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9 Things: The Diogo Dalot Derby, AC Milan vs Manchester United FC, 1-2

Two legs are done and Milan falls out of the Europa League in frustrating fashion. What did we see over the two legs?

AC Milan v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Round Of 16 Leg Two Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

First Leg (Written March 12th)

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs Manchester United FC First Leg

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 0.8(0.8) 15(5) 0.05 49%
Manchester United FC 1 1.7(1.7) 7(2) 0.24 51%
FBref and StatsBomb

This match was not necessarily pretty for AC Milan, but I fundamentally believe that this scoreline does not accurately depict this fixture. That does not mean that the Rossoneri might be getting the raw end of the deal from the expected goals calculator. What is true is that Franck Kessié’s ruled-out goal was one of the most marginal decisions I have ever seen. That strike would probably add about another 0.1 expected goal to Milan’s total, but it would have added an actual goal on the score sheet. I am willing to say that Stefano Pioli’s side deserved more based on the fact that they put three balls in the back of the net and only one counted. At a certain point, you have to simply throw your hands up and be frustrated by that luck, especially when one was ruled out on a fairly marginal decision.

With all of this said, Harry Maguire missed a chance that has the same value as a penalty. That was lucky, especially because Gianluigi did not make a save, the British man hit the woodwork. If the match had ended at 2-2, then maybe Manchester United FC could feel slightly hard done by some exquisite Milan finishing (based on expected goals and how dangerous each shot would be and was rated in FBrefs model). However, a draw could be considered a fair outcome because of poor refereeing and good Milan shooting.

2: Rafael Leão Was Fine And Far From the Problem

Strikers do not dictate their service and are generally at the whim of the attacking core directly behind them or the success of the midfield to provide service further up the pitch. Rafael Leão constantly made the correct run, forced the Manchester backline deeper in their own half, and consistently found openings to run into but was never provided a final pass. You can do all of the hard work, get into scoring areas, and never receive the ball to finish your play.

Would I have liked to see Leão get more shots off, generate any expected goals, or get past Eric Bailly? Yes, but he did generate the play to win Milan the corner that led to Kjær’s goal to bring the game level. The Red Devils played a starting-caliber backline pairing - as Milan did - and expecting Leão to simply dominate that duo is lofty. My larger concern was why he was not getting the passing service he so desperately needed. That is a problem of the attacking midfield unit behind him, especially for Brahim Díaz and Rade Krunić. Those two struggled to make more difficult passes into the Portuguese forward. Instead, they both consistently looked to play the ball wide to either fullback. That stunted Milan’s offense more than anything else. If Leão had received any pass in the three scenarios where he was passed over for an easier wide pass, then he might have generated more and maybe even scored a goal.

3: Fikayo Tomori Showed His Skillset

This is not necessarily a knock on the Englishman, but he showed why certain coaches - cough, cough Frank Lampard - may not have liked his play. His positional play is not fantastic. Twitter has been ablaze with his tackle on Mason Greenwood, and while impressive, it also shows us that he still needs to learn how to keep players in front of him. Tomori succeeded on one of his two attempts to win the ball but let Greenwood break into the box. However, Tomori showed what makes him different than every other Milan center-back - he can recover when he is beat on an initial challenge. He was able to regain positioning and put in a robust challenge to recover the ball and help the Rossoneri get back on the front foot.

More importantly, Tomori can break defensive lines with explosive passes. The ability to play the ball upfield without creating a 50/50 for your striker or the forward core is crucial. His passing range could weaponize the Milan backline to an extent we have not seen in years. I think we all agree that he has to stay.

4: Impressed By The Midfield

This is how you control a match. Soualiho Meïté and Kessié dominated the midfield matchup for 73 minutes. They suffocated Manchester’s attempts to break into the box and directed play forward with intensity and precision. Their play helped Milan to win in expected possession value - a statistic that measures the danger of all moves created by one team even if it does not lead to a shot - and limited players who have been ripping through the Premier League. This is also what fully able Kessié looks like. He directs play and begins attacking moves that will lead to chances further up the field. We know this because of expected possession value. I was thoroughly impressed by this pairing and it was reassuring to see them dominate a midfield matchup in a crucial game.

4.5: Overall Thoughts

This first leg was an impressive game for Milan. The team is comically understaffed and played their heart out at Old Trafford. While it remains to be seen how the squad will look on the reverse fixture, Milan has more potential to benefit from players returning than United. That is simply because the Rossoneri’s backup players are nowhere near the level of Manchester’s and that the returning players to the Italian side would solve severe formational problems. However, that is all with the caveat that if Paul Pogba returns, there will not be much Milan can do in the midfield, which is unfortunate. Kjær’s late-game heroics have helped turn this second leg into appointment television and I am excited to see what happens on March 18th. My reaction to the second leg is right underneath, and oh boy did things go poorly.

Second Leg

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs Manchester United Second Leg

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 0.8(0.8) 10(4) 0.08 51%
Manchester United FC 1 0.9(0.9) 13(4) 0.07 49%
FBref and StatsBomb

This match was close and probably should have gone to extra time. However, Paul Pogba and Dean Henderson had different ideas and AC Milan have now fallen out of European competition. For Rossoneri fans, this is another notch in a season full of disappointing home performances. As I said in my previous article, Stefano Pioli’s side had no central drive and struggled to break down a porous midfield duo of Scott Mctominay and Fred. Even with a healthier side, Milan has no plan to drive centrally, test defenders, and score easier goals. Compounding this, the Rossoneri are struggling to finish inside of the box. In hockey, this poor run of shooting form is called “gripping the stick too tight”. I believe that the entire team is in this mentality at the moment and simply seeing a few more shots lead to goals will fix a lot of what ails the team. However, that does not solve the lack of central drive that leads to poor chance creation. Pioli’s side is spending too much time taking shots with negligible expected totals. If the team wants to win, they need to boost their NPxG per Shot to over 0.1 by consistently entering the box.

2: Pogba Is Just Simply The Best Player On Either Team

This was always the concern. The French midfielder is the biggest difference-maker on either team. I would be willing to listen to an argument that both Milan and Manchester United FC are comparable teams, but the key difference between the two sides is that United holds the majority of elite talent. Pogba is probably the ‘most elite’ of all the players who saw time during this two-legged tie, and it showed. The game changed immediately when he stepped onto the pitch and that does not even include his goal. He dominated his flank of the pitch and got the better of Franck Kessié throughout his play. If you follow me on Twitter, you saw my immediate crying out for Ismaël Bennacer to counteract what was happening to the Milan midfield (I understand Pioli not playing him, he could easily still be slightly hurt). However, Pogba was left to dominate his portion of the field and shut off his flank of the field. This hurt Pioli’s offensive plan because the team had to start foraging down the left-wing and constantly hit Aaron Wan-Bissaka. While the United right-back did not have the best game ever, he proved he could stop Theo Hernández and Rade Krunić throughout most of the match.

It is not most days you can take a World Cup winner off your bench, but Ole Gunnar Solskjær can and he did to great effect. Game-winning effect.

3: Passing and Shot Selection

I am begging Milan players to shoot earlier and pass earlier.

Easily the biggest reason the Rossoneri failed to create more shots was poor shot selection and poor passing on counterattacks. Milan’s attack struggles to generate shots with through balls because no one can play them at the moment. My largest complaint was on a fast break by Alexis Saelemaekers who failed to try to slip a pass into Hakan Çalhanoğlu and instead opted for a harder cross into the path of Krunić. That is symptomatic of the entire Milan offense, everyone looks to cross before playing ground passes. It does not lead to sustainable offense and leads to an unbelievable amount of frustration. Tactical plans need to change soon because this is not working.

4: Injuries Are Killing The Team

Bennacer, Davide Calabria, Rafael Leão, Mario Mandžukić, Alessio Romagnoli, and Ante Rebić all missed this match for a varying number of injuries. I understand Milan has been playing a lot, but this is unacceptable. Too many players are missing on a week-to-week basis and that has hurt the team in the standings and in the Europa League. My earlier statement about Milan and United being comparable only applies if the entire team is not hurt. Unfortunately, the injury bug has crushed the San Siro and the team is constantly rotating through a group of backups. Next season, a new physio staff should be prioritized because these are not contact injuries, they are all muscular pulls. That says that the players are not being trained or warmed up properly. Maybe, if the Rossoneri were fully staffed then they could have won this tie, but not with the lineup they had on the field.

4.5: Overall Thoughts

This sucked, no other way to say it. Milan fans have been watching a lot of losses recently and this one was more disappointing than anything yet. This tie was there for the taking but a mixture of injuries, bad shooting, and poor offensive planning sank the team. I continue to talk about these three issues and it has become increasingly frustrating to watch them go unaddressed. Milan needs a plan B and soon. Without a different approach, the team will keep losing. Pioli has a tough test in front of him, but beating his head against the wall with a plan that is not working would be telling of his abilities. A strong finish is still salvageable but heads are dropping. We need a fix and we need it soon.