1: What the Analytics Said
AC Milan vs FC Crotone
|Shots (On Target)
|NPxG per Shot
|Shots (On Target)
|NPxG per Shot
Is AC Milan better than FC Crotone? Yes. You did not need me to tell you that, but the evidence is right above. Gli Squali - which means The Sharks, which is cool - have an 87% chance of relegation per FiveThirtyEight’s model. It is almost equally likely that Milan will finish in the top four in Italy as it is that Crotone will fall down to Serie B. These likelihoods showed on the scoreline. The visiting side never seemed poised to seriously challenge at the San Siro. Based on expected goals, shots, and just general chance creation, this match was never in doubt.
Quick statistical note, Milan’s xG would be higher if two of the goals had not come from a header and a volley. Such shots have lower chances of scoring because they are harder to control. Traditional strikes on goal are valued higher and would have earned Milan a higher final xG.
2: Rafael Leão and Zlatan Ibrahimović Connect
The duo that started to reinvent Milan in January of 2020 was back at it again. I would make an argument that Leão was the defining figure in the Milan attack in the first half. The Portuguese wonder had two different shot assists and generated 0.4 expected assists. He was influential throughout the match and helped dictate the direction of play. His link with Ibrahimović has opened up Milan’s tactical plan and has allowed Stefano Pioli to rotate between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 when injuries arise. More importantly, Zlatan is showing Leão how to improve himself as a player. You can see the payoff of this duo’s chemistry by simply looking at the Portuguese man’s scintillating recent run of form. He is taking a step.
ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC DOES IT AGAIN! 13th goal of the season.— Matteo Bonetti (@BonettiESPN) February 7, 2021
Give and go between Ibra and Leao which leads to a great finish. Perfect return pass from Leao.
Milan 1-0 Crotone. pic.twitter.com/Mr3uPNskLI
3: Bang! Bang!
Ante Rebić does not like close games it seems. Interestingly enough, he scored on two different chances that he was unlikely to finish. First, he did his best impression of Derek Douin - who won the high jump at the 2016 Olympics - and leaped over two different Crotone markers. As I said earlier, getting to that position was impressive, but then getting the ball on the frame was outstanding. This was a power play. Rebić had to overpower two different professional soccer players and reach a whipped-in corner from recently returned Hakan Çalhanoğlu. This is a perfect example of the sort of intensity that the Croatian winger needs to play with (important to note that intensity and chaos are different). Rebić has an aggression level that provides him focus while also making him dangerous.
His second goal was a product of individual quality against a team that lacks skill. Soualiho Meïté started the play with a strong duel that turned possession over to Ibrahimović. The Swede’s stinging shot rattled off of Alex Cordaz’s hands and Çalhanoğlu made an intelligent read of the flight of the rebound. He squared the ball to Rebić who was inexplicably open. Milan’s number twelve still needed to finish his high volley, which he did. After this onslaught, Milan was in complete control of the match.
1 minute and 9 seconds between Ante Rebic's brace...— Italian Football TV (@IFTVofficial) February 7, 2021
4: Right Wing Problems
Sadly, the attacking right side of Milan’s formation has seen some problems in recent weeks. Both Samu Castillejo and Alexis Saelemaekers had a combined 0.1 expected goal contribution and neither registered a primary shot assist. Their offensive contributions have ranked well below average for the past year, however, they have maintained their excellent defensive performance. Maybe this explains Calabria’s increased offensive workload, but any coach would like to see more contributions from the right side of their formation. Hopefully, both can get back to creating offense for others in the near future.
5: Leão Is Showing Himself
98th percentile in non-penalty goals, 87th percentile in non-penalty expected goals, 71st percentile in expected assists over the past 365 days. These rankings put him in elite company. Per FBref’s new percentile and player comparison tools, Leão has non-penalty xG + xA per 90 contributions comparable to Ferrán Torres, Marcus Thuram, and Marcus Rashford. That is a group of young and elite talent to be associated with. It seems that Leão has transitioned from a promising young talent to an influential first-team player. Personally, I believe he has played his way into being a permanent starter, and Pioli needs to find a way to keep the youngster in the side at all times. Maybe Leão can solve the problems down the right-wing, but it will be interesting to see how he continues to develop in a crowded Milan side. Hopefully, it is into the player I believe he can be.
6: Hakan’s Back
In his return to the pitch, the Turkish midfielder generated 4 primary shot assists, 2 assists, and 0.4 expected assists. Currently, Çalhanoğlu ranks in the 98th percentile or higher in expected assist contributions, shot-creating actions, and actual assists. His elite-level shot-creating abilities were on full display against Crotone. His impressive set-piece skills led to a dangerous chance for Mario Mandžukić and a goal for Rebić. Hakan would provide another assist from open play by perfectly splitting the Crotone defense with an impressive cross into the Croatian winger (Rebić, I am gonna keep making this joke). Jokes can not diminish the Milan number ten’s match. He continues to provide an elite outlet to the rest of the team’s attacking unit. While players can fill this void when he is out, no one can exert the same influence on a match as Hakan can. If you told me this time last year that I would say that I have missed him, I would have laughed at you. Well, it is time to laugh at me.
7: Meïté Has A Better Day
His most impressive moment of the match was stripping Emmanuel Rivière to start the move that led to Rebić’s brace. These are the plays that are captured in statistics like expected possession value. This play directed Milan forward and defined the movement of the play. Without his intervention, Crotone could have held onto possession and tried to regain some control. Instead, Meite’s strong play helped turn a non-dangerous play into a counterattack. Meïté maintained the team’s shape while also providing some progressive help in midfield. Little plays like this one are microcosms of an impressive display. Obviously, Meïté needs to continue to work on his decision making so matches like the one against FC Internazionale do not happen again, but this was a positive step.
8: Theo Hernández Literally Runs The Day
The French fullback generated 726 progressive yards split evenly between passes and carries. Interestingly, he also created 1.0 expected assists - a large portion coming from his assist to Zlatan. While Theo had next to no defensive work to do, he still directed play forward and dominated his wing. His performance let Rebić invert more consistently and the two overwhelmed the Crotone backline all match.
9: Overall Thoughts
Milan had to win this game. Milan should have won this game. Milan did win this game. It does set up a crucial next slate of matches, especially one against Inter. While Spezia Calcio may not be the toughest opponent on the planet, that game still matters. If the Rossoneri can stay above the Nerazzurri going into the Derby Della Madonnina, then they have the chance to widen their lead at the top of the table. We are deep in the “every point matters” section of the season. Beating Spezia matters, beating Inter matters. If they win both, then Milan could be looking at a five-point advantage in the table. The team’s work is far from done, especially as Juventus FC solves their early-season problems, but increasing the gap at the top of the table always matters.