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9 Things: Disorganized Victory, AC Milan vs Bologna FC 1909, 2-1

Maybe the most entertaining half of Milan soccer all season, if you are a neutral.

Bologna FC v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs Bologna FC 1909

Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 2 3.2(1.8) 13(8) 0.17 51%
Bologna FC 1909 1 1.1(1.1) 11(5) 0.11 49%
Data from FBref

This game was chaotic, which is a recent theme. Structural problems in the current defense almost cost AC Milan the victory, but a strong performance from Gianluigi Donnarumma and some horrible decision making from the entire Bologna FC 1909 team won the match. It is important to note that Milan was simply better. The reason some Rossoblu fans could feel aggrieved is that their team had multiple breakaways. There are ways to generate fewer chances, be nominally “out-chanced”, but still play a somewhat sustainable style of soccer (it is infrequent that a team is “good” and does this). It requires your team to generate a few large chances while limiting the opponent to a plethora of shots from distance that are not dangerous. However, Siniša Mihajlović’s side is not adept enough at defense to do this, it would go poorly.

I do not want this to sound like I am raking Bologna over the coals. They have created a strong transfer program, have made fantastic deals, and currently have Musa Barrow on loan with an option to buy from Atalanta BC (he would be a game-changer with the Bergamasci). This was always a match Milan should win, and would you look at that… they did.

2: What Led To Milan’s Poor Defense?

Decision making seems to be a problem in recent weeks. A lack of control, focus, and situational awareness has plagued the Milan backline and midfield. I want to preface that errors have been randomly distributed among the group, but I do not think it has been a banner week for Davide Calabria, Theo Hernández, Alessio Romagnoli, and the midfield as a whole. This group’s problem is their recurring moments of lack of focus that lead to dangerous chances against. It is a frustrating problem as well because these same players will direct play, generate chances, and maintain structure all match, but then leave a pass short or fail to control a ball. Sometimes, players will not get punished for these mistakes, but the Milan defensive unit has had a knack for committing these errors in egregious parts of the field.

3: Not to Point Fingers, but I Am Pointing

This week it was Franck Kessié, Calabria, and Romagnoli who struggled. I think Fikayo Tomori was chaotic as well, but he spent a lot of time making up for these players’ mistakes. For Calabria, it was a mixture of inaction, horribly played passes, or lack of awareness of impending danger. I would say that Calabria had the worst day of all because he allowed two different breakaways and a dangerous header. He, in a sense, played a lot like Theo when the Frenchman is playing with no structure - Calabria allowed the second most dangerous chance of any Milan player.

For Romagnoli and Kessié it was just simple inaction that led to dangerous chances against. Unfortunately, their most glaring error ended up in the back of Donnarumma’s net. Both players needed to make a concerted effort to attack one of the ball carriers and neither did. Andrea Poli, who scored, was in an area where either player should have covered, however, neither did. This happens sometimes and should not be too grave a concern, but I wanted to make note of it because of how poorly the team has played defensively over the last few weeks.

4: I Thought We Had Resolved The Penalty Debate

It is pretty evident that Zlatan Ibrahimović is bad at penalties. He has scored 5 penalties in 9 attempts. Conversely, Kessié has scored 6 times in 7 attempts this season. In my opinion, it is pretty easy to say which one of these two players is better at penalties. I know Zlatan wants to score, but he has actually cost Milan at least two different goals and maybe three (you would expect an average penalty taker to convert on 75% to 78% of their penalties). Kessié is the penalty taker, he always should have been, and hopefully, that role is undisputed now.

5: But Zlatan Played Well… Kinda

The Swedish striker ended the match with the most dangerous chance from open play and was active in generating shooting opportunities for teammates. Zlatan’s dominating games are always an interesting watch because he does not dominate in the way that a Romelu Lukaku or a Robert Lewandowski will. He uses his size and spatial awareness to generate opportunities for himself or others. You can see how well he reads space in front of him and notice when he decides he can exploit it.

What can be frustrating is that he can sometimes seem entirely unlikely to score. I would say that the Bologna match was an example of that. He just never seemed fully certain of how to beat Łukasz Skorupski, missing two massive chances. I had some concern earlier in the season that he was on an unsustainable shooting percentage and would come crashing back down to earth, but matches like this, even though he did not score, at least put some of that concern to rest. He is still wildly outshooting his NPxG per 90 - compared to non-penalty goals per 90, but he is starting to generate more and more dangerous chances. It is surprising to see development in a 39-year-old. It shows that everyone can learn new tricks.

6: Fikayo Tomori, Welcome

It is unclear whether or not he was good, but he was sure active. He either led the team, or was level for the lead, in tackles won, successful pressures, blocks, and interceptions. This is a testament to his recovery pace and how active he wishes to be in every phase of the match. There are tactical issues to iron out of his play. He checked too far into the midfield on Nicola Sansone’s chance, but he will learn where his exact place on the field needs to be. I think this signing gives Milan a truly different style of player at the back and he could prove difficult to break past against more challenging opponents.

7: Ante Rebić and Rafael Leão Are Handfuls

Between the penalty draw and the goal - essentially on the same play - these two Milan attackers proved to be a handful. I want to also bring up my general enthusiasm about the Rossoneri formation without Hakan Çalhanoğlu. I love where Leão was placed on the pitch. This let him orbit Zlatan, but also gave him the freedom to commit chaotic or out-of-nowhere runs that split the defense. Without the Turkish number 10, Pioli should continue to implement this formation and tactical plan. It has worked before and it will work again. It prioritizes Rebić’s and Leão’s preferred positions and lets them both do what makes them special. Against Bologna, it worked perfectly.

8: Update Just After the Halfway Mark

Serie A xG Rank 2020/21 at Matchday 20

Team xG For xG Against xG Differential xG Differential per 90
Team xG For xG Against xG Differential xG Differential per 90
Juventus FC* 38.3 18.1 20.2 1.06
AS Roma 42.5 23.5 18.7 0.94
Fc Internazionale 41.3 22.7 18.6 0.93
Ac Milan 41.7 25.8 15.9 0.79
Atalanta BC 38.7 23.7 15.1 0.76
SSC Napoli* 34.4 20.1 14.3 0.75
(*) Indicates game in hand FBref Data

Welcome to the title race. These four statistics are strong predictors of team direction and shed a light on performance throughout the season. I am not including points because they can unjustly rate a team (see SS Lazio 2019-20). While AS Roma is technically second in this grouping, their performance in the league is built off of the back of destroying several smaller sides (seriously, go through their matches, they destroy weak teams). The takeaway should be that Juventus has completely turned around their form and Inter is coming. This chart also says that Milan is faltering. Now, the Rossoneri have a 9 point advantage on fifth place Lazio - who are firmly the 7th best team in Italy - but management and the coaching staff need to recognize that they are in a precarious situation. Players are returning though, which should hopefully bolster our chances.

I have spent a lot of time tempering expectations in front of surprising success, but I think it is time to understand what might happen in the second half of the season. Teams have gotten into gear and other squads have more individual skill than Milan. While Pioli has shown himself to be a top-three coach in Italy and some Rossoneri players have reached an elite status, Milan does not necessarily meet the levels of Juventus, Inter, or Atalanta. That could be enough to flip the title race. However, we can cross that bridge if we ever get there (hopefully not, Forza Milan).

9: Overall Thoughts

I know the last section was glum, but Milan is still winning. Wins are wins and at a certain point - even if you have won some games you should have lost - the accumulation of consistent victories captures the title. While I keep on trying to check expectations, the team is around 26 points away from being projected to finish top four (per FiveThirtyEight). As an example, a 9-0-8 for the remainder of the season would get Milan to 73 points. If I had to guess how the team will finish the season it would be between 14-1-3 and 9-3-5, giving Milan somewhere between 76 and 89 points. Obviously, 89 points probably win the league but that is my best case scenario.. 9-3-5 should comfortably get Milan to 4th and let us all watch Champions League soccer next season. I think both situations would be massive wins for us Milanisti. I want the league the most, but 4th was the target and it is easily in reach.