Stefano Pioli’s first game in charge was on the twentieth of October in 2019 against US Lecce. The new AC Milan manager would immediately change the formation but would continue the constant rotation of midfielders and attackers in the side. His game plan would not work. Milan would draw 2-2 against the provincial club, surrendering a once in a lifetime goal from Marco Calderoni. This was another match where the carelessness of the fullbacks and the lack of control in the midfield reared their ugly heads. The Lecce fixture would start an eleven game, three win, four loss, run that almost killed off the Milan season.
There were positive and negative lessons learned. Milan changed significantly between the beginning of this stretch and the victory against Cagliari Calcio. It is time to look at this section of the season.
Based on Expected Results, This Period Should Have Gone Better
From 10/20/19 to 1/6/20, Milan created 15.565 xG (1.415 xG for per 90) and allowed 14.465 (1.315 xG against per 90). While not glowing, these numbers would suggest a team vying for a Europa League place. By expected points, Milan was in seventh in Serie A during this stretch. This puts them directly in the European hunt. However, Milan was thirteenth in the league by points percentage (divide points won by possible points). The Rossoneri scored ten goals, well below their xG for, and gave up fifteen, marginally more than their xG against. That was the distinct difference between a team rising in the table and one that consistently tripped over itself.
This section was number heavy but it needs to drive home a point: the offensive strategy from late October to the new year was ineffective. One of my largest complaints all season was the shot selection. During this period, Milan’s xG per shot was 0.089. If that per shot total remained constant over the season, Pioli’s team would have had the worst shot selection in Italy by a considerable amount (season per shot xG averages max out at 0.130 and the lowest was 0.093 in Italy, four thousandths of a difference is sizable). When the offense failed, players fell into their tendencies and took pot shots. Milan continued to create a decent xG per game total, but it was because of shot volume and not shot quality.
Some Players Hurt the Offense, Some Struggled to Get Involved
The core attackers for Milan were Suso, Krzysztof Piątek, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Samu Castillejo, and Rafael Leão. Pioli set his attack up to allow Theo Hernández to have freedom down the left flank and let Çalhanoğlu cut inside. Suso had the freedom to stay wide or cut inside. Both Suso and Çalhanoğlu rarely drove into the box to support Piątek. This led to Milan struggling to enter the box. Without consistent touches in the box, the strikers, and mainly Piątek, failed to generate dangerous shots. Pioli’s tactics struggled to involve the Polish striker and did not provide enough support within the box. However, no one changed their style of play whatsoever. This led to a stale and uninspired attack. Pioli will be reviewed in a later article, but I would be remiss if I did not talk about Piątek and Suso now.
We will start with Piątek. I have my issues with the signing; it was rash, undisciplined, and reactionary. Generally, it takes three seasons to trust that a player will provide consistent results; however, some risks are smart, and some are not. Players like Serge Gnabry, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Ismaël Bennacer were cheap, high upside purchases of players who had sound technical and spatial skills. Piątek was expensive, technically flawed, and was not particularly adept at exploiting space. What he was doing in the 2018/19 season was scoring a lot. The problem was that he struggled to create his shots and shots for others. His success on the field was entirely dependent on the players around him. While I did not expect Piątek to stop producing whatsoever, the intensity of his drought was shocking. His open play success fell apart. He could not score and struggled to change his play to be productive within the system and play he found at Milan.
Suso has the tools of a player who would have been fantastic about fifteen years ago. However, this is the present. His tendency at Milan was to slow the play down, stay deep or wide, and then try to pick out Milan players with crosses or passes. I have likened him to a right-winger who wants to play as a regista. Unfortunately, he was easy to mark out of matches. He lacked the speed or individual creativity to deviate from his singular tendency. The oddity was that he continued to create chances for Milan. His shot creation and xA percentile rankings stayed high throughout his season because of his fantastic passing acumen. Suso was able to do a lot despite his shortcomings, but he struggled to change his style of play to facilitate a faster tempo Milan attack. Suso struggled to make runs or exploit space in the box. This left Piątek alone for long stretches of the game and prevented Milan from causing chaos in the box. While I think Suso is a capable player, his tendencies do not make him a player I would want on my team.
Çalhanoğlu, Castillejo, and Leão should not be safe from blame. Çalhanoğlu, while out of position, was falling back on his worst tendencies. He took ill-advised shots, did not pass progressively, and would disappear from matches regularly. He was high on my list of players who I thought Milan needed to drop (I know, right? So foolish). Çalhanoğlu needed to reset as a player, and he seemed far away from doing that in October, November, and December. Castillejo and Leão mainly showed their potential for impact, but they struggled to break into the starting squad. When these two played they were impactful and created chances. Pioli was trying to get Çalhanoğlu and Suso going again and I think that was to the detriment of the team. Castillejo and Leão probably should have seen more time at the beginning of the season, but they still had matches where they were invisible or unable to make a substantial impact on the result.
The Formation Just Does Not Work
Milan played a 4-3-3 and a 4-1-4-1 during this period. The formations are variants of each other, but neither worked. A 4-3-3 requires versatile wingers and a developed midfield strategy. For the wingers, as I have pointed out, Suso was not versatile, and Çalhanoğlu was struggling to break through his weak tendencies. In the midfield, If Bennacer and Franck Kessié played, then the midfield had structure but did not have a mezzala to join the attack. Giacomo Bonaventura was the closest player Milan had to this role, but he was never provided a stable starting spot. This lack of lineup consistency hurt Milan’s ability to play a 4-3-3 or variant. These two failing sectors of the field led to Piątek becoming isolated, and, with his lack of shot-creating skill, made Milan’s attack dull. There was a noticeable change in the success of Milan the second that the team pivoted to a two-man midfield and two-man strike force.
Da un paio di partite si vede la mano di Pioli al @acmilan ⚫— Enrico | Statified Football (@StatifiedF) December 19, 2019
Abbiamo analizzato le prestazioni del Milan nelle 16 gare di questa stagione di @SerieAhttps://t.co/yQVlwUyv0h#milan #acmilan #seriea #pioli #xg #performance #analytics @FlaFu_tbol @sportscaddy @la_rossonera pic.twitter.com/65gkisXsLp
Not the Largest Problems, But Still An Issue
Defensively, Milan was seventh during this period for goals conceded. Gianluigi Donnarumma was not in his best form, and Theo was in the midst of his worst stretch of the season because of his positioning. Pioli phased Matteo Musacchio out of the lineup in December, which facilitated the purchase of Simon Kjær. The right-back rotation continued as neither Davide Calabria nor Andrea Conti made an impactful claim on the position. This may seem chaotic; however, the team’s defense was passable. The game that changed everything was the throttling by Atalanta BC in December. In that match, Atalanta created 2.49 xG but scored five goals (their finishing talent is something else). Pioli fixed the defensive coverage by placing Kessié in a position that provided Theo cover. Musacchio was injured during the match, but management realized that they needed a new partner for Alessio Romagnoli. This part of the team was undoubtedly faulty, but not high in my concerns during this stretch.
The other problem was confidence and players’ mental health. Reportedly, Lucas Paquetá and Ante Rebić were frustrated by the lack of playing time or success they had during this stretch of the season. Both players wanted to leave Milan, and Pioli seemed unwavering from his desired starting eleven. I had my tactical problems with Pioli, but his lack of support for these two players frustrated me to no end. Paquetá may never reach his potential, which would make me sad, but Rebić became one of the most important players for Milan after January. Pioli almost made him go back to Eintracht Frankfurt.
Some Last Thoughts On This Stretch
I had next to no fun watching this section of the season. By xG, Milan should have won only two of the matches that they did not, the fixtures against UC Sampdoria and US Sassuolo. The game against SSC Napoli should have resulted in a loss, but luckily did not. Milan’s xG record during this period was 5-1-5. That would be a three-point improvement over what did happen. This would have, at minimum, made the race for fifth more alive towards the end of the season. The team’s formation, player selection, and roster construction all led to the team faltering after the sacking of Giampaolo. Pioli and management tried to provide a rudder, but the team still crept towards the edge of collapse. Luckily, Milan righted the ship and caught this skid with a strong January window and a crucial formation change.