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9 Things: Can We Get Any Consistency, AC Milan vs Udinese Calcio, 1-1

Throwing matches away, not playing well at home, maybe this is Milan 2021.

Rodrigo Becao of Udinese Calcio celebrates a goal during the... Photo by Fabrizio Carabelli/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs Udinese Calcio

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 1.3(0.6) 11(6) 0.06 61%
Udinese Calcio 1 0.6(0.6) 5(1) 0.12 39%
FBref and StatsBomb

This was brutal. While some may point to Rafael Leão’s and Ante Rebić’s play - which was poor - this game was defined by an utter lack of creativity and passing skill by the players behind them. There was a reason AC Milan’s first shot came in the twenty-second minute and was a long-range curler from Brahim Díaz. There was a passing issue from deeper in the field. The entire team had 6 open play shot assists during the entire match, which is abysmal (there were a few other secondary shot assists that are less valuable than primary shot assists). Compounding this problem, Leão only had two shots all match and Rebić did not even get one shot off. This is partially their fault because the Croatian winger completed 56% of his passes and the Portuguese forward controlled only 48% of his pass receptions. While these two can be held responsible for some of Milan’s offensive stagnation, the problems run deeper in the squad.

2: Where Do They Start

More midfield complaints. I have highlighted before what Franck Kessié does well. He is a fantastic play driver and is positionally adept, both of which are crucial for any side. However, he is not a particularly fantastic offensive player. The Ivorian midfielder is below average in chance creation for others, progressive passing, and is only slightly above average in progressive runs. When Ismaël Bennacer, usually the catalyst for offensive play in the midfield, is out injured, Stefano Pioli turns to other midfielders to generate progressive ball movement. Generally, Sandro Tonali has been strong in chance creation, but like Kessié, has found it difficult to break play forward through his passing or ball carrying. That brings us to Soualiho Meïté. He was never supposed to be the Bennacer replacement, instead, he acts as another midfielder who provides structure to the team. I have not minded his play entirely, but it is clear that he is not as formidable as Il Presidente (Kessié’s nickname).

What is missing here? A true backup who is strong in ball progression and generating shots for others when Bennacer is out. We were all reminded of that simple truth against Udinese Calcio. Credit where credit is due, Luca Gotti set his side up in a way meant to frustrate. His 2-3-5 formation limited space and made it hard to penetrate the line of three center backs. However, with a better passing performance from the midfield, Milan could have broken into the box with more regularity. Sadly, instead the team suffered because of a lack of inventive passing from the double-pivot.

3: Problems Continue

Theo Hernández went from dominating Rick Karsdorp, to being dominated by the Udinese defense. Again, more credit to Gotti and Nahuel Molina who both limited space for the French fullback to exploit. However, Theo took himself out of the match consistently. He obviously made a massive amount of progressive runs during the match and had a high progressive total, but he struggled to pass instead of dribble. The tempo of attacks matters and passing the ball is much faster than running with it. This was the aspect of Theo’s match that failed him, he wanted to run through everyone instead of moving possession on to another. His low shot-creating actions and expected assists total at the end of the match were a testament to that. He is supposed to create chances and shots for others. That is his role, but he was completely ineffectual in that regard during this fixture. Theo rarely wants to let others drive the ball forward for him, but he needed to take his hand off the wheel more during this game.

4: And Yes… The Forwards

I have already talked about their statistical profile during the match, but I want to briefly cover why their match went poorly. Both players struggled to make runs to stretch the Udinese backline or to adjust aspects of their game to make themselves more available to teammates. Leão realized this part in the second half, but as neither player is a true striker, Milan was left without a focal point in attack. Both players play best as either a support striker or a left-winger and need someone to orbit. Lacking a true backup striker, something that Milan does not necessarily have at the moment, will lead to more frustrating performances like this. Setting the team in a situation without a true striker and no real plan for an attacking drive will always be faulty. Addressing the lack of a true striker to back up Zlatan Ibrahimović should be a priority in the summer.

5: How to Fix This Lineup

Play a 4-4-2 and let Jens Petter Hauge take control of the left-wing. While this does not solve the problem with the strikers, it at least puts players in better positions to succeed. This team has had success playing in formations like this and Milan does not have a true replacement for Hakan Çalhanoğlu when he is injured (Brahim is an attacking midfielder, but he creates chances through dribbling, not passing). Setting the team into a formation that provides width, wide creativity, and more space for Theo to be inventive could solve the lack of chance creation. Milan has always played well in a 4-4-2. It is the formation that started the insane run of form in 2020. I have already noted Milan’s lack of a true striker, it was evident that neither Rebić nor Leão knew who was leading the line. Clearer roles at the top of the attack would have solved a multitude of problems and having this plan in the back pocket would solve a lot of headaches when Zlatan is out.

6: Obviously a Bad Goal

Gianluigi Donnarumma has been Milan’s second-best player this season in the most reliable way. He has saved multiple goals above expected and has maintained a high level of play in front of a faltering side at times. However, that does not excuse the goal he gave up against Udinese. He obviously reacted to Ilija Nestorovski’s run across the frame of the goal but failed to focus primarily on the ball. If Nestorovski had touched the ball, then there was no way that Donnarumma was going to save the shot if it was touched just in front of him. Gigio needed to just react to the shot and nothing else and hope that his defenders would prevent any deflection attempts.

7: Some Positives

I thought Tonali had some bright moments during his outing. He actually generated dangerous shots for others and was integral to the passing movements that Milan created in the first half. Injuries forced him off the pitch, but he showed brightly when he played. I would still like to see him in an advanced role, orchestrating attacks closer to the opposition penalty box, instead of from deep. He seems to be an attacking box-to-box midfielder being miscast as a deep-lying playmaker. Watching him play against a team that provided him the space to be inventive highlighted what makes this young player so special. He has the vision and is smart enough to know when and how to switch play. Allowing him to have the freedom to focus more on his passing and chance creating would go a long way for the Rossoneri.

8: League Update

Ugh.

Milan’s top-four odds took a bit of a hit, although not a massive one, with this draw. The two dropped points took the Rossoneri from a 76% chance of finishing in the top four to a 71% chance. Unfortunately, FC Internazionale has reached a massive 82% chance of winning the league, holding a 6 point advantage on Milan and a 10 point advantage on Juventus FC - who have a game in hand. The team has yet to come close to faltering, with a remaining 33 points to win the league (at this moment) and only four more matches against top-seven opponents. I expect Juventus and Milan will continue to drop points because neither of those teams are firing on all cylinders. The challenge remains whether the Rossoneri can hold off a collapse and maintain their grip on the top four. Atalanta BC and AS Roma remain within six points of Milan, but the Giallorossi only have a 38% chance of crossing into the top four.

The last few weeks have put a lot of doubt in my mind about that, especially with the loss to Spezia Calcio and this most recent draw. It was a lot of points to simply throw away, which is what Milan has been doing. Despite this, the percentages are still in our favor and hopefully, the team will start to show some version of its earlier season form.

9: Overall Thoughts

2021 has been frustrating. Milan has been far from perfect… or even reliably good. The tactical structure of the side has begun to falter and the explosive run of form by every attacker has become erratic. While there is more than enough time to regroup and get back to more consistent winning ways, there are more doubts about this team than at any moment during 2020. There are real issues and I hope Pioli will realize that subtle tactical changes could fix a plethora of problems. It is now up to him and the team to ensure a top-four qualification. This season is so close to success but it can all be thrown away by consistently dropping points to sides way below Milan’s stature and ability. That has been happening recently and it needs to stop. If the Rossoneri can recapture what made them be so formidable against AS Roma, then the team will comfortably qualify for the Champions League.