal came from more horrible defending. Serie A quality players will absolutely expose defenses if they are not challenged. Çalhanoğlu was completely free to run forward as four Sassuolo players merely stared at him. While these four players were awe-struck by a straight, forward run, Ibrahimović began making a run. Marlon lost the defensive line and kept the Swedish striker onside. Once Ibrahimović received the pass, all he had to do was beat Andrea Consigli. If you thought that the defensive mistakes were over, think again, Consigli ran himself into no man’s land and failed to challenge the ball whatsoever. Ibrahimović simply went to the right and shot into a wide-open goal. That would prove to be the game-winning goal.

7: Financial Fair Play Cannot Stop Us This Time

The Europa League is ours for next season. Well, the Europa League play-in games are ours. Currently, Milan has officially qualified for the ‘Main Path’ in the second qualifying round of the Europa League. If Milan does not leapfrog both SSC Napoli and AS Roma into a 5th place in Serie A, which provides a guaranteed spot in the Europa League Group stage, it will spare us the random luck of the qualifying rounds. Here is a quick example of the vagaries of qualifying round play-ins from this year’s Europa League: Wolverhampton Wanderers, Torino FC, and Eintracht Frankfurt were a collection of the teams that played in this round at the beginning of the Europa League this year. Only one other team I would refer to as tricky entered the competition after this qualifying round, PSV Eindhoven. Twenty-one teams enter the group stage from the qualifying rounds. Generally, these rounds can be a cakewalk for teams like Milan (Eindhoven played FK Haugesund and Apollon Limassol FC). However, teams like Torino and Wolves played an easy team in their first two qualifying games and then played each other right before the group stage (Torino was knocked out on aggregate 5-3).

This is why I have harped on finishing fifth for so many articles. It can save so much heartache in the qualifying rounds. Better to just be in the group stage than need to play some random team from Georgia that I have literally never heard of (and I have heard of everyone and everything).

8: I Hear You and Your Team Did Not Sign Ralf Rangnick Because You Wanted To Keep Stefano Pioli

This is vaguely an LCD Soundsystem reference (listen to ‘Losing My Edge). Mid-2000’s Alt-Rock-Electronica references aside, Milan has decided to keep on keeping on with Stefano Pioli and Paolo Maldini for another season. While I agree with keeping Pioli, I am not a fan of this deal as a whole. I would have signed Rangnick as the Sporting Director and kept Pioli as the coach. If the Italian man cannot carry Milan’s late-season success into next season at the helm, then Rangnick could easily enter as the head coach. Instead of having one or the other, it would have been fun to have both. However, Rangnick may have decided that if he does not coach then he will not join Milan. If that is the case, then I am more content with how this entire process has ended.

Pioli has deserved to stay around after this impressive coaching performance. Milan looks menacing and the squad is being properly used. I still have concerns about how Pioli will do next season, as his teams in the past have been wildly inconsistent, but his coaching performance this year has certainly been deserving of an extension.

With Maldini, Milan has completely reinvented the team. The Rossoneri are now younger, faster, and more tactically flexible than they have been over the last few seasons. He has done a commendable job with transfers and I have absolutely no issue with him remaining on staff in the future. He is the Milanista after all.

9: Overall Thoughts

If you did not watch this game, then watch the first half and nothing else. It was not the game I necessarily expected, however, the victory ensured Europa League qualification for the next season. If Milan can continue to press forward and aim for an automatic birth to the group stage, then I will be over the moon about this season. The fifth position is completely within reach and Milan has one more difficult fixture this season while Napoli and Roma both have two more tricky or downright hard fixtures left. Maintaining the current form may guarantee that Milan receives an automatic berth. That would be pretty awesome.