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9 Things: Just Can’t Keep It Easy, AC Milan vs Cagliari Calcio, 2-0

Milan recreates the scoreline of the match that started this run of form.

Cagliari Calcio v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Enrico Locci/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs Cagliari Calcio

Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 2 1.9(1.2) 9(5) 0.15 56%
Cagliari Calcio 0 1.4(1.4) 17(2) 0.08 44%
FBref and StatsBomb

This match was not as convincing as it seemed. By xG, AC Milan “won” this fixture, but chance creation in open play would speak to something different. Cagliari Calcio certainly brought a version of the “A” game, but the Sardinian side did not get into gear until they were down two goals. I do think Eusebio Di Francesco’s side exploited the right side of Milan’s backline well enough. It became apparent that Davide Calabria and Pierre Kalulu were at 6’s and 7’s about their respective duties. Their lack of communication led to a few dangerous chances for Cagliari, but, luckily, Gianluigi Donnarumma was there to mop up the mistakes and maintain a clean sheet.

To focus on a positive of the right side of the backline, Calabria was integral in directing play. I focus on this trait of his a lot, but without Theo Hernández, he was needed more than ever to provide width to the Milan attack. The Sardinian’s defensive structure did not prevent these moves by Stefano Pioli’s men all that effectively, but Calabria was strong in his role.

Obviously, Alexis Saelemaekers was sent off in his incredibly short appearance on the pitch. While the second foul was soft, I thought that the first was close to a red card offense. I understand why he was sent off - he was playing violently - and it is incredibly frustrating that he played with such reckless abandon.

2: Midfields? Who Needs Them

This is an issue I had with both team’s midfield structures because neither team had any until Soualiho Meïté entered the pitch. If either team wanted to drive down the middle of the field, neither set of midfielders would do much to slow down the crescendoing attack. A factor in this lack of midfield play was both teams’ crossing volumes. Cagliari attempted 19 crosses, 7 corner kicks, and took part in 13 aerial duels. Milan on the other hand only attempted 8 crosses and 4 corner kicks. It was apparent that both teams were either unable to play in the middle of the park - because of a lack of passing ability from the midfielders - or wanted to stay wide - because they were aware of the lack of passing ability centrally. This was part of the reason Calabria stormed up and down his wing, he needed to tactically. Without his play, the team would have struggled to break forward with any real intensity.

While the lack of midfield production was not particularly surprising from Milan - it is fair to say that Franck Kessié and Sandro Tonali do not progress play well - it was surprising from Cagliari. Only Radja Nainggolan had a productive ball-progressing day. He was the only competent midfielder for Di Francesco. This lack of structure from both teams in the middle of the field led to cross heavy match.

3: Brahim Díaz Is Showing His Potential

Yes, I know I just complained about midfielders, but Brahim does not provide structure to the formation. His role is to roam and to help feed the big man, Zlatan Ibrahimović. The young Spaniard had an impactful display from minute six when his dribbling and passing skills led to Zlatan’s opening penalty kick. This play did not lead to any xA, but his pass into the box was the key reason why the penalty could occur (and some poor refereeing, in my opinion). What is more impressive is that this pass was another example of a growing skill, Brahim has shown an expanding ability to play cutting passes to the outside of a center back after completing an impressive dribble. This is the sort of play he needs to continue to develop to turn into a more dynamic, or even highly impactful, attacking midfielder. He has looked good recently, so I hope he can continue to build on this run of form.

4: The Main Man Is A Fullback?

We are circling back on Calabria now. Not only did he lead the team in progressive yards generated, but he also provided an assist on Zlatan’s second goal with a beautifully weighted ball played over the top, and hit the post. Davide exploited the space allotted to him by the opposition and made sure to be an integral part of attacking movements. He has shown a new side of his play as well. Recently, Calabria has started inverting to join the midfield line closer to the box in attack. This has let him become an additional shooting or support option for the attacking quartet and provides Samu Castillejo more space to stay wide and cross in the final third. It has made him a more potent attacker. Offensively, Calabria had one of his more influential performances of his career. There is a parallel universe where he ends the match with a goal and an assist.

5: But This Parallel Universe Is Vengeful

Offense is not the end-all-be-all. Calabria and Kalulu were victimized in the second half, missing a run from Giovani Simeone, that Donnarumma cleaned up, and an attacking header from Alberto Cerri, that Donnarumma also cleaned up. These two plays account for around 0.6 xG, which is slightly less than half of all of the offense that Cagliari generated (it also accounted for both of Donnarumma’s saves). It seemed that Kalulu and Calabria struggled to communicate about who was doing what when it came to marking or gap control. On the Simeone chance, Romagnoli and Kaulu carry most of the blame because both center backs seem unaware of the Spaniard’s impending run. Calabria is out of position to deal with the pass into Simeone’s move and leaves a large enough gap for Joāo Pedro to split the fullback and his center backs. It was a poor play by all involved, but it was Kalulu and Calabria who struggled the most.

The Cerri chance was more of an issue of height than anything else, but Calabria was still bodied away from the ball and surrendered this dangerous chance. The Simeone chance was much more dangerous and is a better example of a failure to hold formation or shape. In this parallel universe, Milan gets punished twice for these failures.

6: Soualiho Meïté, Welcome to the Team

While not the most explosive performance ever, Meïté did something that every non-starting midfielder has done all season, dictate play. Now, there were some defensive lapses while he was on the field, but these plays did not involve him at all. Meïté was a surprise addition to the squad, but he will deliver more defensive solidity in front of the backline. I am glad he is here and I was happy with his first display with the Rossoneri.

7: Other Additions Are Occurring

Mario Mandžukić has officially joined Milan on a deal that I would refer to as interesting. In his last two seasons playing for Juventus FC, he generated 0.35 xG per 90 and 0.33 xG per 90 respectively. While his goal contribution tally in his final season was 15, 9 goals, and 6 assists, his expected contributions fell, even if just slightly. I view him as more of a locker room or chemistry impacter than anything else. Below is a list of players having a similar season in terms of expected results as Mandžukić before he left Juventus.

Mario Mandžukić Similar Players

Player Season Team Goals Assists NPxG xA NPxG+xA
Player Season Team Goals Assists NPxG xA NPxG+xA
Mario Mandžukić 2018-19 Juventus FC 9 6 0.22 0.11 0.33
Robin Quaison 2020-21 1. FSV Mainz 05 2 1 0.22 0.15 0.37
Benito Raman 2020-21 FC Schalke 04 2 0 0.21 0.15 0.36
Antonín Barák 2020-21 Hellas Verona FC 3 1 0.22 0.11 0.33
Rodrigo Palacio 2020-21 Bologna FC 1909 1 2 0.22 0.11 0.33
Players who contribute similar NPxG+xA to Mandžukić’s final season in Italy. Mandžukić’s totals are from a full season, other players are only at half of a season. FBref and StatsBomb

The other, much more exciting, possible addition is Fikayo Tomori. If the possible ex-Chelsea man leaves Stamford Bridge, then Milan may have found their future center back partner for Alessio Romagnoli. He has been iced out of Frank Lampard’s team for some reason and Paolo Maldini and the Milan board have rightly pounced. Last season, Tomori generated 555.5 progressive yards, won 53.8% of his tackles versus dribbles, won 1.05 tackles, and succeeded in 3.36 of his 10.4 pressures per 90. Almost all of these stats are better than Romagnoli and Simon Kjær’s this season (Kjær wins more pressures but is less efficient). To say that all about a twenty-two-year-old is incredibly impressive. There is a chance that Tomori comes to Milan and impresses so much that he slowly becomes the first choice center back. He has that sort of potential.

8: News Around the League

So, FC Internazionale, huh? While Milan holds onto a three-point lead in the standings, I think Inter just dropped a bomb on the Serie A title race. Unlike the Rossoneri, Juventus were unable to win their away trip to the San Siro to face the Nerazzuri. I have talked about FiveThirtyEight before and I will again. They have Inter as favorites to win the Scudetto with a 36% chance, Milan in second with a 22% chance, and Juventus is in third with a 14% chance. Positively for the Rossoneri, there is only a 16% chance that Milan falls out of the Champions League places based on current performances and modeling.

If I had to bet on the outcome, I would unhappily guess that Inter wins the league, but I say that with not a lot of confidence and a strong belief that we will all have to watch to see what happens. Be prepared for an intense Scudetto race and a potentially historically significant Derby Della Madonnina in February.

9: Overall Thoughts

Cagliari is not the toughest opponent Milan has faced, but they still possess streaky finishing talent. While the Rossoblu has been nothing like the team that started turning heads early last campaign, many of those players still hone their craft in Sardinia. The Rossoneri hold a three-point advantage in Serie A but will have a hungry Inter nipping at their heels for the next few months. Milan needs to at least draw Atalanta BC this weekend to hold their lead at the top. A lot has been made about the absences against Atalanta, but Rafael Leão will be back and there could be some other recoveries prior to the match. While most other players will likely not be able to start, Leao’s presence will completely change the dynamic of Pioli’s bench. Any additional depth beyond him will make a world of difference. This is the last match before the halfway point of the season. A win would make a statement.