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9 Things: Heads, Goals, and Wins, and Leads, AC Milan vs SS Lazio, 3-2

More like winter break Lazio’s heart… am I right?

AC Milan v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs SS Lazio

Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 3 1.9(1.2) 12(4) 0.11 40%
SS Lazio 3 1.8(1.0) 14(6) 0.08 60%

First off, I am adding NPxG (Non-Penalty xG) to my tables. This records what xG was if you remove penalties from the equation. The xG section of the above table will now show xG and then NPxG in brackets and I have done away with xG per shot and instead pivoted to NPxG. This will not let a penalty or two bolster a team’s perceived danger in attack. Instead, you will see whether or not a team received a penalty because their xG and NPxG will either match or not. This may be adding too much to this table, but I think it shows what a team could do outside of a 0.76 xG situation (that is how much a penalty is worth). It also does not flatter a team who won a penalty in an entirely non-threatening way and make them look far more dangerous than they actually were. Here is my reasoning, if you disagree or want to see something else on this table, my Twitter handle is above and the comment section is down below. I always want to talk (it is lonely in these here parts).

But fine, I will talk about soccer and not my reasoning… fine. This game was utter chaos but in a fun way. AC Milan was losing NPxG and xG prior to the insane flurry of chances from minute eighty-six to Theo Hernández’s stoppage-time winner. By no means was this a simple win for Milan and the seventy-five minutes between Rossoneri goals made even the most optimistic Fossa Dei Leoni member’s skin crawl. However, wins are wins, and even though, by xG, this game should have been a draw, that is not what matters. Maybe I am looking at this match with rose-tinted glasses, but the final ten minutes showed a lot of fortitude from Stefano Pioli’s side. In almost every fixture this year we see a strength of will from this team. This match against SS Lazio was no different

2: Fast Starts

All season Milan has either started fast and coasted or been struck by two quick goals and forced to work their way back into the fixture. The former happened against Lazio and it came from an early man-marked press. This halted any attempts from the Roman club to break out of their defensive third and limited the involvement from Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinković-Savić. Hakan Çalhanoğlu took charge of the midfield and supported Ante Rebić, Rafel Leão, and Alexis Saelemaekers in their attempts to press the Lazio backline out of the match. Curiously, this led to Simone Inzaghi’s men breaking into two very different units. The backline and one midfielder - Gonzalo Escalante - played as a defensive quartet and the rest of the team left a massive gap between themselves and the previously mentioned foursome. This aided Milan’s attackers’ attempts to hem the Aquile in.

Now, this was all benefitted by an early set-piece goal. Every goal counts, but set-piece goals can occur regardless of the flow of the match. What made this one feel more “real” was Milan’s early accumulation of dangerous counter-attacks. Taken alone, the Rebić goal might have been considered a fluke, instead, it flowed off the momentum of a consistent eight minutes of attack.

3: PENALTY

Another dangerous Milan counter-attack led to a penalty and a second Milan goal. This flow of play will show up on an expected possession value model (one that measures the xG of build-up play regardless of a shot) as an incredibly dangerous attacking move. Rebić had a clear shot before he tried to play Leão free into goal. Obviously, Milan’s number twelve made the wrong play here - he should have shot - but was saved by a fortunate rebound. A few seconds later, Patric lost his discipline and decided that Rebić’s shins were his greatest enemy and completely blew through his body. I want to highlight this penalty because the reason for the foul call was clear from the beginning. The American broadcast tried to uncover a possible handball, but the true penalty was the rash and reckless tackle. You cannot slide through a player when attempting to block a shot. You are responsible for your body and if you foul someone, even if they shot, it is still a foul. This was good refereeing. I do not like it when officials do not make this call just because a player got their shot off. If a foul occurs after the shot, it is still a foul. This play ended with a clear and obvious foul.

Hakan stepped up and made Lazio pay.

4: Then a Soft Call

I understand why Pierre Kalulu’s penalty was called, I do, but I am not sure I agree with it on principle. The foul itself seemed soft in general and Kalulu barely caught any of Joaquín Correa’s boot. The Argentine attacker fell down as if he was punched in the knee. To give Lazio credit, they are fantastic at protesting non-penalty calls and have historically done well to convince officials in these moments. However, I thought the contact was slight and the actual penalty call was weak. There just simply was not enough contact for me to be convinced that this was the correct decision. Maybe I am being too much of a fan, but I think any fanbase would be frustrated by this.

5: This Wakes Lazio Up

The scariest version of Lazio is one with a fully active Milinković-Savić. When Luis Alberto scored after Ciro Immobile’s penalty miss, the Serbian midfielder activated. He then immediately dominated the flow of the match and pointed the Biancolesti in the correct direction. This is what Milinković-Savić does. He controlled the direction of play and provided space for Alberto to create offense from the midfield without the worry of defensive assignments. Milinković-Savić’s activation changed the direction of the game.

However, this direction change did not completely alter the rest of the game. Spared the presence of either of the two usual Milan midfielders, Lazio was able to work without any concern of a counterpunch being thrown. Even so, Inzaghi’s men struggled to break through the Rossoneri defense except for the Immobile goal which came from two different high-difficulty actions. This was because of how poor the wide players were for Lazio and how little they offered offensively or defensively. If the Romans won the match, the midfielders were going to do it, and no one else. For thirty minutes, it seemed like they were going to be successful.

6: They Were, Then They Weren’t

The key to winning matches is keeping your foot on the pedal. I did not understand taking off Milinković-Savić or putting on Danilo Cataldi. These two moves pushed Lazio into a defensive shell and provided the team absolutely no coverage once Milan moved through their attacking gears. Inzaghi made the decision to hold onto what he had the second that Immobile restored parity. I think this was a massive mistake and led to them losing the match. There was a certain level of control that Lazio was enjoying, but not even ten minutes after he shuffled his midfield trio, the Rossoneri were immediately back in the Lazio penalty box and taking dangerous shots. At a crucial juncture of the fixture, Inzaghi chose to back away and Stefano Pioli stepped up to the task. Our Italian coach made the right decision.

7: Pierre Kalulu Shows What Makes Him Good and Not Ready

In the first half, Kalulu progressed play, stopped Lazio attacks, and determined the flow of the match. In the second half, Kalulu showed his lack of positional awareness and weaknesses surrounding his defensive play in a unit (the Immobile goal was a failure between Kaluluand Sandro Tonali to cover the Italian talisman). What I will focus on is Kalulu’s strong awareness of where to venture offensively. He played well in a distribution role and showed some flashes of a progressive mentality that should grow. While neither of the center backs had impressive progressive yards generated numbers, I think Kalulu was strong in his passing. He was efficient and effective in this regard.

8: Hakan Took Off

By match end, the Turkish attacking midfielder generated 0.1 xG, 0.7 xA, 524 progressive yards, and had 6 shot-creating actions. His turnaround has been remarkable and he has returned to the form that was turning so many heads at Hamburger SV and Bayer Leverkusen 04. Pioli deserves a mountain of credit for revitalizing Hakan’s career. Without the coaching change and formation switch, I am not sure that we would see this version of Milan’s number ten. Now, he would be hard to replace.

9: Overall Thoughts

2020 sucked. There is no other way around it. March was one of the most jarring months of my life, and I am sure many of you feel the same way. Just simply watching Milan turn from a middling team to a possible title contender has helped alleviate some of the stress we have all felt during the Pandemic. We have all had to deal with some terrible Rossoneri squads, but this one seems more poised to grow and turn into a strong side. I do not know what will happen for the remainder of the year, but for now, I am happy. I will leave you all with my sentiment for this match, this was a rollercoaster of emotions but had the best finish one could ask for.

I will not be able to write a match report for the Benevento fixture because I will be moving. We will pick right back up for the largest match of the season… Juventus FC.