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AC Milan Season Review 2019/20: All Aboard The Marco Giampaolo Rollercoaster

Coming into the 2019/20 season, AC Milan found their new manager in Marco Giampolo. However, his tenure in Milan would be cut short because of his relationship with the fans and the team’s problematic results.

Genoa CFC v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Paolo Rattini/Getty Images

When AC Milan hired Marco Giampaolo, they planned to bring a more offensively minded manager who may change the formation of the team. The concept was sound as Giampolo’s UC Sampdoria had created more expected goals and a similar total of expected points as the Rossoneri the season prior. However, the team was not hiring just the tactics, they were also hiring the man. Immediately, Milan fans felt wary of their new manager. His past connections to FC Internazionale and his seemingly ambiguous emotions towards Milan did not inspire feelings of joy inside the fossa dei leoni. The question was whether he could turn heads with results.

Giampaolo would manage seven matches for Milan and would be sacked after a 2-1 victory against Genoa CFC. His tenure was incredibly short and full of confidence pitfalls and tactical failures. Something went wrong. Was it him? Was it the roster? Was it the tactics? Everything was possible.

UC Sampdoria and Giampaolo’s Tactics

Throughout the 2018/19 season, Giampaolo deployed Sampdoria in a 4-3-1-2 to strong effect offensively. They created the eighth most expected goals in the league and scored the fifth most actual goals. Tactically, the system revolved around managing width through the fullbacks and midfielders with a fairly fluid attacking triangle. In attack, whichever full-back pressed up the field, the opposite- sided midfielder would join the attack (if the left-back attacks then the right midfielder ventures forward as well and vice-versa). The defensive midfielder and the extra midfielder and full-back would sit deeper to create a line of support in front of the backline to help recycle possession. The team could look like a 2-3-5 when attacking. The attacking triangle was asked to be fluid in their positional play. Fabio Quagliarella, Grégoire Defrel, Gastón Ramírez, Gianluca Caprari, Riccardo Saponara all needed to be able to play off of each other. Their fluid positioning allowed every player to facilitate attacks for themselves or others. This attack inspired Quagliarella’s fantastic 26 goal and 8 assist campaign in 2018/19. Their play as a unit helped create chances at a steady rate.

Defensively, Sampdoria was a bit of a mess. They were thirteenth in the league in expected goals conceded and were saved by some poor opposition shooting and average goaltending. Sampdoria almost man-marked their press throughout the season with their strikers covering the opposition center-backs, their wide midfielders covering opposition fullbacks, and their attacking midfielder covering the opposition defensive midfielder. The holding midfielder for Sampdoria had to be able to press deep in the field while also facilitating ball progression. However, this led to the team becoming spread out and being picked apart in counter-attacks (their other issue was that the center backs were not particularly good). The spacing and speed of the midfielders were not to the level necessary to execute the tactics that Sampdoria played. However, they had the potential to be highly effective with a team higher up the table.

Giampaolo Arrives and Looks at the Roster

Here was where the problems began. There were certainly eleven Milan players who could fit within the Giampaolo tactics. Fabio Borini, Lucas Biglia, and Suso were all consistently utilized by the new Milan manager in early games. Unfortunately, these three players did not fit within the roles they were assigned. Borini has never been a particularly good player, Biglia no longer had the speed and awareness to cover the territory he needed to, and Suso had historically been unable to play a position other than right-wing. Nonetheless, this trio was constantly shoe-horned into the Milan side and even moved players like Samu Castillejo and Hakan Çalhanoğlu out of position.. All in all, there were Milan players to play in this formation, but Giampaolo never understood who they were.

One of the most glaring misses was at defensive midfielder. Ismaël Bennacer was a rotation player in the starting eleven at the beginning of the season. He started three games and had a fourteen-minute appearance in the first seven matches of the season. He fit perfectly into Giampaolo’s system and yet, he struggled to find consistent time in the squad. This directly led to Milan looking weak at the beginning of the season.

In attack, Giampaolo made it evident who he thought his key players were, Suso, Castillejo, and Krzysztof Piątek. However, he blatantly showed his lack of a plan to integrate Rafael Leão and Ante Rebić. The use of Lucas Paquetá in the team was ghastly as well. Instead of playing him as a true or attacking midfield role, the Brazillian was used as a winger, a position he has never played. The two midfield positions were perfectly suited for Paquetá. However, he was isolated on the wing and unable to make a significant impact on the Milan offense.

The utter lack of understanding of his own players led to constant confusion of roles within the lineup. Milan had a roster that should have facilitated a 4-3-1-2, however, it the players were not deployed to execute successfully.

Giampaolo Gives Up on the 4-3-1-2

This was a Paolo Maldini and Zvonimir Boban problem as well as a Giampaolo problem. The entire idea of the formation depended, foolishly, on whether or not Suso could turn into a trequarista. However, he has been tried there before and was not successful. The other issue was that the initial strike partnership was with Castillejo, not a striker or forward, and Piątek who cannot play with the ball. When the offense, predictably, did not work, the Italian manager shifted to a 4-3-2-1, or the Christmas tree formation, in a last gasp to fit Suso into the squad. This change did not work either.

Finally, Milan ended up back in a 4-3-3, except the team had all of the offensive issues of the Gennaro Gattuso Milan without any of the defensive solidity. The midfield trio was unable to shield the backline or help progress play forward. Çalhanoğlu was placed in a situation to fail as well. The Turkish international has never been a mezzala. Historically, he has played as an attacking midfielder who drifts to the left. In a midfield three, he started deeper in the field and had less general freedom to foray into the attack. The easiest solution, do not change the formation and simply play Çalhanoğlu as an attacking midfielder. There was an obtainable optimized formation with the Milan players at Giampaolo’s disposal, however, he miscast or did not play most of them.

Sometimes the Bleakest Stars Burn the Fastest

After seven games it became evident that Giampaolo was not the correct man for the position. Personally, I think that the tactics are more than sound, however, the Italian manager struggled to work with his own players. This led to positional confusion. Milan had one true mezzala (Bonaventura) on the team and he did not start until Giampaolo’s last game. There were other players who should have seen more time in the midfield, namely Paquetá and Bennacer. Solving these problems would have given the attacking trio more time to solve their own problems. While Suso should have been jettisoned in the summer, he remained in the squad. He should have been removed from the team and management should have given more time to the two forwards who were brought in over the summer. The issue? None of these things happened.

Giampaolo never integrated himself into the heart of the Milan fans. I do not want to speak on what he was like as a man because that would be wild speculation. I was not in the conversations he had with players or with management, and even if I was, I would not understand them because I do not speak Italian (my mom is learning). What I can comment on was his absolute inability to understand the players in his squad. Some of the early results for Milan were unfortunate, but Giampaolo certainly did not help his case.

Stefano Pioli would be put in charge of the team before the fixture against Lecce FC. His initial time with the team would be chaotic, to say the least. In my next article, I will focus much more on his introduction.