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9 Things: Both Teams Were Begging for a Game Changer, AC Milan vs Atalanta, 1-1

There were some real positives for AC Milan in their most recent fixture, however, a piling on of mistakes and a little misfortune led to a draw.

AC Milan v Atalanta: Serie A Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

Understat’s model is absolutely flattering Atalanta BC in this match. Of their 2.14 xG in the match, 0.76 comes from the penalty, another 0.45 comes from Duván Zapata’s goal, which we will get to, and another 0.43 comes from another Zapata shot that Donnarumma had covered before the Colombian striker even got a foot to the ball. The remaining xG would equal 0.46, or as much as AC Milan created. As I have said before, the sophistication of any model does matter in the xG calculations. Teams who famously have robust statistics groups - think Liverpool FC or even Juventus FC - will have much better xG models than anything that is public. We can still understand much of the game from these public models, but it is always important to understand their limitations. One of Understat’s core issues with their model is identifying scenarios of individual shots. For example, on the Zapata “chance”, he and Donnarumma meet the ball at the same time. The location is dangerous, but the shot itself is not. So, I would drop its expected total considerably.

This is all said with the knowledge that Milan played an acceptable game, but not something deserving of all three points. Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s wonder goal was a fantastic opening, but Milan struggled to create shots during the match. The frustrating reality was that the Rossoneri created some very enticing build-up play that led to about nothing. If certain players deeper in the field were playing better then maybe Milan could have taken more of the match to Atalanta.

2: AC Milan’s Crisis Team

Welcome to the inevitable depth issues. With Ismaël Bennacer, Alessio Romagnoli, and Theo Hernández all missing due to injury or suspension, Milan had to bring in three backup players in the fixture against Atalanta. While Diego Laxalt is not necessarily my favorite player, I do not mind him, but he is not a left-back. On the other hand, Matteo Gabbia and Lucas Biglia have rarely instilled confidence during their appearances. The primary concerns with these two players are how mistake-prone they are, and their inability to pass the ball forward. Both players can retain possession, but when asked to face forward and play a progressive pass, they struggle. This led to long stretches of Milan constantly playing the ball back to Gianluigi Donnarumma just so the young goalkeeper could blast the ball forward. This then led to two things: Atalanta pressing more fervently as the game progressed, and Milan becoming unable to create orchestrated attacks. It was not surprising to see the team break forward with more purpose directly after Biglia was taken off the field.

In future matches, if there is another depth problem because of injuries and suspensions, I would like to see Stefano Pioli rotate his side into a three-man midfield and play more creative passers further up the field (Lucas Paquetá and Giacomo Bonaventura). Alexis Saelemaekers simply did not have the requisite skill to appropriately break down the Atalanta defense. It showed all match. This was not necessarily his fault, but it will serve as a reminder the next time Milan has to solve an absence problem.

3: Let’s Talk About the Penalty

Biglia’s challenge on Ruslan Malinovskiy was not only late and unnecessary, it was also rash and reckless. I am not sure what his thought process was, other than to go in with such fervor that he was either going to win the ball or foul the player. As fans of the team, we know that Biglia can be incredibly error-prone, but his last two appearances have been horrible. Part of the reason why I want Milan to change the formation when Bennacer does not play is that Biglia has been so poor.

Luckily, Gianluigi Donnarumma has mastered the art of saving penalties. In 2019/20 alone he has saved four of the nine penalties he has faced. In his career, he has saved twelve penalties of a possible thirty-six. To put it lightly, Donnarumma is one of the best penalty-saving goaltenders on the planet. When Malinovskiy stepped up for his shot against the Italian goalkeeper, I had faith that Donnarumma could save the attempt. While Malinovskiy’s penalty was not fantastic, Donnarumma reacted superbly and made a fine save. We are lucky to have him.

4: Duván Zapata’s Goal and How Luck Can Undermine a Performance

The path the ball took to reach Zapata was wildly fortunate. Remo Freuler lost a duel that Franck Kessié initiated, but the ball hit Gabbia’s feet and fell right back to Freuler. The Swiss midfielder then took a hopeful shot that deflected off of Gabbia and into the path of Davide Calabria and Zapata. Calabria went to make a sliding clearance, but he did not get enough of the ball. At the end of the ball’s course, the Colombian striker slotted the ball home. I like Atalanta and I love to watch them pick apart sides while creating spectacular goals. This was not one of those goals. You cannot credit any member of the team for making incisive passes or pulling apart the Milan defense. The ball took a multitude of deflections and happened to land perfectly in the path of their best finishing player. I will not sing their praises for this goal.

5: Milan’s Offensive Strategy in the First Half

Milan kicked the ball forward and hoped that Zlatan Ibrahimović could bring it down. It ended up not being particularly effective. While this has been a plan of Pioli’s in the past, it has rarely been effective when used in volume. Against Atalanta, Milan used it in volume. That was part of the reason why Milan struggled to look threatening in the first half. Passing and progressive build-up were abandoned for a hyper-direct style of play. Fortunately, Ibrahimović was successful in bringing the ball down and holding play for the team to break forward. The problem was that once the ball was controlled after the knockdown, the progressive play would end. Once that happened, Milan would recycle possession and then pass the ball all the way back to Donnarumma just so that he could restart the process again.

Simon Kjær and Gabbia both struggled to progress play forward all match and were entirely too cautious in their passing. Milan was screaming for a player to simply make a turn and start trying to play passes forward. The deeper in the field the ball got, the less likely a play became to produce a forward pass.

6: Luckily, Çalhanoğlu Scored A Wonder Goal

This was an audacious free-kick that somehow beat Pierluigi Gollini. This goal opened the scoring and provided Milan with some wiggle room for an inevitable string of dangerous Atalanta attacks, or a fortunate Atalanta goal. Producing goals out of nothing will always be fantastic. This goal was certainly that and was splendid.

7: The Substitutions Make Milan Infinitely More Dangerous

Simply subbing Biglia off the field gave Milan more license to attack. Personally, I would have taken him and Ibrahimović off of the field, because again, the Swedish striker seems to only have about forty-five to sixty minutes in him. However, Bonaventura, Rafael Leão, and Rade Krunić’s introductions made a noticeable difference. Samu Castillejo’s return to the pitch would also provide Milan with more control and more technical ability on the pitch. While I thought Leão and Castillejo were the only two of the four substitutions who played well, the introduction of these players did completely change Milan. For the rest of the match, Milan progressed the ball well, showed more intent with their passing, and broke down the Atalanta defense with real purpose. The problem was that Ibrahimović was providing no support for the attackers (he even tripped Leão) and some of the substitutions could not create any impact on the game (most notably Krunić).

In this scenario, I thought that Pioli should have kept Ante Rebić on the field and brought on Paquetá. My main qualm was with not putting on the Brazillian player. He has the ability to break lines with his passing and dribbling. Merely introducing him would have provided Milan with another creative outlet. I want to see him back in the lineup soon, but a simple substitution appearance against Atalanta could have completely changed the game.

8: What This Means For The Europa League

Milan is assured to hold onto sixth for another match week. The hope will be that ACF Fiorentina can defeat AS Roma. If that happens, then Milan should be in the driver’s seat for the fifth position in the table. Roma still has to play Torino FC and Juventus FC before the season is over. That is a much harder slate of fixtures than Milan (Sampdoria FC and Cagliari Calcio). If Milan can stay within two points of Roma, then on the final day of the season, the Rossoneri could easily jump the Roman club in the table and take the fifth position. However, Milan still needs to win its last two fixtures before we can dream of this reality.

9: Overall Thoughts

Milan was fine. They were not great, they were not awful, they were fine. The most important thing I took from this game was that Milan has played five of the best six teams in Italy and have come away with three wins and two draws. You will take that if you are almost any team in your respective league. This has been an incredibly difficult slate of fixtures since the restart of Serie A, however, Milan has done incredibly so far. The trick will be to continue this run of success into the last two games and then into the next season. There are noticeable building blocks of a competitive side being laid. They just need to keep growing and keep thinking for the future in the transfer market. Another step forward is there for the taking and being passive in the next few transfer windows would be an unbelievable mistake. This team is good, the question is how much better can it become?