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9 Things: A Recap Of AC Milan In The Europa League

Do you remember this competition? I do.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Slovan Bratislava: Group K - UEFA Europa League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

As a quick reminder, AC Milan won Group H in the Europa League over LOSC Lille, AC Sparta Praha, and Celtic FC (these teams are listed in that order in the chart below). The Rossoneri finished with 13 points, two ahead of Lille and 7 above Sparta Praha. While it was an unconvincing group victory, the Italian side won the group. On the precipice of the round of thirty-two matchup against Red Star Belgrade, we look back on Group H.

1: What the Analytics Said

Group H AC Milan Expected Results

Fixture NPxG For ACM NPxG Against ACM NPxG Differential Aggregate
Fixture NPxG For ACM NPxG Against ACM NPxG Differential Aggregate
ACM vs LOSC 2 1.6 0.4 1-4
ACM vs ACSP 3.1 1.2 1.9 4-0
ACM vs CFC 1.7 2.6 -0.9 7-3
Total 6.8 5.2 1.4 12-7
LOSC is Lille, ACSP is Sparta Praha, CFC is Celtic. These statistics encapsulate both legs Data from FBref and StatsBomb

By NPxG, AC Milan should have finished second in Group H. LOSC Lille was the dominating force in the group with the best goal differential, highest xG differential, and they comfortably beat Milan on the score sheet in their two meetings. What Milan did better than the French side was capturing every available point against AC Sparta Prague and Celtic FC in their two meetings. If Lille had shown more intensity or stability in their final match with the Scottish club then the Rossoneri would now be matching up against AFC Ajax. Fortunately for Milan, that is obviously not what happened.

By NPxG, Celtic could have come away with a victory against Milan, but I do not think they deserved one. You cannot give up seven goals and have me say that you deserved a victory in either match. The only matchup that Stefano Pioli’s side won handily was against Sparta Prague. While not surprising, as I had Sparta Prague as the worst team in the group, in these group stage matchups every victory matters. However, I would not classify Milan’s performance in the Europa League as impressive. They are far away from the success of Arsenal FC or Villareal CF in Groups B and I.

2: Breaking Down LOSC Lille vs Milan

AC Milan vs LOSC Lille Group Matchup

Fixture Score NPxG Shots NPxG per Shot Possession
Fixture Score NPxG Shots NPxG per Shot Possession
Milan Home 0-3 0.9-1.0 12-13 0.08-0.08 55%-44%
Lille Home 1-1 0.6-1.1 13-4 0.05-0.28 43%-57%
Home team listed first in each matchup FBref and StatsBomb

Milan showed some signs of life, but there was never a moment that the team actually controlled in either of the two legs they played. I say this all with a caveat, Milan still won the tie on non-penalty expected goals. However, lack of discipline, something that I harp on, lost Pioli’s men their home leg against the French side.

In the San Siro, Renato Sanches decided to remind the planet why he won the Golden Boy award in 2016. He made aggressive driving runs that split through the Milan lineup, while also supporting teammates through his ball progression. His play generated countless questions for the Milan lineup, none of which were answered. More credit where credit is due, Yusuf Yazıcı - the hat-trick man, Zeki Çelik, and Jonathan Ikoné turned the San Siro into their playground. While Milan made countless mistakes, Lille also forced their hosts into precarious positions across the pitch.

Pioli’s side struggled to play with structure, as the midfield and backline lost their composure and were caught playing either too aggressively or passively. The lack of structural play created foundational problems for the team and led to dangerous opportunities for Lille. Not many had a passable day, and far more had a terrible one.

After the three-goal drubbing in Italy, it was apparent that Milan came into their away fixture against Lille as a more cautious side. The second leg was a fairly unremarkable match, with Milan generating more dangerous chances from a handful of shots. Neither team created much from their possession with Lille taking a plethora of potshots while Milan scored on their one true chance. It was unfortunate to concede on a vigorous passing combination between Luiz Araújo and Jonathan David that set up a Jonathan Bamba shot that was deflected into the goal. That goal leveled the match in France at 1 and let both sides come away with a point on matchday four. It was far from a pretty affair, and honestly a fairly forgettable game, but that point gained in France pushed Milan closer to their group win.

3: Breaking Down AC Sparta Praha vs Milan

AC Milan vs AC Sparta Praha Group Matchup

Home Team Score NPxG Shots NPxG per Shot Possession
Home Team Score NPxG Shots NPxG per Shot Possession
Milan Home 3-0 2.4-0.2 15-5 0.17-0.04 55%-45%
Sparta Praha Home 0-1 1.0-0.7 8-8 0.13-0.09 44%-56%
Home team is listed first in each matchup FBref and StatsBomb

Not to be disrespectful of the next two sides, but these were the “easier” matches in the group. By the final matchday - the AC Sparta Praha row - Milan had officially qualified for the knockout rounds of the Europa League and was only vying for the top of the group. In the first match, the Rossoneri handled their Czech visitors with ease. Not shown in the NPxG column above is a converted penalty that pulled Milan to a comfortable three-goal lead. This match was simply not close whatsoever. Importantly, this was Davide Calabria’s only appearance in the Europa League. Coincidence? I think not (I am joking, kind of).

However, these two matches transpired much differently and I think a core reason for that is differing levels of control. I do not want to focus on this point too much, but Milan lacks players who drive play through their positional work. In the 67 minutes Calabria played on the pitch, Milan won the shot battle 14-1 and without him, the team lost the shot battle 10-12 over the remaining one hundred and thirteen minutes of the tie (all against Sparta Praha). While this is not a perfect science, it does show what he brought to the team in a quick display.

The most important takeaway from these two matches is that Milan steamrolled Sparta Praha and deservedly won on aggregate, even if statistics suggest that the second leg should have been a draw or a victory for the Czechs.

4: Breaking Down Celtic CFC vs Milan

AC Milan vs Celtic FC Group Matchup

Home Team Score NPxG Shots NPxG per Shot Possession
Home Team Score NPxG Shots NPxG per Shot Possession
Milan Home 4-2 1.0-1.7 14-14 0.07-0.12 56%-44%
Celtic Home 1-3 0.9-0.7 13-6 0.07-0.12 46%-54%
Home team is listed first in each matchup FBref and StatsBomb

Welcome to the craziest of the matchups. Milan played...poorly. The first match, by almost all public model sites, should have ended much differently. Between the Posts had expected goals in favor of Milan at 1.32 to 1.12. A team wins this match 42% of the time based on simulations (the game isn’t played on the computer, I know). The discrepancy between their model and FBref’s is surprising, and I will say that letting a team hammer four goals in a row against you probably means you should not win (Celtic won xG but they blew a two-goal lead at the San Siro).

Both games were determined by strong Milan finishing and not by any form of domination by the Italian side. Out of the three two-legged ties, this one featured the least goaltending. A more apt aggregate score of this head-to-head would be 2-2, however, Celtic gave up 4.3 more goals than expected. Both teams should be somewhat disappointed in multiple aspects of this matchup. Pioli’s men generated very little offensively while struggling to hold onto clean sheets. Celtic struggled to hold onto leads and their goalkeeping failed in a massive way. Positively, Milan scored at will, their goals came easily. While opposing finishing can be hard to control - bounces can happen randomly - Pioli must be aware that both scorelines flatter his squad. Nevertheless, the Rossoneri won all six of the points at stake.

5: Jens Petter Hauge Drives The Boat

Hey Sailors.

The Norweigian wonder came into Milan after his transfer from FK Bodø/Glimt and immediately took off in the Europa League. He ended the group stage with 3 goals and 1 assist. He also generated 0.38 NPxG+xA per match which was the third-highest of any qualified Milan player. What made his play so special was the difficulty of the goals he was scoring. He scored two different times where he broke through one to three different opposition players and curled a low shot around the goalie. Hauge’s addition provided Milan with a consistently dangerous man down the left-wing. His presence allowed Pioli to rotate through striker options and give needed rests to consistent starters in Serie A. I hope Hauge can continue to build on this success and show his true talent more often in the league.

It is important to note that Hauge will not be involved in the next stages of the Europa League. I do not like this decision at all.

6: Where We Played Well

When the team got rolling, Milan dominated opponents through their finishing. Scoring five more goals than expected is a helpful way to win matches. Hauge was probably the largest beneficiary from this crazy run of finishing, but he created his shooting chances so that is why I highlighted his good play. Crucially, the Europa League let Pioli rotate through the vast majority of his squad. Matteo Gabbia showed that he had made a significant step in his progression as a player, Brahim Díaz gave the Fossa de Leoni a taste of what he can bring to the squad, and Alexis Saelemaekers took advantage of the lesser competition. If Milan can continue to use depth to dominate sides and win matches, then the rest of the Europa League competitors should watch out. There could be something brewing.

7: Where We Played Poorly

Milan scored 12 goals on 6.8 non-penalty expected goals, which is unsustainable in my mind. There was a lack of an offensive process that defined all of our matches. I think most of that came from squad rotation and a lack of players who dominate matches through their positional play. Because of this lack of structure, the team failed to properly direct the flow of play and struggled to generate chances. The Rossoneri feasted on counter-attacks and dominated opponents when the game was stretched. Rarely did the team dictate play through long possession. While it is easy to not get punished when playing an open game against Celtic and Sparta Praha, the problems were apparent against Lille. If Milan wants to drive deep in this competition then they will need to control play while creating shots through possession.

8: FK Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade) Preview

Red Star Belgrade was bad in a bad group. They won only two of their six games by xG and clearly won only one of those two. Positively for Milan, their toughest opponent was TSG Hoffenheim, who won their aggregate score 2-0 while winning xG 2.4 to 1.2. While the matchup was not a thrashing, it was still a comfortable victory for Hoffenheim. Of all of the predictors of how this matchup will go, that match, and our matches against midtable Serie A sides should tell us. I would expect a fairly no-frills Milan victory, but sadly Milan’s form is anything but good at the moment. Maybe the team will collect themselves before Thursday, but extenuating circumstances have added a new level of danger to this two-legged affair.

9: Overall Thoughts

As we know, Milan’s progress through Group H was anything but simple. Milan won the group though, thereby avoiding a much tougher round of thirty-two draw. What may be the most important effect of this upcoming match will be to provide Milan with a boost before the Derby Della Madonnina. Red Star Belgrade is still a tricky opponent and suffering an embarrassing loss before playing FC Internazionale could send Milan’s season into a bit of a tailspin. While a win will not necessarily define the season, a loss certainly could. Anytime you can win matches like this, you must. This round of thirty-two meeting is one of those games and a win could provide positive momentum in both Europa and Serie A. The Rossoneri need to come out firing and make their second leg as easy as possible.