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9 Things: Chaos in the Capitol, AC Milan vs AS Roma, 2-1

Both sides show their true qualities in a Champions League defining match.

Franck Kessie of AC Milan celebrates with Ante Rebic after... Photo by Antonietta Baldassarre/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs AS Roma

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(2.5) 17(8) 0.16 47%
AS Roma 1 2.0(2.0) 18(8) 0.11 48%
FBref and StatsBomb

Defending is for losers it seems. The Rossoneri started this match in barn-storming fashion taking 7 shots in the first seventeen minutes and not allowing a single AS Roma rebuttal. Prior to the thirty-minute mark, AC Milan had hit the post, had two goals get called off because of an offside ruling, and watched Zlatan Ibrahimović’s backheel flick narrowly miss the frame of the net. What is missed in the expected goal total is how many dangerous attacking situations Milan was easily getting into but were failing to convert, mainly because of their Swedish talisman. Frustratingly, this early dominance did not turn into a goal. The vast majority of Milan’s chance creation came before the Franck Kessié penalty that opened the scoring.

Pau López had already earned his match check by halftime, but by match end, he was unable to hold back the opposition’s onslaught, unlike his counterpart on the other side of the pitch. It would be unfair to say that netminding won this tie, but Gianluigi Donnarumma held strong in his goal frame and held his defense afloat as they became porous. What defined this match was the difference in the two teams’ defensive organization, and yes, some timely saves. Neither manager should feel overjoyed with their team’s backline and midfield but both should be excited about their offensive production. At a minimum, it led to an exciting game.

2: Was Milan’s Center Back Duo Good?

In this match, I would argue no, however, with a caveat. Milan’s defensive unit had a fantastic day in terms of offensive output and recovery skills, they were poor in terms of positioning. Fikayo Tomori and Simon Kjӕr both struggled with their timing to step into the midfield to initiate challenges but were able to make up for their mistakes in quick order. It was still concerning to see the backline duo struggle, however, I will trade some cautious defensive play that struggles to recover for a more chaotic style that can recover. The only two players on Roma who truly gave the Rossoneri fits were Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Stephan El Shaarawy (El Shaarawy is still my favorite player on the planet). Both of these Giallorossi players had multiple possessions where they either broke past the Milan backline or played passes in behind their opponent’s formation. Mkhitaryan had the most notable breakaway, finding a gap in coverage between Davide Calabria and Kjӕr. However, Tomori and Milan’s Danish center back were able to calm their game down for the most part and started to make more poised defensive plays in the second half.

3: Ante Rebić Dominates

This was Rebić’s day. He finished the match with a goal, 4 shots, two shot-creating actions, 0.2 of an expected assist, and 0.5 of an expected goal. His performance quieted many of his doubters - including me - as he determined the flow of the match and Milan’s offense. One of the key reasons why Rebić was able to put together a fine performance was his dribbling. He completed 2 of his 3 attempts, completed 8 progressive runs, and generated 119 progressive yards. Every single statistic I just listed is over his year-long average and helped him put together a dominating performance. It did help that the Roma backline essentially did not exist on their right side.

4: Paulo Fonseca Had A Plan Right?

I understand that Roma was dealing with some key injuries across their backline, though that does not excuse this match planning from Fonseca. The Portuguese manager played a true defensive midfielder at the heart of his backline, Bryan Cristante, and a player that has split time between defensive midfield and center back, Gianluca Mancini (I prefer Mancini as a defensive midfielder). This trio was completed by Federico Fazio who struggles with defensive positioning, recovery skills, and most aspects of defending. While the backline trio was not always at fault - Rick Karsdorp was dominated by Rebić and Theo Hernández - they certainly did not help their case. To add to the defensive unit’s misery, Fonseca played two box-to-box midfielders, neither of whom are adept defensive players. I cannot wrap my head around this decision because it does not make any structural sense. If I had to guess, the goal of this formation was to control possession and try to defeat Milan by starving them of the ball. Obviously, that did not work.

What did happen was an utter lack of control from the Giallorossi. Fonseca’s strategy helped his side counter effectively, except it hurt any attempts to regain possession. As I said earlier, Roma started to grow in strength as El Shaarawy entered the pitch and Mkhitaryan had a strong match, but they were on an island. The lack of control led to a lack of sustained offensive generation and a tough time trying to contain the Rossoneri

5: Theo Loves To Run

Offensively, this was a high-flying display from the French fullback. He succeeded in all 6 of his dribble attempts and completed 9 progressive runs to generate 257 progressive yards. Impressively, Theo had 5 shot-creating actions and generated 0.5 expected assists. He controlled his side of the field with Rebić and completed some fairly embarrassing dribbles against Karsdorp. Theo’s play was so effective in pinning Roma back that there were stretches where he would simply play left-wing and just provide width to the Milan attack. While that is not a new phenomenon, Theo took it to a new level in the Stadio Olimpico with great effect.

6: The Midfield Does… Stuff

I do not want to pick on Sandro Tonali and Kessié too much, but they were part of the Milan defensive struggles. Like the center backs, what they did in possession was much more impressive than their play out of it. The unit completed 10 progressive passes, had 5 shot-creating actions, and had 7 progressive carries, which are all above average statistics. However, both midfielders struggled to pressure Roman players, failed to initiate tackles, and had 2 interceptions. Those are dismal defensive numbers. They were easily bypassed and struggled to consistently have a positive impact defensively. Their flashiest defensive play was by Tonali who made a possible goal-saving block after being totally blown by on a fast counter-attack by the hosts. It was frustrating to see how ineffectual this duo was going backward, but promising to see how much they drove play offensively. If these two can put together a more well-rounded performance then Milan can feel more confident going into matches without Ismaël Bennacer.

7: Substitutions Play Well, But Everyone Got Hurt

Personally, I did not mind the play of the substitutes, however, I do mind why Stefano Pioli used so many early in the fixture. Rebić, Hakan Çalhanoğlu, and Ibrahimović all needed to be replaced because of an injury. That is a frustrating list of players to go down because two of them are guaranteed starters and Rebić is in a timeshare with Rafael Leão. However, the players called on to see out Milan’s victory played well and frustrated Roma’s attempts to generate offense. Hopefully, Pioli does not need too many injuries for too long, but I am concerned about the accumulation of them that occurred on Sunday.

8: League Update Time

Positive news! Milan’s odds for qualifying for the Champions League went up! There is now a 57% chance that Milan finishes third place or better and a 76% chance that the Rossoneri clinch a Champions League spot. Both of those percentages grew by over 15% between this match week and last. Logically, that makes a lot of sense. The match against Roma had direct Champions League implications. A loss for Milan would have tightened the gap between the two sides to 2 points, instead, it is now 8. Absent a meltdown by Milan; it will be difficult for the Giallorossi to close that gap with only 42 points left to play for (everyone reading this, please knock on wood). I do think we are now seeing the Serie A table come into shape. FC Internazionale seems likely to win the league, with Juventus FC and Milan dueling it out for second in the table, and Atalanta BC putting down their claim to a top-four finish. On the other side of the table, FC Crotone is almost certain to drop, along with Parma Calcio 1913. The remaining question is which of Cagliari Calcio and Torino FC join the two previously mentioned teams in Serie B. In my opinion, either team could.

I do not want to sound like a defeatist in terms of the title race, but I would be surprised if Milan retook the lead in the standings again this season. Inter has put together a strong season and deserves their lead at the top of the table. Again there are still 42 points to be played for, but it seems that Inter is turning into a bit of a buzzsaw (however, they are still Pazza Inter). I am proud of where the Rossoneri are right now, and I hope they can keep a hold of their current position. I expect them to.

9: Overall Thoughts

I hope you had fun watching this game because I did. Milan needed a statement win against a direct rival and they did just that in dominating and dramatic fashion. The last few weeks have been everything but enjoyable, however, I really enjoy going to Rome, taking three points, and having a grand old time doing so. Now, the Rossoneri have reminded all of Italy what they are capable of in big matches. The work does not end any time soon and the team has another tricky midweek matchup against Udinese Calcio. Pioli and his side need to keep up the pressure on the rest of the table.