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9 Things: What A Weird Season, AC Milan vs Juventus FC, 3-0

I cannot make heads or tails of this entire season. Is everyone good? Is no one good? I genuinely do not know.

Ante Rebic (C) of AC Milan celebrates with his teammates... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs Juventus FC

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 1.3(0.6) 10(5) 0.06 44%
Juventus FC 0 1.0(1.0) 16(1) 0.06 56%
FBref and StatsBomb

Finishing is a talent, and on three occasions, an AC Milan player finished a shot that they may never score again - particularly Brahim Díaz and Ante Rebić. However, if someone were to say, “this game should have been a draw,” I would wholeheartedly disagree. No argument justifies surrendering three goals and believing that your team should have won. I said this when Milan won xG and lost to FC Internazionale 4-2 in last year’s away derby, and I said this after the recent 3-0 loss to SS Lazio. Expected goals are an excellent way to measure the sustainability of form or provide us with a robust measure of individual chances. However, it can misrepresent single games on occasion because of situational play or actions. The Rossoneri probably would not score three goals in this manner ever again, but there was also a possibility that this match might have ended 4-0. The critical realization is that Milan won comfortably on the scoresheet and hampered Juventus’s ability to generate offense for most of the game. When the visiting side added some exquisite finishing, that was enough to walk away with all three points.

The chase for the remaining three Champions League spots has been blown open, and now, Stefano Pioli’s side needs 6 points to cement their place in these spots on the table. They are so close.

2: He Steals the Day

Milan’s Spanish youngster, Brahim, stole the show in his 69-minute appearance, recording 4 shots, 2 successful dribbles, 142 progressive yards, and 1 goal. He proved to be too much to handle for the Juventus backline as his success on the ball led to multiple dangerous opportunities for the Rossoneri. His final shot attempt of the match resulted in a penalty that Franck Kessié uncharacteristically missed.

While Díaz did not have the stamina to last the match’s entirety, he provided an inspired performance that propelled Milan toward all three points. His actions created about 1.1 expected goals and 1 actual goal. That is an inspired performance in my eyes. Brahim will need to continue to develop his playstyle, but he did not back down from a tough test.

3: Tactics Time

Pioli decided to deploy two players who fit more into a traditional center attacking midfielder role in this fixture. Díaz played well with Hakan Çalhanoğlu as the two occupied two freer positions that helped splice through the Bianconeri midfield and backline. When Hakan dropped deep to support ball progression through the midfield, the Spanish attacking midfielder supported Zlatan Ibrahimović at the top of Milan’s attack. That plan facilitated attacking movement further up the pitch and gave Alexis Saelemakers more time to help Davide Calabria or find space out wide. The fluidity of Milan’s front four pulled the Juventus backline around, especially Giorgio Chiellini and Juan Cuadrado, and opened shooting lanes and gaps between players in Andrea Pirlo’s backline.

Defensively, Pioli rested on his laurels and continued with his traditional plan of pulling Saelemaekers deep to support Ismaël Bennacer and Kessié. Along with Hakan’s deeper role, the Belgian’s inclusion allowed Theo Hernández to take advantage of the acres of space presented to him. In typical fashion, Kessié moved into Theo’s position when the Frenchman drove upfield. That provided necessary offensive support down the left, thanks to Theo, and defensive coverage, thanks to Franck. It all culminated in a tactically balanced Milan side that only suffered one breakdown at the beginning of the second half.

4: What Stifled Juventus

I have just described some of what stopped the nine-in-a-row scudetto winners, but many of their issues originated from their horrid passing and a lack of connection between the midfield and forwards. Inexplicably, Pirlo pushed Federico Chiesa - the undisputed man of the match in the reverse fixture - to the left side of the Juventus formation, placing him in Calabria’s clutches. In doing so, the Bianconeri lost most of their drive down the right-wing, asking Cuadrado to run the entire flank. While some of this was to let the Colombian go head-to-head with Theo, it also seemed designed to let Weston Mckennie cut towards the top of the box to provide more offensive movement, which did not happen. Instead, it opened up a chasm in the Juventus backline that even De Ligt struggled to manage (De Ligt is incredible; I will not hear any slander).

Compounding these problems was the lack of control Adrien Rabiot and Rodrigo Bentancur had on the match. The French midfielder at least held his own throughout the game, but his Uruguayan counterpart struggled immensely to complete passes, stifle opposing attacks, and progress play forward. Rabiot attempted to do more of the heavy lifting, but his role is more expansive than Bentancur’s, so he struggled to be everywhere at once. All of these problems led to an exposed backline and a completely unorganized attack. There is a reason why Juventus managed only a 0.06 NPxG per shot. Their game plan almost excluded Cristiano Ronaldo and Álvaro Morata, who were utterly isolated from the other eight outfield players. Placing Paulo Dybala on the pitch for the remaining twelve minutes could have, in theory, sparked some additional offense. Still, he did not have enough time to inflict his will - another Pirlo failure. These problems stagnated Juventus’ entire team and led to a toothless, long-range shooting team that struggled to penetrate the box.

As a family member has said about another team in the top five European leagues, each member of Juventus, especially offensively, looked like they had not met each other before. I will echo that sentiment for this Juventus game.

5: What Are The Goalies Doing

In 2019/20, Gianluigi Donnarumma ranked as the 16th best goalie in the big five European Leagues in post-shot goals, saved above-expected total (PSxG +/-) and 19th in PSxG +/- per 90. Wojciech Szczęsny ranked 47th in PSxG +/- total and 35th in PSxG +/- per 90. One hundred eight goalkeepers played enough minutes to qualify in these rankings in 2019/20, so to put it lightly, these two players range from very good to elite in the most critical goaltending statistic. However, both Szczęsny and Donnarumma made wild decisions with regularity in this fixture. Milan’s backstop decided to rush out into midfield to play a ball, which he failed to properly clear, then had to reorient himself yards away from his goal to play the ball out of danger. He added to that moment of insanity by struggling to make claims or punches in the box, one of which led to the first of Chiellini’s two shots during the match.

Szczęsny failed to properly punch Çalhanoğlu’s initial freekick that led to Díaz’s opening goal. The Polish netminder added to his problems when he left himself in no-man’s land while the Spanish midfielder lined up the top corner of the net. Szczęsny’s play here led directly to a goal against and Milan’s lead at halftime. He would make up for his error by saving a penalty, but he then let in two goals with a combined xG of 0.2, which is rough.

Neither keeper covered himself in glory, and while it led to a more entertaining match, it did not show their remarkable abilities. Quite the opposite if you asked me.

6: Pull Up, Swerve

I lamented Rebić’s introduction on Twitter and to some friends, but wow, did he deliver with one of his 18 touches. His long-range effort completely fooled Szczęsny and found the top corner of the goal in sublime style. I honestly did not expect that to happen, primarily because of how unusual goals from there are. He turned the match on its head and provided the Rossoneri with a cushion to push forward and defend their two-goal lead. If he had missed this shot, then maybe Juventus would have continued to make gains, especially after being bolstered by the penalty save. Instead, Rebić created a hill too tall to climb and reinforced Milan’s advantage and spirit in the game.

7: Tomori Deserves Praise

Not only did the Englishman score the very crucial third goal, but he also made the most tackles plus interceptions of any player on the pitch with 5. He then decided to block 5 shots and 3 passes - all in a day’s work. Fikayo Tomori was on inspired form and showed every Milan fan what a center-back with pace could bring to their side: game-saving recovery abilities and a knack for preventing total defensive breakdowns. Tomori was a steadying presence and provided a goal that completely reshapes the Champions League race in Italy. His potential transfer fee could more than pay for itself just by scoring in the Allianz. He has mattered.

8: League Update

My word.

So I want to clarify the wildness in the Champions League probabilities over the last few weeks. Firstly, FiveThirtyEight uses an SPI that ranks each team on their offense and defensive abilities, which helps give them their ranking. Their SPI ranks teams based on how FiveThirtyEight’s model thinks how many goals a team would score or allow against an average team in a neutral venue. The more goals scored or fewer goals allowed results in a better or worse SPI rating. FiveThirtyEight then uses this information, plus the final few matches from the team’s previous season, for two-thirds of their SPI rating and the other third from Transfermarkt’s club valuation. Italy’s resulting rankings are, in order, Inter Milan, Atalanta BC, Juventus, SSC Napoli, Milan, SS Lazio, AS Roma (there is a sizable drop to UC Sassuolo Calcio).

In recent weeks, Napoli has taken off and hit an extraordinary run of form, same with Atalanta, while Milan and Juventus both struggled. This has led to intense reshuffling and changes in the hopes of every team fighting for the final three Champions League spots. Now, Milan stands at 85% to finish in the top four, compared to their May 3rd probability of 45%. That is how important the match against Juventus was; it almost doubled the Rossoneri’s chances of playing in the Champions League. The Bianconeri experienced the opposite of Milan, having their probability slashed by over half, falling from 75% on May 3rd to 35% after their loss. Milan now needs to win, or have Juventus drop, 6 points to qualify for the Champions League. The two massive away victories in the Diego Maradonna and the Allianz would give the Rossoneri the better head-to-head records against Napoli and Juventus (Milan won the goal differential battle against both clubs). That means that a victory against Torino FC and Cagliari Calcio would guarantee their qualification to the Champions League. Juventus cannot finish with more than 78 points, and even if they tie Milan in the standings, they will sit below the Rossoneri because they lost the aggregate score over their two matches. Two wins, and Milan plays in Europe’s most prestigious competition. It really is that simple.

9: Overall Thoughts

It is not over yet. Everyone needs to remember that. While Pioli’s side has a 52% probability of beating Torino and a 59% probability against Cagliari, that does not mean that these points are secured - both probabilities are per FiveThirtyEight. These are absolute must-win matches and the easiest route to the Champions League. This has been a tumultuous season, but winning against Juve in Turin may have completely changed the course of the Rossoneri. Pioli and Co need to finish the job. They really are that close, and throwing it away would be crushing. Just win twice.