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9 Things: Falling Apart, AC Milan vs US Sassuolo Calcio, 1-2

Milan is now less likely than Napoli to qualify for the Champions League. The precipice is here.

AC Milan v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs US Sassuolo Calcio

Teams Goals xG(NPxG) Shots(On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
Teams Goals xG(NPxG) Shots(On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 1 1.3(1.3) 18(6) 0.07 47%
US Sassuolo Calcio 2 1.9(1.9) 16(6) 0.12 53%
FBref and StatsBomb

What are we even doing? Seriously.

AC Milan is on a four-match run of not recording more than 1.5 expected goals and a seven-match run of not cracking the 2.0 expected goals mark. The chance creation has fallen apart. The team’s shot-creating actions have remained high, but that is not for any good reason; players have started to shoot from further back in the field. The team took thirteen shots from sixteen yards or deeper and only four shots closer than that. Stefano Pioli’s side fell back into their old ways with these consistent efforts from deep in the box or range. You cannot expect to create dangerous chances consistently when you shoot like this. The Rossoneri need to link their forwards better to the rest of the team, and the problems come from players behind them (this is not to say that Ante Rebić and Rafael Leão are free from blame). No one is trying to pass through the backline anymore. Instead, the attacking unit is moving the ball wide and constantly crossing. That is not winning football - soccer.

2: Where is the Breakdown

The center attacking midfield position has collapsed in recent weeks. I know Hakan Çalhanoğlu scored but shot and chance creation is a crucial part of his role. He had two primary shot assists and only 0.1 expected assists. Generally, that means that a player is not passing to players in dangerous locations or not passing players into dangerous areas. His play - and form - can be surmised simply, is Zlatan Ibrahimović playing? If he is, then the Turk will generate a lot of shots and chances for his teammates. If Zlatan is out, then Milan’s number 10 will struggle to create swift attacking moves and lean on his fullbacks and wingers to throw crosses into oblivion. As I have said in previous articles and earlier in this article, that does not lead to sustainable offense. If you had to ask me why Milan is not scoring… it is this.

To continue on this point, Brahim Díaz has not been particularly fantastic either. His form has fallen swiftly since an early-season run of success. Ever since match week seventeen, the Spaniard attacker has failed to create for his teammates - actual or expected assists - and scored one goal on a fortunate bounce. In short, his play is too inconsistent at the moment. These two need to fix what ails them.

3: Pass the Ball Into the Box

In my opinion, the most significant issue. The Rossoneri attempted 21 passes in Zone 14 - the area where the semicircle is on top of the box - and only 4 of those went into the box. That is bad. Breaking through a center-back pairing is difficult, but it is always harder if you simply do not try. The Rossoneri are not trying to pass into the box from the area centrally above the box. Instead, the team has required passes from the adjacent half-spaces or wide areas to generate offense. Passing from that section of the pitch is less likely to lead to success than passing from Zone 14. While the half-spaces are essential to exploit, the entire team needs to focus more on getting the ball centrally and generating offense into the box from that location.

Zone 14 plot from Between the Posts

4: The Forwards are not Free from Blame

Rebić was far from good. The role he plays when Zlatan sits does not utilize the Croatian properly. Milan’s number 12 needs to touch the ball as little as possible and just focus on shooting. He is most useful as a poaching winger who looks to his strikers or midfielders to generate dangerous chances that he can finish. What he does poorly is knockdown and hold up play up top. I would get him away from this role and prioritize what makes him good, touching the ball as little as possible and shooting.

For Leão, he had some expected goal and assist creation but struggled in his run recognition. He needs to exploit space better in future games because he has started to understand the lone striker role slightly better. If he can add more tools to his game, he can grow into a strong performer in Red and Black. However, Leão’s role needs to change in future matches so he can continue to develop. His success comes in a strike partnership, not by himself. He and Rebić do not blend well, and I do not want to see them play as the sole two attackers. It has not worked; it currently does not work; hopefully, someday, it will work.

5: If the Offense Does Not Work, Then Hopefully the Defense Will

Or it won’t. Fikayo Tomori’s and Simon Kjær’s performance against Sassuolo was the worst the two have put together this season (considering the level of competition). Neither player read space particularly well and let attacking players, namely Giacomo Raspadori, have too much space to inflict their will. Whenever the team has consistent defensive breakdowns, it is less entirely missing an assignment; instead more of a case of letting players float away from you and giving them too much space. That happened in this match; Raspadori found pockets because Kjær or Tomori would drop too deep and leave a pocket of space or fail to smother shooting chances, again because of poor spacing.

The problem with poor spacing is that it hurts what both of these players are better at, recoveries. Tomori needs time to recover and use his pace, so fast-paced plays that do not allow him to take advantage of his ability to close are dangerous. The Englishman will need to work on his positioning over the offseason to take the next step to the player I believe he can become. For Kjær, he reads play better when he can watch it build in front of him. He reacts well to slower plays, but he can get blown by if he has to make immediate reactions. Unfortunately, that happened twice, and the Dane was directly at fault for Sassuolo’s first goal.

6: Diogo Dalot Falters

Fullbacks need to play defense. Diogo Dalot struggled to hold players at bay and then threw away cross after cross in the attacking third. He led the team in interceptions against and blocked pass attempts. He coupled this by failing to hold back Domenico Berardi as the Italian started to take over the match in the second half. While he had some solid expected returns, his overall play hurt the team and led to the Sassuolo goals. You can provide as much offense as you want, but if two goals and 0.7 expected goals come from your side of the field, then you probably had a weak day. The Portuguese fullback had a terrible day.

7: This Is Concerning

The team is falling apart. Since the end of the winning run, Milan is 9-2-7 in league play, dropped out of the Coppa Italia, and lost to Manchester United FC in the Europa League. You cannot play to midtable results and expect to qualify for the Champions League. Before the loss to Juventus FC, the Rossoneri had a 33% chance of winning the league and an 82% chance of qualifying for the Champions League. Now, their Scudetto hopes are negligible, and they are the fifth most likely team to finish in the top four. This collapse is not like Liverpool FC or Borussia Dortmund, where the underlying numbers (expected statistics) have stayed positive, but finishing has gone against the squad. Milan is no longer winning expected goal matchups. Against ACF Fiorentina, the Rossoneri shut a team down and finished well but followed that up with three matches where they struggled to differentiate themselves from their opponents.

Losing to again could end all of the positive momentum the team created in 2020. Finishing fifth is unacceptable.

8: League Update

SSC Napoli won, Juventus won, Atalanta BC, and AS Roma drew. Currently, Milan has a 61% chance to finish in the top four, which is worse than Napoli’s 62% chance. For the first time this season, the Rossoneri are on the outside looking in for the Champions League places. The team is officially playing with fire, and they have to put it out before they throw away what was a seemingly guaranteed Champions League spot a few weeks ago. Pioli’s side needs to win out, which starts by beating SS Lazio.

9: Overall Thoughts

I am frustrated. Team focus has waned, and the offensive drive has fallen apart. If both aspects do not come back, then this mediocre run of form will continue. I am trying to understand the authentic “Milan.” I doubt this team or the one that accumulated the most points in the 2020 calendar year or is the one that is struggling so much now. I hope that the answer is the one closer to Scudetto contenders and not the midtable side. Sadly, both are possibilities. We will know more on matchday thirty-eight.