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9 Things: Back To Losing At Home, AC Milan vs SSC Napoli, 0-1

These losses are not helping us qualify for the Champions League, but they have yet to make a noticeable dent.

AC Milan v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs SSC Napoli

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 0.9(0.9) 13(5) 0.07 56%
SSC Napoli 1 1.1(1.1) 15(4) 0.07 44%
FBref and StatsBomb

The most likely outcome for this match is a draw based on the chances created. Both teams played each other to a stalemate, except AC Milan missed their one massive chance - which carried an expected goal value of 0.5 - and SSC Napoli scored on one of their many small chances. Matteo Politano’s goal was a chance with an expected danger of 0.1. What really separated the two sides was that the Parthenopeans had more success entering the box, taking 11 shots inside of the penalty area to Milan’s 6. That has been a feature of the Rossoneri’s offense in recent weeks, with no real ability to consistently get inside the eighteen yard box and generate shots. Both sides struggled to generate consistently dangerous chances with possession but had some success finding room on counterattacks. Problematically, Gennaro Gattuso’s side in this match was much better at finishing than Stefano Pioli’s. That is why the visitors left with all three points.

2: The Offense Needs A Fix

Without Zlatan Ibrahimović, Pioli has turned to an incredibly wide offensive formation that lacks internal drive, especially because of the form Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Brahim Díaz are in. Simply, the team consistently fails to play through balls from central locations into their strikers, instead opting for a cross-heavy game plan that only works when the six-foot-five-inch Swedish striker is leading the line. This cross-heavy game plan has led to middling Key Passes, Passes to the Final Third, and Through Passes statistics. Milan ranks 8th in Key Passes, 12th in Passes to the Final Third. Fortunately, they are in 3rd in Through Pass attempts but, unfortunately, are 3rd worst in the league at completing these passes. Any striker on the planet would struggle with this type of service. Using crossing to score only works in volume, and a massive volume at that. It has baffled me why the team constantly looks to play the ball to the fullbacks instead of working the ball through interior spaces to help generate passes to the center forward.

Players need passes from the area just above the box - referred to as zone 14, or in the box- zone 17, to score goals (I’m using an 18 zone plot of a pitch. The diagram is linked here). Compounding this problem, the entire squad struggles to generate touches in the penalty area - when compared to big clubs in Italy - which is connected to the commitment to crossing. None of this suggests a team that generates consistently dangerous offensive moves. There is a fix, but it is dependent on the players behind the center forwards and their willingness and ability to complete more difficult but also more dangerous passes.

3: Where To Start The Fix

As seen in the tweet above, this is a map of the percentage chance of a goal depending on the type of pass, location, and game state (live or dead pass). The goal is to get into zone 17 - think of this as the most dangerous section of the field and the one that I talk about a lot. Clearly, creating passing plays that lead to shots in the box is the most dangerous way to create a goal. Zone 14, just above zone 17, is the highlighted area just above the box. Orchestrating offensive moves to get the ball there, where Hakan should be, and then having a player play the ball into the path of a teammate in the box will lead to consistent success. What works less often is crossing from wide because the volume needed to make it work is too high to be sustainable. Per 100 crosses you are only likely to create 2.5 goals in zone 17, compared to 13.2 goals per 100 through passes. Milan needs to focus more on creating more sustainable offensive passing instead of falling back on a width approach and just simply getting the ball in the box regardless of the quality of the pass. The best teams use a mixture of every pass type but focus more on creating cutbacks and through passes to create offense.

Click here for the link to the article I am referencing. This data was found by mapping the origination of each goal in the big 5 leagues - France, England, Spain, Italy, Germany - over the past five years. Likelihoods are created by how often these events occurred and their success. To put it simply, the modelers tracked where passes originated from and mapped out the likelihood where goals came from. I highly recommend reading this if you like reading my articles.

4: How To Create This With The Players at Our Disposal

I think a switch to a 4-4-2 formation would solve most of our problems. This does mean that Hakan would no longer be a first-team player - even though I would not entirely drop him. The goal is to get someone in a free role next to Zlatan, who should be back soon, to help him generate shots - cough, cough - Rafael Leão’s actual position. Both players bring a dynamism from open play that we have lacked from the center-attacking midfield position for weeks on end. I do want to say that this is not a demotion for Hakan, but the current formation is meant to promote his style of play and that is not working anymore. I still think the player is good, but his form has stifled the team’s offensive drive over recent weeks.

Instead, Pioli should think about how to make his team harder to contain by making it more unpredictable, more direct, but also more varied. Predictability is a curse unless you play on a handful of teams - Manchester City FC, Bayern München FC, Liverpool FC when healthy; those teams are simply too good to contain. Milan is predictable in an easy way to defend against right now and it is costing the offense, especially against well-organized teams.

5: On Leão

Over the past 365 days, the Portuguese forward has played well when he is in a support striker or winger position, but not at striker. I think this says a lot about Leão’s deployment. He is not a true striker, he is a support player who, as a result of team injuries, has had to try to play as a true striker. I would look to find a better striker replacement for Zlatan when his time comes to hang up the laces. However, that does not limit Leão’s role in the team. He should easily become a support striker and work off of another striker. He has shown his passing strength this season and is more dynamic than any other support striker or center attacking midfielder Milan has. I think a very subtle change could lead to a massive payoff and even more goals for the side.

6: Stop Playing Rade Krunić As A Winger

One of my least favorite plans from Pioli is the insistence on playing Krunić as a winger. He simply is not one. When Sandro Tonali plays the midfield needs a third member to help provide structure that the youngster is unable to generate. Krunić is a midfielder and using him in the Ante Rebić and Leão role does not properly fit him in the side. Switching into a midfield three, or even an asymmetrical formation would provide a similar attacking structure while also helping to get the most out of the three midfielders. It would be a simple fix, but we have yet to see it for more than a few minutes.

7: On Politano’s Goal

This is the exact weakness with Theo Hernández’s positional play. Once Franck Kessié was beaten by Piotr Zieliński, Matteo Politano, who started his run from the midfield, was entirely free because Theo checked too far up field. While you would like Matteo Gabbia to make a more focused turn to cover the space, Theo failed to recognize the emerging danger. In a match where the Frenchman was offering very little going forward, his defensive lapse led directly to the sole goal of the match. That needs to be cleaned up and soon.

8: League Update

Milan has entered a precarious situation. FiveThirtyEight has the Rossoneri at a 74% chance of finishing in the top four in Italy, but they only have a 20% chance of finishing second right now. The Napoli vs Juventus FC match has major implications for Champions League qualification. If the Neapolitans win, they would be three points behind Milan. Conversely, if Juventus wins, they would jump into second in the league. The Bianconeri winning would have less effect on the Champions League spots than a Napoli victory, because Juventus is expected to end as runners-up in Italy. Sadly, the Parthenopeans have opened a door to finishing in the Champions League places. They received an 11 point probability bump because of their victory in the San Siro. While they are still predicted to finish five points behind the Rossoneri, that gap has become more fragile. If Napoli knock off tougher opponents higher up the table then Pioli might start to feel the heat.

For the chasing pack, AS Roma’s surprising loss against Parma Calcio 1913 crushed their Champions League chances. They had been at 40% prior to match week 27, but now they have crumbled to 23%. Paulo Fonseca’s side is the last of the Champions League contenders, but their instability may make it unlikely that they finish in the top four. As of now, it seems like Milan’s biggest rival for fourth is the team that they just lost to.

9: Overall Thoughts

This match was not fun. Milan’s ineffective offense has begun to drag the team down and Pioli needs to make a simple switch that would not cost the team valuable time on the practice pitch. Small changes could revitalize the entire structure of the team and help push us forward. Now, this may not matter because more of the first team will return to the field in the upcoming weeks. Unfortunately, the physio staff for the Rossoneri have been questionable at best this entire season. Too many players have held onto long-term nagging injuries or have been rushed back to first-team duties with predictably poor results. Sustainably getting players back onto the pitch will save future headaches, this season and for years to come. Solutions to obvious problems are needed because, as I have been saying for weeks, they have been costing Milan.