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4.5 Things: Anything But Pretty, AC Milan vs FK Crvena zvezda, 1-1 (3-3)

Milan stumbles into the Round of 16 but faces a much tougher test there

UEFA Europa League 2020/21 Round of 16 Draw Photo by Harold Cunningham - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs FK Crvena zvezda

Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 1 2.2(2.2) 16(4) 0.1 52%
FK Crvena zvezda 1 1.5(1.5) 16(2) 0.09 48%
FBref and StatsBomb

This was not pretty at all. AC Milan looked disengaged and rudderless throughout the match and never took control of the proceedings. This was also the case in Belgrade as, while up a man, the Rossoneri never grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck to dominate the direction of play. Frustratingly, these Europa League matches continue the worrying trend of Milan greatly underperforming in this type of key fixture. These are season-defining games, and while FK Crvena zvezda is not of the highest quality, failing to win decisively matters a lot. Stefano Pioli needs to understand how to get the most out of his side even with Ismaël Bennacer on the treatment table. That is far from happening at the moment, which is evident from the table above. The Italian side marginally won the non-penalty chance and expected goals battle. The key separation between the two sides in the game at the San Siro was a flukey handball that led to a penalty. Milan has not been playing sustainable soccer for quite some time and this encounter was another rude reminder of that.

2: Alessio Romagnoli Continues His Dismal Performances

Gap control, gap control, gap control. It is the crux of current center-back play. Do you limit space or do you not? As of right now, Romagnoli does not limit space to opponents. He constantly backs away from challenges or allows opposition forwards to enter the box before deciding to step up. To my eyes, he is playing like a shepherding defender, wanting to direct players away from the goal through positioning rather than by making a tackle. That was why the first Crvena zvezda goal, by Ben Nabouhane, was able to happen. Instead of making a play on the ball, Romagnoli tried to push the Mahoran striker to the outside of the box and take away a shooting angle. That is not the worst plan if the player is coming from wide and cutting inwards, but since Nabouhane was already inside of the box, why not step towards the player?

Romagnoli is struggling across the pitch at the moment and he has opted for a more passive style of play. I am not sure why either of these things are happening - if I had to guess it is that he has not fully recovered from his calf injury - but Milan’s captain needs to right his own ship. The team falters when he is out of form.

3: Attacking Passing

The attacking unit’s passing was abysmal. Rafael Leão, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Samu Castillejo, Alexis Saelemaekers, and Ante Rebić completed 103 of 143 attempted passes, good for a 72% completion rate. Rebić was on his own island completing 11 of his 22 attempts. That is abysmal and a major reason for Milan’s offensive struggles. Whenever the ball was played forward, it was a crap-shoot to see whether the team would sustain attacking possession for more than a pass or two. The constant failure to hold onto the ball stifled any chance for Milan to generate any form of consistent offense. I was left baffled at how a Serie A team, that led the table for almost half the season, struggled to generate any offense against a ten-man Crvena zvezda. Well, here is the answer. None of the four attackers on the pitch in the second half could string together any passing combinations. That sank the team’s chance creation and kept the Serbian outfit in the tie.

4: Midfield Problems… Again

It was not just that Franck Kessié and Soualiho Meïté were poor, it was that the attacking unit, and mainly Hakan, failed to support Milan’s midfield pairing. This game was screaming out for Sandro Tonali to help link everyone together. Maybe he would have struggled with passing - which was already a problem - but he was at least likely to provide more structure to the center of the park. It has been rumored that Pioli has been testing out new formations to try in upcoming matches and I would be shocked if a three-man midfield does not become a part of our new tactical plan. At a minimum, it could solve our lack of success in midfield battles.

4.5: Overall Thoughts

… less confidence in Milan than I had this time last week. A loss in the derby, an uninspired performance in Europe, and now another key game this weekend against AS Roma. To add to our misery, the Rossoneri drew Manchester United FC in the Round of 16. Against Manchester United, there are matchups that the Rossoneri will win, but because of Milan’s stagnation in form and the lack of a plan “B”, I am worried that this game will simply cause more frustration and concern. The entire team needs to get back into form and Pioli needs to adjust his current plan. It simply is not working as designed at the moment. For weeks I have talked about a tipping point in the season. We are certainly in this period and it is not going well, to say the least.