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9 Things: Disparities Are Showing, AC Milan vs FC Internazionale, 0-3

This poor run of form is pulling us out of the title race and into jeopardy of qualifying for the Champions League.

AC Milan v FC Internazionale - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs FC Internazionale

Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 0 1.0(1.0) 15(8) 0.07 60%
FC Inter 3 2.3(2.3) 15(6) 0.15 40%
FBref and StatsBomb

Nothing in the above table is reassuring, especially AC Milan’s defensive performance.. Read as a whole, this table shows us how inefficient the Rossoneri were with their possession. While not displaying quite the same issues the team had in previous variations of bad offensive performances, this game showed a new problem. Recent iterations of the team’s attacking structure have been toothless because they struggled to generate dangerous shooting attempts even though the team got to “dangerous areas”. Notable shots for Milan during this match were a handful of header chances (as I have said in previous articles, these are less dangerous than shots with your foot) a volley and an across-the-grain attempt by Theo Hernández.

None of those shooting opportunities were dangerous enough to match the excellent counter-attacking performance of FC Internazionale. Antonio Conte perfectly baited Stefano Pioli into a cautious defensive shape that stretched the Milan midfield to the point that they could not cover the vast expanse of territory (Ismaël Bennacer may have fixed some of these problems, but this seemed to be more of a tactical plan than anything else). These two problems proved to be too much for Milan. It did not help that Lautaro Martínez and Romelu Lukaku had another inspired performance.

2: A Gap Became A Chasm, Part 1

There were two significant issues in Pioli’s tactical setup. First, the attacking group became too separated from the defensive unit, and second, limited availability of cross-field switches. I am going to start with Theo’s positioning. Inexplicably, Pioli went with a five-man attacking unit consisting of the typical quartet - which is not my problem - and Theo Hernández - which is my problem. The inclusion of the left fullback in the attack during this match deviated from previous tactical plans. Theo pressed onto Acharaf Hakimi to pin the Inter fullback deep into his defensive third, however, this made Theo unavailable for passes. It also generated a massive gap between Theo, Simon Kjӕr, and Alessio Romagnoli, which Martínez exploited at his own discretion. The only way this plan would have worked is if Theo beat Hakimi in their matchup, which was unlikely, and Kjӕr and Romagnoli were able to contain the Inter strike partner, also unlikely. Instead, Hakimi simply curtailed any of the Milan fullback’s offensive forays and then helped break the Inter attacking unit forward. A similar problem happened in the reverse fixture, and lo and behold, it happened again in this match. Hakimi may be too difficult a matchup for Theo and I believe that Pioli should have abandoned this plan after it struggled in the first half. He did not.

3: A Gap Became A Chasm, Part 2

The other problem in this tactical plan was that the attacking unit of five essentially man-marked themselves offensively out of the match. Each player struggled to break away from one of Inter’s backline players. Because of this, the Nerazzurri midfield flooded the center of the field to cut passing lanes into Sandro Toanli and Franck Kessié. Hakan Çalhanoğlu realized this problem early in the second half - which was the reason why we dominated for ten minutes - but he slowly lost energy and became ineffectual as the second stanza wore on. Because Theo was not available for switches and the attacking unit removed themselves from the match through poor positional play, Milan ended up slowly playing safe passes across the backline.

This issue could have been solved by some simple substitutions at halftime and a slight tactical shift, but Pioli banged his head against a wall until the game was out of hand. While the entire match was not the manager’s fault, he waited far too long to make crucial changes to help turn the tide.

4: Lukaku and Lautaro Take Milan to School

Milan’s center backs were bad. No other way around that problem, and I think this showed the issues arising in Romagnoli’s game. He simply has not been the same player since his injury in 2020 (that calf injury has been confirmed as at least two of his last three injuries). Lukaku has gotten the better of the Milan backline in previous meetings, but this was the first time that Lautaro completely and totally dominated the Rossoneri defensive structure The Argentinian talisman was an unstoppable force in the Derby. He made an absolute fool out of Kjӕr for the opening goal of the match, shading himself slightly behind the Danish center back for an easy header. However, the issue was not Inter’s striking duo, it was Milan’s center backs.

Kjӕr and Romagnoli showed a massive flaw in their partnership. Neither player is particularly fast. They are certainly not fast enough to deal with Lukaku and Lautaro. While they were placed on an island, neither player realized that they would be better situated if they had moved further forward in attack. It seems like this was a tactical plan to give Inter less space to play passes behind, but it gave more space for the Nerazzurri attackers to sprint at the Milan backline, which they did. I said this on Twitter, but the Rossoneri tactical plan was crying out for Fikayo Tomori. He at least provides enough pace to match Lukaku and Lautaro. To add to this, he is positionally adept enough to make up space that he may have missed. However, the team banged its head against the door and watched what I hope is the end of the Kjӕr and Romagnoli unit in important matches.

5: Need Support? Change the Left Wing

Ante Rebić had a game to forget. He had one shot from 24 yards out, struggled to create shots inside of the box, and struggled to maintain control of passes. I was shouting for Rafael Leão to enter the pitch at the beginning of the second half to help provide a passing option on the left and give support to Hakan, who was struggling. Now, Rebić was an integral part of the ten minutes of Milan’s dominance, but he was completely ineffectual for the remaining portion of the match that mattered (plays after the third goal are less impactful because the match was over).

While this position was probably the hardest offensively, placing Leão on the pitch would have freed Hakan up to move around the pitch more freely. Also, the Portuguese forward is simply better at controlling the ball than Rebić. I have a feeling that he could have broken past Hakimi and the Inter backline more successfully than the Croatian winger. This could have opened Milan’s attack up more and provided Conte more headaches.

6: Hakan Is Not Free From Blame

Oh boy did he play poorly. He struggled to link play, coordinate offensive moves and fell into long stretches of toothless passing. Hakan only created one shot assist from open play and that was because of a block leading to Tonali who then immediately did more with his time on the ball. The more crucial problem is that this is now a long stretch of matches where Milan’s number ten was ineffectual from open play. This has been a bit of a theme in Hakan’s matches this season. While he started this season on amazing form, recently he has been living off of dead ball situations to generate offense. Currently, the Turkish midfielder has 14 goal-contributing actions, 7 of which come from live play, 6 from dead balls, and 1 from a foul. Last season he had 15, but 10 came from open play, 1 from a dead ball, 2 from dribbles, and 2 from being fouled. Overall, last year he was more likely to create a goal through successful build-up play instead of resting on his set-piece deliveries.

These limitations were more than evident against Inter as his best plays came from corner kicks. Other than these, he was totally ineffectual. It seemed that he was begging for a supportive piece to help him break through the Inter backline, but he is a competent enough player to do that on his own. Unfortunately, he did not. This was unbelievably concerning because he needs to provide offensive playmaking to the side, and against a tough opponent he failed to do that.

7: Tonali’s Future Role

The Italian midfielder showed the Milan faithful what his best position is against Inter. He is a better-attacking mezzala than he is anything else. I do not believe that he can function in a midfield two at the moment and providing him with more support in a midfield three would solve most of his tactical issues. This new position would let him foray forward more often, limit his defensive responsibilities, and let him focus on ball progression. All of that would turn him into a more successful midfielder in the near and long term for Milan.

8: Update on the Title

The picture has become clear, Inter can reach out and touch the Scudetto. Now, the Nerazzuri still have to face off in the Derby D’Italia on the penultimate match week of the season and that game could decide the fate of Serie A. However, it seems likely that Conte has put Inter in a position to win the league. FiveThirtyEight has their title odds at 72% and has said that they are a near Champions League lock. I would agree with both statements. The next closest Scudetto favorite is Juventus FC at 16%, which is not close. However, both of those teams are more likely to qualify for the Champions League than Milan which, again, I agree with.

Sadly, the Rossoneri are now at 58% to qualify for the Champions League and only 4% to win the league. Both of these fairly accurately show the place of Milan in the Serie A hierarchy. They are a well-above-average team that has a strong shot at qualifying for the premier European competition but are by no means a shoo-in. Pioli coached this side to an amazing year-long run, but it is time to come back down to earth. Fourth place is the goal and Milan could easily qualify for the Champions League. That is the most important result of the season and one that is still well within grasp.

9: Overall Thoughts

This sucked. I hate losing to Inter and I hate watching them realize that they may win the league. Both things happened on Sunday. Milan needs to fix the abhorrent run of form that they are on. Two shutouts in a row in the league and an embarrassing draw in Europe do not inspire confidence. Pioli needs to rally the team and get back to winning ways immediately. A victory against AS Roma could greatly bolster our chances of finishing in the top four in Italy. The next two matches are crucial. Milan needs to win both.