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9 Things: A Draw That Is A Loss, AC Milan versus SPAL 1913, 2-2

Dropping points in this game is inexcusable. Milan wasted a golden opportunity to continue their assault on the top six.

SPAL v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Chris Ricco/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

The shot map, shot total, and xG all said that AC Milan should have won. However, Milan gave up two goals to SPAL 1913, which is unacceptable. SPAL was due some shooting luck, however, Milan created their own problems with an atrociously defended corner. This was compounded by Sergio Floccari’s once in a lifetime goal in the twenty-ninth minute. Milan spent the rest of the game slowly increasing their xG total, without generating any particularly dangerous shots. Luckily, SPAL gave up a fortuitous own goal and Milan picked up one point.

This performance was akin to a Marco Giampaolo coaching performance or an early day Stefano Pioli game. Milan took thirty-nine shots, nine of which were on target. The per shot xG was 0.04 which is half of the worst team’s average xG per shot in the top five leagues. Milan never took a shot more dangerous than 0.13. That is an incredibly low xG total for a team’s most dangerous shot of the match. Milan took five shots more dangerous than that against US Lecce, and four more against AS Roma. In frustration, and through a lack of ideas, the players decided that their only option was to fire away at goal and hope that something hit the target. This may have worked two decades ago, it does not in the modern game.

2: Milan Did Not Necessarily Play Poorly

The need to shoot has hurt Milan in the past. Instead of continuing ball movement at the top of the box, an individual player can selfishly take a hopeful shot. This problem seems to slowly compound on itself whenever Milan begins to shoot from deep. It kills attacks and should be seen as a turnover whenever a Milan player takes a hopeful shot from deep.

Defensively, the Rossoneri were a mess defensively for thirty minutes. Matteo Gabbia did not shower himself in glory as he struggled with Andrea Petagna. The corner defense in the twelfth minute was brutal. This can largely be blamed on Gabbia being caught flat-footed and Theo Hernández completely failing to track his assignment. The Floccari goal is difficult to blame on any player, but if you are annoyed at Gianluigi Donnarumma, I understand. This put Milan down by two, which is unacceptable against SPAL.

Offensively, Milan had the same issues they have had all season when attempting to break down a team sitting deep. The Rossoneri crossed constantly and shot from distance. The team did not switch play quickly enough to move SPAL out of position and create lanes for attackers to exploit. Only a handful of the attacking unit played poorly. Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Rafael Leão, Alexis Saelemaekers, and Lucas Paquetá all played well.

3: Ante Rebić as a Striker

Pioli has played Ante Rebić as a lone striker for four games in a row now. I am not sure it has worked properly once. While he has two goals, they both came from his only chance of the game and he had not been involved prior. Against Juventus FC, he seemed to be on an island and then committed the second most astounding red card of the season (second only to Alexander Nübel’s against Eintracht Frankfurt). These games have shown one thing, Rebić cannot play striker by himself. As I said in my last article, the Croatian man played as a left forward at Frankfurt and as a left-winger for his national team. Milan has two other players who both are natural strikers, but when Zlatan Ibrahimović is not in the lineup, Rebić, for some reason, starts up top. This is not what I would be doing.

Leão is a natural striker and has not started much this season. He has the potential to be a Champions League caliber starting center forward and giving him every opportunity to star will maximize his success. Starting the young Portuguese man will also let Rebić move back to left forward, where he has been so successful. These two changes are very simple and would optimize the Milan lineup without their Swedish star.

4: Theo Hernández Has Another Poor Defensive Showing

Theo is not particularly good at defense. He never has been. Milan seems to have decided that they are content with his lack of defense because of what he delivers offensively. However, Theo was poor defensively and poor offensively against SPAL. His crosses were amiss, he was late recovering his defensive positioning and failed to cover Petagna on SPAL’s first goal. That moment is a microcosm of the Frenchman’s game. He does not have the spatial awareness to realize where players may end up on the field. When someone does something slightly unexpected, Theo is unable to follow.

5: The Substitutions

Davide Calabria played well in my opinion and I am not sure that I would have taken him off. He progressed the play well and was not a liability defensively. Samu Castillejo, unfortunately, was injured early in the match and was subbed off for Saelemaekers. The Belgian put in another strong performance on the right-wing. He was creative with his movement, completed a few dribbles, and produced multiple dangerous crosses in his appearance. Another good showing.

We already talked about Leão a bit, but he did play well. He split the SPAL backline consistently, continued passing movements, and tried to direct play into the box. He sparkled in his second-half display.

However, not every substitution played well. Diego Laxalt, Giacomo Bonaventura, and Ibrahimović were largely ineffective in differing ways. Laxalt crossed poorly and refused to switch play deeper in the field. Bonaventura did next to nothing in his runout. He played for twenty-six minutes and did not create anything of any tangible value. Once again, he was largely bypassed in Milan’s attack. Ibrahimović was a ghost. He was not active and he only had a few shots. He played like a poacher and the service in the box was not available for him. This led to a fairly invisible game from the Swedish striker.

6: Playing Against a Team That Refuses to Attack

So, Pioli changed Milan’s shape in the second half to become more aggressive, however, I would have gone further. Gabbia had become a defensive liability and did not have a single advantage against Petagna. I would have subbed him off and either dropped Franck Kessié to a center back position or moved Calabria more centrally. SPAL were not attacking and in games like this, you do not need two center backs. Ismaël Bennacer should not have been taken off in this match either. He switched play well and progressed the ball in attack. Bringing on Bonaventura killed some of the midfield control. I thought Theo should have been subbed off, and if you push Kessié deeper then you can place Calabria on the left side. The defense does not matter in this instance. SPAL are not attacking (notwithstanding their two surprising goals), and the Italian fullback had been positive in possession.

What the formation and tactics would allow you to do is switch the ball quickly, put Çalhanoğlu and Paquetá at the top of the box, and provide both strikers with service from four different locations. The aim would beto trap SPAL in their box and playing that aggressively with those six players would do so (the two fullbacks, the two strikers, and the two attacking midfielders) . Pioli made four good subs and one poor sub. He had a good game, but I would have liked to see him be more aggressive with his tactical plan.

7: The Goal

Leão’s goal was fortunate, but he still finished it well. It was a deserved goal from someone who I thought was having a good game. That finish is deceptively difficult because of the SPAL player diving at him. I am glad he scored again and hopefully, Milan gives the young man more time.

8: Overall Thoughts

I will be writing a part about the upcoming fixture against SS Lazio, so we end early. Milan did not play SPAL off the pitch but they may have been unlucky to not win. However, this should be considered a loss. SPAL is in nineteenth in the table and had only scored twenty-one goals prior to this fixture. The Floccari goal was simply unfortunate, but you cannot give up two goals to a team that bad. This draw puts a massive amount of pressure on Milan to pick up four points over their next three matches against much stronger opponents. It will be difficult, perhaps close to impossible, to qualify for the Europa League if Millan loses all three games. Hopefully, Milan will win one, maybe even two.

9: The Upcoming Fixture Against SS Lazio

Lazio has not been playing particularly well since the restart. They have won two of their three games since the return, but neither in convincing fashion. The offense has been sluggish, the midfield is desperately lacking a defensive presence, and the backline has been porous. Beating them will require a quick and aggressive offensive strategy. Ciro Immobile will not be available for Lazio, which could stunt the Lazio attack even more. However, Lazio has been awarded penalties at a comical rate, receiving the most of any team in the top five European leagues this season . The Milan backline must be cautious in how they duel with the Lazio attackers in the box. Referees have freely and continually gifted Lazio penalties. I would not be surprised if they get another against Milan.

It seems that Milan will continue on with their 4-2-3-1 formation, except with Ibrahimović at the front of the attack. This will push other players into their natural positions and could lead to more success in attack. Milan needs to be ready to put on a performance against Lazio. This game is winnable.