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9 Things: Making Things Hard On Ourselves, AC Milan vs Parma Calcio 1913, 3-1

A routine victory against a relegation-destined team becomes much more uncertain after a foolish red card.

Players of AC Milan celebrate during the Serie A football... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs Parma Calcio 1913

Teams Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
Teams Goals xG(NPxG) Shots (On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 3 1.2 10(5) 0.12 42%
Parma Calcio 1913 1 1.1 16(5) 0.07 58%
FBref and StatsBomb

AC Milan’s match might not have been pretty, but it yielded a crucial result. Credit to Parma Calcio 1913, they took advantage of an understaffed Rossoneri and almost scraped a draw. Fortunately, Stefano Pioli made an intelligent change late in the second half to bring on the snake-bitten Rafael Leão to break his goal-scoring drought and secure all three points for the Rossoneri. However, the match’s pivotal moment was Zlatan Ibrahimović’s foolish red card in the sixtieth minute. After his sending off, Parma would take 9 shots to Milan’s 2. This match was reasonably uneventful before Zlatan’s needless red card, but the Gialloblu started creating opportunity after opportunity with their numerical advantage. Milan struggled to play with structure after going down to ten men, and that almost sank what should have been a comfortable three points. Luckily, the relegation-stricken outfit could not add to their massive draw tally, with the Rossoneri scoring on the game’s final kick and securing all three points.

2: Red Cards… Yay!

Ibrahimović’s foolish red card set the stage for a heart-pounding final thirty minutes. While I disagree with the red, based on what we know he said to Fabio Maresco, I am angry that he put himself in this situation. One of the main issues with the current attacking core is that they are all hotheads. Of the 4 red cards assessed to Milan players this season, forwards have accounted for 3. That is a massive problem. Those players should not be getting into card trouble because their position does not require much defensive work, yet, Zlatan, Ante Rebić, and Alexis Saelemakers have all been sent off for various reasons. Their lack of discipline can cost Milan points and put a lot of unnecessary pressure on the rest of the team. Players who should never be in a situation to get a red card are getting the red cards. Pioli will need to focus on building better team discipline so that there are no more tumultuous second halves for the remainder of the season or next year.

3: Finishing Steals the Day

Scoring 3 goals on 1.2 expected goals is a pretty strong indicator of finishing your chances well. Milan struggled to break into the box, only taking 8 shots in the box, with only 4 of those being non-volley or header shots. That is not particularly prolific, but the team scored three goals on their handful of shots. Part of the strong finishing display reflected how open every shooter was. Rebić was utterly free when he hit his effort on net. His decision to choose power over anything else helped smash the ball into the back of the net. Franck Kessié’s goal was most likely the most covered of the three shots. However, he was still behind the Parma backline when he took it. That space was more than enough for the Ivorian to compose himself to score. The most open goal of the match, Leão’s, was a literal breakaway. These situations help increase the likelihood of a goal, especially on a team with solid finishing. I would like the process to be better, but the team got players free in on goal on a handful of occasions and cashed in on all three.

4: Attacking Success

Before Zlatan’s red card, he helped generate a swath of shots through his willingness to drop deep and create passing lanes for his wingers to take advantage of. He pulled the Parma backline around the pitch and acted as more of a facilitator than anything else. That dynamism is something that Milan sorely misses when he is out of the squad.

Zlatan’s involvement completely nullified Hakan Çalhanoğlu’s importance on the pitch. I have not loved the Turkish midfielder’s game recently, mainly because he is not operating fast enough. He has been experiencing a lack of passing tenacity. What does that mean? He is not switching the ball fast enough, is not attempting more complex but more dangerous passes, and he is missing passing lanes as they present themselves to him. He will need to start finding his passing aggression again because he has certainly struggled recently. Zlatan can generate most of these plays, and, as I have said before, there is a real chance that Leão could provide more orbiting the Swedish star striker than Hakan is providing right now.

5: Down to Ten

I did not think Pioli succeeded in setting up his team in the final thirty minutes. The team switched into a 4-4-1 formation with Rebić alone at the top of the lineup. It seemed that the team’s plan defensively was to press the ball wide and try to create quick counter attacks by throwing the ball forward and asking the Croatian forward to chase the ball down. That is not the worst plan, but it only works if the winger and near-side midfielder help pin the ball. Instead, the midfield duo of Kessié and Soualiho Meïté acted as a pressing midfield duo who created massive gaps between themselves and the rest of the backline. Pioli may have noticed this, but instead of relaying this information, he put Rade Krunić on the pitch and did not fix the pitch’s structural issue.

Interestingly, Pioli’s main change took Pierre Kalulu off to put on Matteo Gabbia and switch into a back five. That still did not fix the midfield problem but made it harder for the opposition to get into the box. While not a total fix, it at least patched the midfield holes enough to prevent too many dangerous Parma chances.

6: Breaking Ducks

Leão is back to scoring, and I am thrilled. He has continued to outshoot his expected goals total and has finally broken through his extended goalless streak. Currently, the Portugues forward is in 2nd in Non-penalty goals plus assists per 90, 4th in NPxG plus expected assists total, and third in total goal contributions on the team. Although the team may have spent too much money on him, he is good. He was on an insane drought. He still has a lot of room to grow. He does not get played enough. These things are true, and he needs to work on his overall effort (Leão runs gracefully, making it look like he is lazy sometimes, but in this match, he put in the minimal effort until the final chance). However, he has shown progress, and most young goal scorers are streaky (other than a handful, such as Kylian Mbappé and Erling Håland). Leão will be fine. He needs to play more.

7: Gianluigi Donnarumma Comes Up Massive

The Captain came up with crucial stop after stop and held Parma out of the net for most of the afternoon. His multi-save sequence in the fifty-first minute prevented an even more tumultuous second half. While he did not wholly outperform what was expected of him, he still made crucial save after crucial save. That is what matters for any goalkeeper, and he delivered in spades. He has had more impressive performances, but this was an undoubtedly strong game from the Milan skipper.

8: League Update

Something fun is that FiveThirtyEight expects Atalanta BC, Juventus FC, and Milan to finish the season on the same amount of points - 77. The Bergamaschi are the most likely to qualify in the top four right now at 80%, then the Bianconeri at 77%, and finally the Rossoneri at 74%. While Napoli is still chasing this pack, their loss to the Old Lady and a tough upcoming two matches means that the Gennaro Gattuso-led side is firmly on the outside looking in. Luckily for them, the Partoponei do not need to face any of the three teams directly ahead of them in the table again this season. However, they will play FC Internazionale and SS Lazio in their next two matches. If they lose both games, then their likelihood to qualify for the Champions League will collapse. Milan’s magic number now is 20. Any combination of the Rossoneri winning or Napoli dropping 20 points will almost guarantee a top-four finish for both San Siro residents. We are all rooting against Napoli now.

Quickly, the relegation battle is essentially finished now. Cagliari Calcio, Parma, and FC Crotone are all buried in their battle for salvation. All three teams are at least five points below the safety line and are incredibly unlikely to stay in the top flight next year. Cagliari is the only team with a shred of hope, but they are still highly likely to go down at 77%. It seems that that race is over.

9: Overall Thoughts

No more red cards, please. Milan has two easier matches before they run into Lazio on April 26th. Matches against Genoa CFC, Benevento Calcio, Torino FC, and Cagliari round out the year. For those tracking at home, that accounts for 12 points. That means in the other four games, Milan would need to win eight points. That is not entirely easy as Milanhas to play UC Sassuolo, Lazio, Juventus, and Atalanta. That is a challenge, but winning the four lower table games and then getting a win and a draw in two of the more challenging four matches would almost secure a top-four finish (I know that is not 20 points, but 16 would practically guarantee a place). We are so close to the end of the season, and any consistency should confirm a first Champions League berth since the 2013-14 season. I want to watch games on Tuesday again.