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9 Things: Fell Apart, AC Milan vs SS Lazio, 0-3

It could easily be over now.

Hakan Calhanoglu of AC Milan looks dejected during the Serie... Photo by Antonietta Baldassarre/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images

1: What The Analytics Said

AC Milan vs SS Lazio

Teams Goals xG(NPxG) Shots(On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
Teams Goals xG(NPxG) Shots(On Target) NPxG per Shot Possession
AC Milan 0 1.6(1.6) 16(5) 0.1 59%
SS Lazio 3 2.0(2.0) 14(5) 0.14 41%
FBref and StatsBomb

For weeks I wrote about how important it is to beat the smaller sides as we sprint towards the end of the season. Article after article focused on how crucial the matches against teams in mid-table obscurity or fighting for salvation would be for AC Milan. The Rossoneri then drew Udinese Calcio and UC Sampdoria, lost to SSC Napoli - not a small team, but a massive loss - US Sassuolo Calcio, and have now lost to SS Lazio. The match in Rome feels like a demise, not to be overly negative, but as a team, fanbase, and group, it feels like a culmination of something. The past sixteen months gave every Milanisti a mountain of victories and stories to get inspired and excited. However, without a change of form and fortune, Stefano Pioli’s side will miss the Champions League, and the manager will hold onto his reputation of inconsistency.

This match, while close on expected goals, was rarely in doubt. An early flurry left Milan trailing from the second minute, and while the team slowly clawed their way back into contention, they never took control of the fixture. The key difference? Joaquín Correa. The Argentinian support-striker netted two goals and created 1.4 expected goals. He showed what elite technical abilities could mean on the field. Simone Inzaghi gave Ciro Immobile’s attacking partner the freedom to express himself, and it paid off immensely. Lazio found success in playing counter-attacking soccer, and Pioli never adjusted his game plan to halt the Biancolesti’s offensive success. That led to the consistent breakaways and explosive counters against Milan. No one modified, no one looked to fix the evident problems.

2: Problem 1: What On Earth Was the Backline Doing

Of all the problems, this was the worst. Fikayo Tomori and Simon Kjӕr do not know who should be the aggressive center back and who should be passive. Both players stepped into midfield with regularity. The duo’s failure to communicate who was joining the midfield to challenge opposition players hurt the partnership’s unity and their fullback’s ability to cover the resulting hole in the backline. On the first goal, Kjӕr steeped far into the midfield to stop a possible wide attack by Lazio. The Dane dragged himself out of place to pressure a player in a non-dangerous section of the field. He aimed to support Ismaël Bennacer - which he did not - and instead left a massive gap as the play broke in Lazio’s favor. Kjӕr then failed to challenge the ensuing pass appropriately and left a chasm behind him. These failures made Davide Calabria have to scramble to close down Correa before he got to the goal. The channel Kjӕr left gave Correa the window he needed to punish the Rossoneri early in the match.

Another of the many problematic plays for this backline duo was Tomori’s inexplicable play to reassert Milan’s attacking pressure by heading a ball to no one and stranding Kjӕr with Manuel Lazzari. Tomori made a reaching pass that ricocheted off of Franck Kessié and landed at the feet of a Biancolesti player. Because of this reaching pass, the Englishman abandoned his coverage responsibility, surrendered the ball, and failed to recover in time. He should not have jumped up into the play this much and should have opted to fall back into his position. Instead, he chose the more aggressive play and was out of place. Not to pound on Tomori, but he was entirely unprepared to stop Correa on his second goal. Instead of ushering the Argentinian to a wider location, Tomori failed to keep the Lazio support striker in front of him. Correa took advantage of this opening and turned Milan’s loanee center-back, creating a free lane to shoot.

These individual plays aggravated Milan’s constant inability to step up and close down opposition players when they were on the ball. This has been a consistent problem all year. The Rossoneri backline routinely let dangerous players have the time to line up shots or take advantage of openings provided by a lack of coverage. Ciro Immobile’sgoal came because of a lack of coverage, and this was the same problem that led to Giacomo Raspadori’s double against the team last week. These problems are sinking the team.

3: Problem 2: Poor Midfield Plays, Structure, and Effect

Bennacer had a day to forget. While I lamented Kjӕr’s play on Lazio’s opening goal, that play probably would have gone unpunished if the Algerian midfielder did not entirely miss control a routine ball. He then coupled this play with largely ineffective passing and a refusal to move the ball at pace. Sometimes you would see him get his legs moving and look like the best version of Bennacer, and then he would ruin his progress by playing a wild pass to no one. These plays suffocated Milan’s attacking drive and surrendered even more to the Lazio attack. Usually, you expect Bennacer to make electric plays and push play positively. Sadly we missed that in the Capitol.

For Kessié, I had less of an issue with his play and a more significant problem with his deployment late in the match. When Sandro Tonali entered the field, Kessié played in the attacking midfield line. I believe this plan made Milan more susceptible to counter-attacking soccer and did not provide any offensive boost. He almost scored at the very end of the match, but his deployment stifled the Rossoneri midfield.

4: Problem 3: Theo

Oh, boy, was Theo Hernández terrible. The Frenchman had one pioneering run, but he repeatedly turned the ball over and wasted possession upon possession. I have lamented his play for weeks on end, and when his offensive drive is failing, Theo is typically a net negative. He constantly gives up mountains of space behind him and struggles to help break play forward through his passing. He is a runner, and if he cannot run, then Theo is easy to trap. The French left-back has miles to go in his development and desperately needs to add more defensive ability. He can be elite, but he is not at the moment.

5: Problem 4: The Right Backs

Another noticeable issue is that no one is hitting switches to Davide Calabria. The Italian fullback was in acres of space for vast stretches of the match, and no one looked to him. He got on the ball the few times he drove play forward, but Calabria so rarely received passes that he struggled to do much on the pitch. Instead, he limited offensive forays by Lazio and at least was not directly responsible for a cavalcade of chances for the opponents. Also, stop playing Diogo Dalot. The Portuguese player struggles to cross, defend, and break play forward. Leave Davide on the field and let him continue to do what he does, drive play forward and cross well.

Disclaimer: I do not care about goals from fullbacks. They are cool and fun additives but are far from the most crucial thing a fullback does.

6: Problem 5: The Attack

Pioli needs to play Rafael Leão as a support striker. Until that happens, he will struggle. The Portuguese man is not a solo striker. He needs the support of another player to create offense. The thing is, when he plays in a unit, he always generates danger. Banging our head against the wall and asking him to be something he is not is foolish.

In tandem, play Jens Petter Hauge. Why Pioli has locked him onto the bench for weeks on end is beyond me. He has the tools to turn into a difference-maker, yet whenever the team is dying for a goal, Milan’s manager puts on pass-first, poor shooting, attacking midfielders. Hauge has a direct, shoot-first approach, and while some fans may lament a young man who has received limited chances, I believe he should see much more game time. Hauge can turn into something unique, and marooning him would cost the Rossoneri dearly.

7: League Update

It happened. Milan is now at 39% to qualify for the Champions League. I say we do not make the top four. This has been an utter collapse. The team has fallen apart ever since the matches against Atalanta BC and FC Internazionale, who are 96% and 99% qualified for the premier European competition. Napoli now sits at 78% to finish in the top four, with their most likely position to be third. That, in my opinion, is deserved. Gennaro Gattuso’s men have been storming up the table for weeks, with Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens reminding the entire league what elite-level attackers can do— score a lot of goals. While it came at the demise of Milan, the Partoponei deserve their position in the table. Napoli has the quality of players to go to Europe. That shows in their recent performances and will show more when they play in the Champions League next season.

Juventus FC is the last team I believe Milan can reasonably catch because the Rossoneri play them again. No one can argue that Pioli’s side is more skilled than Andrea Pirlo’s, but there is a chance that the rookie coach will continue to sink his side’s performances. Maybe Milan pulls themselves back into the top four, but as I have said for multiple months, the Rossoneri need to beat all of the lesser teams they play. If they cannot do that, then forget the top four.

8: Stefano Pioli

If we miss the top four, I would move on from Pioli. He has provided exquisite initial results throughout his career and then immediately blown up outstandingly. Maybe if this were a one-off and he did not have this cursed past, I would feel differently, but this happened at ACF Fiorentina, Inter Milan, and Lazio. This is a reality of Pioli. When his teams fall, they fall fast - remember, he almost got Fiorentina relegated. The euphoria of finally watching a dangerous Milan side blinded me, but the team has played to the same level as Sassuolo for months now. Maybe the Rossoneri need a complete manager who excels in player development. While I hope for a different outcome this time, it seems that Pioli has collapsed again and is dragging Milan down

9: Overall Thoughts

I feel defeated. The Lazio game broke me. I do not know what else to say. These past few months have made me miss the banter era. There were no promises of success, no hope, no falsities. Now, the Rossoneri need to beat Juventus and Atalanta to keep their top-four dreams alive. I struggle to picture a world where we see Milan Champions League soccer at the San Siro next season. I have more questions than answers, and I do not know where the team will go. Changes are needed, and a proper plan needs to come to fruition immediately. This season is salvageable if Pioli can simply adjust the roles of the positions he has already created. Play a 4-4-2, have two strikers rotate off each other, use a three-person midfield more, and make one of the center-backs play a structural game. These are not massive changes, but they can make changes that save our top-four hopes. That should be enough.