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9 Things: You Had One Job, AC Milan vs Cagliari Calcio, 0-0

From comfort to a mountain of anxiety… Sunday is going to be scary.

Rafael Leao of AC Milan reacts during the Serie A 2020/21... Photo by Fabrizio Carabelli/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

1: What the Analytics Said

AC Milan vs Cagliari 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 0 1.4(1.4) 21(3) 0.07 61%
Cagliari Calcio 0 0.5(0.5) 7(2) 0.07 39%
FBref and StatsBomb

If we recreated this match with the exact shots, chances, and moments, you would expect AC Milan to win this match around 60% of the time. Sadly, the Rossoneri settled for the second most likely outcome, a draw. The most significant chance of the game came from a Samu Castillejo missed volley when the Spaniard scooped the ball up instead of pushing it into a yawning goal. However, that is the story of the season for Milan’s home form. The second players have to travel to a new ground; they remember how to shoots and generate shots consistently. If they have home cooking, then forget about their shooting abilities. They just go away. This match was defined by a consistent problem for Stefano Pioli’s side all season. Who will create shots when the team becomes frustrated. It was evident again that players fell into old habits that stifled any offensive production. Too many shots came on the volley, from far away and without composure. That will always be enough to sink any performance.

2: Home Finishing

Other problems defined this match, but one that has consistently reared its ugly head is the lack of finishing at the San Siro. To date, Milan has generated 35.4 expected goals at home but has scored 31 times. To make matters worse, the Rossoneri have allowed 22 goals scheduled against but have surrendered 24 goals. Comparing these unfortunate results to Milan’s away performances tells a frustrating story. Pioli’s side has created 33.9 expected goals on their travels and has scored 41 actual goals. Their defensive success is much better, too, allowing 23.4 expected goals against while only getting scored on 17 times. Now, there is still one more away match, and these statistics will change, but it is evident that Milan is playing much better away than at home. Finishing is not the sole reason why this is occurring, but it is certainly a massive problem. Undershooting your expected goals is always an issue, but the level Milan is operating at the San Siro may be why the team misses the Champions League.

AC Milan Home and Away Form

Milan at Home Result Milan Goals Opponent Goals xG For xG Against Milan Away Result Milan Goals Opponent Goals xG For xG Against
Milan at Home Result Milan Goals Opponent Goals xG For xG Against Milan Away Result Milan Goals Opponent Goals xG For xG Against
Cagliari D 0 0 1.4 0.5 Atalanta
Benevento W 2 0 2.9 0.8 Torino W 7 0 3.9 1.1
Sassuolo L 1 2 1.3 1.9 Juventus W 3 0 1.2 1
Genoa W 2 1 1.2 1 Lazio L 0 3 1.5 1.9
Sampdoria D 1 1 1.2 0.7 Parma W 3 1 1.2 1.1
Napoli L 0 1 1 1.3 Fiorentina W 3 2 1.7 0.2
Udinese D 1 1 1.3 0.6 Hellas Verona W 2 0 0.7 0.7
Inter L 0 3 1 2.3 Roma W 2 1 3.2 2
Crotone W 4 0 2.5 0.6 Spezia L 0 2 0.4 1.9
Atalanta L 0 3 1.6 2.4 Bologna W 2 1 2.7 1.1
Torino W 2 0 1.6 0.6 Cagliari W 2 0 2 1.2
Juventus L 1 3 1.3 1.7 Benevento W 2 0 1.5 2.5
Lazio W 3 2 1.9 1.8 Sassuolo W 2 1 1.5 0.9
Parma D 2 2 1.8 0.6 Genoa D 2 2 1.5 1.2
Fiorentina W 2 0 2.6 0.3 Sampdoria W 2 1 2.5 1.1
Hellas Verona D 2 2 3.3 1.5 Napoli W 3 1 2.6 1.7
Roma D 3 3 2.6 2.3 Udinese W 2 1 1.1 1.1
Spezia W 3 0 2 0.2 Inter W 2 1 2.3 2.4
Bologna W 2 0 2.9 0.9 Crotone W 2 0 2.4 0.3
Milan Totals 8 - 6 - 5 31 24 35.4 22 Milan Totals 15 - 1 - 2 41 17 33.9 23.4
Fbref and StatsBomb

3: Why is This Happening

In hockey, there is a saying that players are “gripping the stick too tightly” when they are struggling. The Rossoneri have a similar problem when they play at home. Pioli’s offensive strategy was the same as it was against Juventus FC and Torino FC; the problem was execution and a disappearing act from half of the Milan forwards. Brahim Díaz struggled to beat his defensive marker with his dribbling, and Alexis Saelemaekers offered next to nothing offensively. Part of the issue was the reliance on crossing during the second half. Leonardo Semplici dropped his wingbacks deep and asked them to press wide while leaving his central midfielders as central as possible. This tactical plan trapped Theo Hernández forced Díaz and Hakan Çalhanoğlu to break through at least one line of three to reach Ante Rebić and placed the onus on Saelemakers or Castillejo to be the player to generate shots. In a more concise statement, Cagliari forced the two worst attacking shooters on the pitch for Milan to be the offensive force for the Rossoneri. Isolating the right side of Pioli’s lineup helped stunt the host’s attack. It was an effective strategy to hold Milan, and Semplici’s tactics earned a draw.

4: There Was A Lack of A Center Lane Drive

Milan did well to get to zone 14 on the field - the area just above the box - but struggles to turn any of that possession into passes into the box. The Rossoneri attempted 42 passes from this location, completing 32 of them. Of those 32, the team played 6 passes into the box, and with 3 of those successful. This is inefficient. Pioli’s squad failed to take advantage of their territorial dominance because of a lack of incisive passing. Two primary issues led to Milan’s offensive efficiency. Firstly, Çalhanoğlu and Díaz struggled to get into zone 14 to generate passes which pulled Rebić deeper, preventing any runs in behind the Cagliari backline. Secondly, when players got into zone 14, they consistently moved the ball wide to get players into crossing areas. These two problems stifle offense and push the team into bad habits. The entire team needs to pass centrally and look for players to make runs behind defenders. If Pioli emphasizes these runs against Atalanta BC, then Milan will look more potent offensively.

5: But You Need To Make Changes Faster

I do not understand the reliance on Mario Mandžukić whenever he is healthy. He does not do anything, and taking off Hakan to put on an entirely ineffective player makes no sense to me. Secondly, stop taking off Davide Calabria for Diogo Dalot. This change does not solve any of the offensive problems and has consistently failed to push the right buttons. Dalot’s crossing has been anything but good, and the Portuguese fullback struggles to cover the pitch like Davide. I would stop making this change, especially when the team needs a goal. Thirdly, two of the four changes were for midfielders or fullbacks. I understand the Díaz and Saelemaekrs switch, but again, why is Jens Petter Hauge being iced out of the side. He has deserved more time and has been more effective than Mandžukić or Castillejo this season. Please play him more. It will lead to more shot creation, and he can beat players, unlike the other two.

6: Are We Learning Something

Paolo Maldini needs to think about the functionality of his attack, specifically how players will create shots next season. Rebić revitalized his season in recent weeks, but he struggles to generate shots for himself. Every other Milan attacker, other than Rafael Leão, labors to create shots for themselves. Instead, they are looking to be a “fox in the box” style attacker or a passer. The Rossoneri need another player who can create space for themselves to make shots. That does not mean signing more players who like to shoot from a distance; it means having players that can beat opposition defenders, drive the ball forward, and generate dangerous shots for themselves. Maldini needs to focus on this need for Milan. If he does not, these problems could quickly arise next year.

7: Stop Shooting On The Volley

Milan took three volleys after dead ball scenarios against Cagliari. These shot attempts are next to impossible. Each one was either a leaping volley or a side volley - the hardest shot in soccer. To score a side volley from a clearance, you need to be sharply leaning over and have your hips way above the ball. If you get that right, you need to counteract the ball’s spin to get it on target. A handful of players in the top five European leagues will score a goal like this every season, and I believe that is enough reason to stop trying this shot. Better teams would recover the clearance and reset their offense instead of throwing away possession. Pioli needs to program that thinking into his side.

8: League Update

Well, Milan’s probability fell by a third. That is what happens when you miss out on an opportunity to defeat a team you are heavily favored to beat. Compounding this problem, the Rossoneri are the only team of three remaining Champions League-chasing squads not favored in their final match of the season. Still, Milan is more likely than Juventus to finish in the top four because of how many events would need to go against the club from the San Siro to miss out on the Champions League. However, it has to be emphasized how much Milan missed an opportunity against Cagliari. They had nothing to play for, had fought relegation all season, and hold a negative 17.8 expected goal differential which is the 16th worst in the league. The Rossoneri had to win this match, and they completely threw it away.

9: League Update

Milan blew a golden opportunity and now needs to equal or better SSC Napoli’s and Juventus’s results on the final day of the season. While not an impossible task, the team made their job that much more demanding. Now, they go into the final day of the season in pole position for one of the two final Champions League positions, but with the most challenging remaining game of the three teams. The team needs to execute sublimely and get back to their scintillating away form. Leaving the fate of the team in the hands of their rivals would be a terrible mistake. Pioli’s side needs to start strongly and put pressure on the other two chasing teams by halftime. Milan can qualify, but they have to play better. I believe they can.