9 Things is back, but before we get into the meat of the writing, I want to mention what will be new in these articles. First, Football Reference’s (FBref) xG model with be the core one this year. FBRef partnered with Statsbomb recently and their model is one of the best publicly available. For those of you who have read all of my pieces, you know how much I have struggled with the Understat model. Now, we have some reprieve. This will let me use Football Slices for player templates in conjunction. Their template creator is connected to the FBRef site and provides one of the better visualizations of player abilities. Now that this is out of the way, let us get to the match.
1: What the Analytics Said
AC Milan vs Bologna FC 1909
|Teams||Goals||xG||Shots(On Target)||xG per Shot||Possession|
|Teams||Goals||xG||Shots(On Target)||xG per Shot||Possession|
|Bologna FC 1909||0||0.9||13(4)||0.069||42%|
AC Milan controlled this fixture. From minute thirty-five to sixty-three, Milan took control of the game and scored twice. The Rossoneri won the shot battle 9 to 3, took six of those shots in the box, and Bologna did not force Gianluigi Donnarumma to make a save. The final play of this stretch was Zlatan Ibrahimović rounding Łukasz Skorupski and narrowly missing the goal frame. Obviously, Milan’s star striker was the key man during the match. He provided 1.7 xG by himself- 0.9 xG from open play- and completed all four of his dribbles. He looked like he turned back the clocks and convinced himself that he was thirty again. While unlikely, if Zlatan can be even half as effective as he was in this fixture, then Milan might have one of the most dangerous attacks in Italy.
Towards the end of the match, Bologna looked like they might get a goal back and apply pressure on Milan. However, this was the phenomenon referred to as “score effects”. Stefano Pioli’s side backed off and allowed Bologna to have more space. While it seemed that Siniša Mihajlović’s men were taking the game over, but this was not of their doing. Milan was always in control of this match.
2: Age is Just a Number
Matchday one was the Zlatan show. His play was reminiscent of the Paris Saint-Germain FC Ibrahimović. There was an attacking intent and drive that I had not seen from the player since returned in January. He showed for passes, linked the Milan attack to the midfield, drove past opposition players, and scored twice (he should have had a third). His off-ball movement was strong as well. The Swedish striker made the Milan offense click; almost by himself. Superstars need to make everything come into sync sometimes, and the match against Bologna was an example of that. Statistically, he has had better expected games, but this was a true show by the self-proclaimed “God” of Los Angeles. I was concerned that age, injuries, and mileage on Zlatan may slow him down this season. This game lessened my worry. There are still thirty-seven more matches to go; however, more performances close to this, and I will sing his praises forever.
@OptaPaolo: Thanks to his brace against Bologna, Zlatan Ibrahimovic became the second oldest player to score 2+ goals in a single game in the top 5 European Leagues since 2000. pic.twitter.com/8IloGfOLlP— AC Milan Reports (@ACMReports) September 23, 2020
3: Davide Calabria Shows His True Talent
The Italian fullback’s start to the season was spectacular. Honestly, that might be underselling his play. Davide Calabria completed the second-most passes for Milan during the match. He had the third-highest pass completion percentage of any starter and generated the second most progressive passing distance. He carried the ball the second most distance of any player. Defensively, he had the most pressures, most tackles, tied for most interceptions, and had a shot block. What does this all mean? Calabria absolutely dominated his side of the field. Adding to this impressive statistical portfolio, he did this all against Musa Barrow. The Gambian international is one of the brightest and more skilled wingers in Italy. By the game’s end, Barrow generated next to nothing against Calabria. I have made my feelings for Calabria evident in the past and a performance like this should lead to more starts. He did exactly what I expect of him, drive play. That has always been his strongest attribute. Against Blogona, Calabria pushed play and maintained his defensive responsibilities. Bravo.
4: Theo Hernández puts Riccardo Orsolini in his Pocket
For the second Serie A game in a row, Theo Hernández absolutely shut down Riccardo Orsolini (weird to think it is the second Serie A game in a row). The Frenchman’s defensive game concerns me on occasion; but he turned into a dominating force against Bologna. Orsolini did not generate any expected numbers during the match and only completed one action that led to a shot.Theo’s constant pressure on the Italian winger kept the right side of Bologna’s attack quiet. In the second half, Bologna tried to exploit a gap between Calabria and Franck Kessié because of how little Orsolini influenced the match. Theo used his pace to close down any possible space that opened. Along with his pace, the Milan left-back showed his agility to cover players attempting to dribble past him. To complete his fantastic game, Theo had the assist on the lone goal from open play. He perfectly shaped a cross onto Zlatan’s head (I thought he had over hit the cross). It remains to be seen whether or not he replicates his absurd offensive statistics from 2019/20, but this was a good start.
5: He Did It Last Year. He Did It During Matchday One
Ismaël Bennacer is back everybody. After a tense opening ten minutes to the season, the Algerian wonderkid was back to his absolute best. During his eighty-five minutes on the field, Bennacer dictated the direction of the game. His all-action style of play was evident against Bologna. He generated 403 progressive yards (passes and ball carry yard total) which were below his massive average of 482 yards last season. If he maintained this rate all season, based on last year’s rankings, this would put him around the 80th percentile for all midfielders in the top five leagues. Now, he will have a more monstrous game in terms of ball progression in the upcoming weeks, but this was a good start. Defensively, Bennacer generated the second most pressures of any Milan player and won one of his two tackles. There will be harder tests in the coming weeks, but this is the exact start that Milan’s number four needed. Oh, and he drew the penalty that made gave Milan a two-goal lead. Not too shabby.
6: Not Everything Can Be Positive
For most, if not all, of the first half, Milan’s offense was dictated by Bennacer, Zlatan, Ante Rebić, and the fullbacks. Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Samu Castillejo struggled to make a significant impact on the match. While the Turkish attacking midfielder was given the second half to turn around his game (which he did), Casitllejo was subbed off the field. I thought that Samu’s removal was fair. He struggled to progress the ball, complete passes, and he did not generate any shots. The Spaniard showed what his play can be if he struggles in a match. Still, he pressed and tackled well.
The other worrying aspect was Sandro Tonali. The young Italian midfielder showed his one major weakness, defense. It was my one conern about the player when he was purchased. On a few occasions, Tonali was exposed by a simple move or a pass that he misread. If he played a full ninety-minutes then maybe he works his way into the game more. However, this quarter-of-an-hour performance was uneasy. Positively, if you expanded his progressive distance generated over a full ninety minutes, he was on pace for 475 yards progressed. That would have put him in the 92nd percentile last season for progressive distance for midfielders. I wanted to make this note on Tonali because understanding his shortcomings is important. No twenty-year-old is a finished product, so expect there to be a few games where he looks his age. However, I know his current skill, with his potential, screams future star.
7: The Goals
Milan’s opening goal of the season came down to two individual efforts from Zlatan and Theo. The shape on Theo’s cross placed the ball on top of the Swedish striker’s head and Zlatan timed his jump perfectly. He met the cross and directed it towards the side netting. Milan took the lead and never looked back.
The second goal, a penalty, was the result of Bennacer’s tenacity. He chased down a poor clearance from Rodrigo Palacio and was fouled by Orsolini. This was a pure effort play by the Algerian midfielder and it led to a penalty. Zlatan stepped up to take it and made no mistake. The game was put to bed in the fifty-first minute.
8: A Little Something For Future Matches
Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 has completely revolutionized Milan, but with the introduction of Tonali, the team may need to change formations. The young Italian’s main skills are dangerous shot creation and ball progression. What he does not do well, yet, is defend. In the initial games of Tonali’s Milan career, I would like to see Pioli go back to a three-man midfield. This means Milan should play either a 4-3-3 or a 4-3-1-2. In a 4-3-3, Pioli could maintain the current attacker structure. Zlatan can continue to play as a lone-man, Rebić can still invert, and the right-winger should still stay wide. A 4-3-1-2 would give Tonali the same structure he had at Brescia Calcio. A formation change would let Tonali understand his space in the team, give him defensive cover, and let him focus on his best attributes. I would be surprised if Pioli adds a new formation this season, but it is certainly something he should consider.
9: Overall Thoughts
I do not want to get too far ahead of myself and say that Milan is back, but the writing is on the wall. Now, I expect them to beat Bologna, but this match reinforced my confidence. The Rossoneri do not face a real test until matchweek four- the Derby Della Madonnina- but they have time to work out some potential issues. This season, most likely, will be about the future Milan. Brahim Díaz, Rafael Leão, Pierre Kalulu, Tonali, Bennacer, Theo, and Calabria all have high potential. Certain players, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Bennacer, and Theo have shown their high-end skills. Others will need to continue to prove that they can grow into high impact players. If each player listed above hits their potential, then watch out Serie A. However, a couple of seasons will need to transpire before we can see the full power of this team.
We live in the present though, and presently, Milan seems to be the fourth-best team in Italy. I expect big things from this squad. A top four finish and a deep Europa League and Coppa Italian run are expected. There is no reason to think that Milan cannot compete for silverware in 2020/21. That needs to be the aspiration.