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9 Things: We Like To Win Away, AC Milan vs ACF Fiorentina, 3-2

Games can be a lot of fun if every shot on target goes in… which is what happened.

ACF Fiorentina v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs ACF Fiorentina

Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
Team Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 3 1.7(1.7) 13(3) 0.13 58%
ACF Fiorentina 2 0.2(0.2) 7(2) 0.03 42%
FBref and StatsBomb

Maybe not the best game ever for Gianluigi Donnarumma based on the chances that ACF Fiorentina created. He surrendered 2 goals and failed to make a single save and while the Franck Ribéry shot was almost unsavable, you would expect the Italian keeper to stop one of these goals. However, that is not how the game transpired and AC Milan’s forward core had to rescue this match in the second half. Impressively, Stefano Pioli’s side generated offense through cutbacks, more decisive counters, and some impressive passes played over the top of the Viola backline. This match showed a noticeable change in how the Rossoneri tried to facilitate shots. Instead of throwing aimless crosses into the box, the entire team spent more time trying to pass their way into the box and that led to more dangerous chances. Finishing helped make the team look better than they played, but there was better creation in this match. That is a positive sign and hopefully, one that will continue for the rest of the season.

2: So What Changed

First, the entire team focused on creating shooting attempts through passing instead of crossing. One of the goals - Brahim Díaz’s - came from a corner, but the entire team spent the majority of the match trying to pass through Fiorentina’s backline. That was a major change from recent offensive performances. I focused on offensive buildup in my last few articles, but I was happy to see a noticeable change in tactics during this fixture. The entire team had a combined 11 primary shot assists from open play and generated a goal from a fortunate bounce from a corner. In total, Milan had 20 shot-creating actions from open play, which is the first time the team has eclipsed 20 since the match against Crotone FC. Seeing the Rossoneri get back to their inventive offensive ways helped calm most concerns about the team in recent weeks.

3: I Complained About Hakan… Here is Why

On Twitter, I complained about Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s play prior to his goal. The Turkish attacking midfielder had been inconsistent for most of the match with his highlight being a well-placed through ball to Zlatan Ibrahimović but had taken four shots from over twenty yards out, which is incredibly wasteful. He made up for his inconsistent beginning of the game by scoring the eventual game-winning goal, but it is always important to remember his play prior. Çalhanoğlu struggled to affect the match in open play, which is similar to a lot of his recent games. His set-piece and dead-ball deliveries have remained fantastic throughout the season, but, and as I have said earlier, he is creating proportionally fewer shots through open play than in prior seasons. This might mean that he has added a new tool to his game, but it also might mean that he is benefitting from an unsustainably successful set-piece adjustment. Whatever the case is, he needs to stay aware of what leads to sustainable shot-creating - through balls, cutbacks and passes that lead players into the box.

4: But He deserves Credit

Hakan still scored the game-winning goal and had 6 shot-creating actions, 1 goal-creating action, an actual goal, and a dangerous shot assist on Ibrahimović’s missed chip. This might not have been his most efficient match, but he was dangerous throughout and proved to be a handful for the Fiorentina midfield and backline. There are positives to build off of in this match and hopefully, his and Zlatan’s chemistry can continue to generate more goals.

5: Speaking of Zlatan

Milan’s number 11 gave an immensely dangerous performance. He took three shots, hit two posts, and scored on a fairly difficult finish. His playstyle helped facilitate offensive movement, made cutting runs to open up Fiorentina’s backline, and was more successful than not when entering aerial duels. He provided a crucial spark from the striker position that the team had been missing for weeks. I talk about players orbiting Ibrahimović and this game was a good example of his pull. His tendency to drop deep to collect a pass helps generate space for midfielders or wingers to make overlapping or underlapping runs into the box. That had been missing from Milan’s attack, as the multiple different strikers used in this position struggled to stay central instead of moving wide. This was an impressive performance that was rewarded with a goal, and almost two.

6: Comparing Tonali to Bennacer

In terms of difficult midfield matchups, La Viola is not the toughest in Serie A - or anything close to it - but Sandro Tonali held his own during this match. His defensive display was strong enough to hold the line and maintain control throughout the first half. The key for the young Italian midfielder is to add more offensive play with his defensive work. Tonali struggles to generate progressive passes, spending more time passing laterally or out of presses that do not directly push play forward. Ismaël Bennacer generated more progressive passes, progressive carries, progressive yards, and attempted passes. The Algerian midfielder demonstrated what the team needs when he is out of the lineup. Tonali is working on his defensive issues, and the game against Fiorentina showed that, but he needs to add another dimension to his game to truly take the next step to become elite.

7: We Allow Two, But The Defense Looks Solid

As I said earlier, this was not Donnarumma’s finest match. However, the backline did well to limit shots and prevent entry into the box. Fiorentina had 8 total touches in the penalty box, which is the least they have had all season, and that is with an in-form Dušan Vlahović. This all says that Milan played fantastic preventative defense. However, strong finishing and poor goalkeeping can sink many games and that is almost what happened to Milan. Donnarumma’s failure to keep out Erick Pulgar’s freekick and a strong finish by Ribéry put la Viola ahead. Maybe the freekick was unsavable, but Donnarumma gave up two goals on 0.2 expected goals. That is a bad day.

Counterbalancing an unusually poor day from Milan’s star goalkeeper, there was a defensive process from the backline and midfield that was spectacular. I would like to see more defensive composure from Diogo Dalot in future matches, but seeing a dominating defensive performance in light of two unlucky, or well-finished, goals was greatly encouraging.

8: League Update

80%! The Rossoneri are back to being the most likely team to finish second in Italy after losing that crown to Juventus FC for a few weeks. FiveThirtyEight still lists the Bianconeri as the second most likely to win the league, but that is because of past performances and because their underlying metrics are stronger than Milan’s. Andrea Pirlo’s side ranks first in the league with a 1.06 expected goal difference per 90. That is mainly driven by their defensive performances throughout their season. They rank as the fifth-best offensive team in Italy, but as the best defensive team. To add to this rating, Juventus have won nine Scudetti in a row, which should be respected. Now, that is all to show the differences between Milan and the previous champions. The Scudetto race is all but over. Even if FC Internazionale were to lose to UC Sassuolo, they would still hold a 6 point advantage over their city rivals. That would mean the Rossoneri would need to make up a two-win gap with under ten games to go. It is hard to say that is anything but highly unlikely - you can see this in Inter’s 94% chance to win the league.

The one other interesting change is SSC Napoli. They have a 51% chance to qualify for the Champions League. Why you might ask? Well, they essentially ended AS Roma’s top four chase and, with a win against Juventus, could jump into the top four. They are still the least likely of the top five teams in Italy to qualify, but they are definitely not out of the running. Hopefully, Napoli starts to slip away.

9: Overall Thoughts

This was a must-win match. Not to be disrespectful to Fiorentina, but they are not on Milan’s level or close. They are 12th in expected goal difference per 90, have one win in their last four matches, and sit seven points above the relegation places. Cesare Prandelli resigned after their loss against the Rossoneri and they now will start the search for a new manager. This seems like a mental and emotional decision for Prandelli and I wish him the best in his time away from the game. There are many things larger than football and if Prandelli needs to prioritize himself at the moment, he has every right to do so.

For Milan, the team has taken control of their destiny, in terms of finishing second, and have started to see players return. There is still a long way to go, but every win now makes the team more certain of a return to the Champions League. This game was the start of a five-game stretch where the Rossoneri play “should win” matches. 21 points probably gets Milan into the premier European competition, but obviously, anything closer to 27 would almost guarantee it. The season is not over yet, but the results of all the work over the last seven months are coming into view.