1: What the Analytics Said
AC Milan vs Benevento Calcio
|NPxG per Shot
|NPxG per Shot
This is a comprehensive victory, and the first time AC Milan created more than 2.0 expected goals since the match on February 28th against AS Roma. The Rossoneri won a game they were expected to. If the hosts had lost this match, then their season-long goal of finishing in the top four would have been all but over. However, the Milanese club pulled out a comfortable and flashy victory full of individual expression and a few spurned chances. Franck Kessié and the trio behind Zlatan Ibrahimović provided the difference in the match, as, for the first time in weeks, the entire attacking quartet moved seamlessly and fluidly. Stefano Pioli’s plan to play Rafael Leão from the first minute provided an extra layer of shot creation that the whole Milan offense had been yearning for in recent weeks. While Benevento Calcio is far from an adept defensive outfit, it was reassuring to watch the Rossoneri take complete control of the entire 90 minutes. This is not a season-defining match, but it does let the team take steps forward in the Champions League race.
2: Attacking Stats
Each of the four starting attackers in red and black generated more than 0.5 expected goal contributions (xG + xA). Leão, Ibrahimović, Alexis Saelemaekers, and Hakan Çalhanoğlu had a combined 7 primary shot assists and 13 shots in total. That is a massive improvement from recent weeks where other offensive players have either been ineffective or wasteful. The Benevento match was a reminder of how an effective Milan attack looks. The wingers’ focused direction helped provide Ibrahimović with multiple players to play off or players to pass to in the box. That led to dynamism in the offensive play and helped pull around their opponent’s backline. There needs to be an attacking drive, and previous lineup plans have not led to stable or sustainable offense; this match stopped that trend. I would think long and hard about using this quartet again against Juventus FC. It worked here, and it could easily work again.
️ Highlight AC Milan 2-0 Benevento ⚫️pic.twitter.com/6aBPTTOSra— Milan Reports (@MilanReports) May 3, 2021
3: Little Zlatan Notes
The freedom provided to Milan’s star Swedish striker has led to an interesting tactical quirk that I believe Leão has seen. Ibrahimović likes to float into an area that you would expect a mezzala to occupy on the rights side of the field. Placing a support striker or inverted winger on the left side of the field provides a more adventurous runner that can lead the line while Zlatan floats deeper. This exploitation of the half-spaces near the box should provide Çalhanoğlu more freedom to inflict his will either centrally or in the half-space on the left side of the field. When the two of them are in sync, it opens up acres of space and passing options for Milan players to break into: it stagnates the offensive drive when it does not. Again, I think Leão did well to recognize the opening space in front of him, and instead of staying wide, he moved slightly inward to help facilitate movement or runs. Kessié noticed this as well and took advantage of the space available to him between Zlatan and Hakan. This provides overloads and late runners running by an opposition defense and offering matchup overloads to defenders. I like this plan and think it will keep working in future matches.
4: Ismaël Bennacer Has A Ways To Go
Milan’s Algerian midfielder has struggled to acclimate himself back into the starting lineup. His defensive actions have been passable, but he is struggling to progress play aptly. I wonder how much still comes down to his nursing injuries, mainly because he was visibly uncomfortable after getting dragged down in the first half. I expect Bennacer to continue to work himself back into match fitness, and I am not overly concerned. He will start to view the space in front of him more and connect intelligent passes. That will unlock a level of progressive play that the Rossoneri have missed for multiple months. He is still the best progressive midfielder the team has, and his absence has hurt the squad. It will take time, but he will be back to his old ways soon.
Bennacer playing with fire, already booked and second tackle that referee played advantage, Benevento player still on the ground.— The AC Milan-Godfather (@ACMilanSydney) May 1, 2021
5: Glad To See Someone Playing the Error
Some of the best players on the planet will make runs that are designed to take advantage of the possibility of an error by an opposition player. On the match’s opening goal, Çalhanoğlu made a run that played the possibility of a mistake by a Benevento defender. When the error inevitably happened - the error was Luca Caldirola steeping up too high to cover Hakan - the Turkish midfielder expertly slotted the ball into the goal. Kessié noticed Caldirola’s mistake as well and dummied the ball so that the pass could reach Hakan. Both players made a fantastic decision, and it led to an opening goal.
BEAUTIFUL interplay between Hakan and Kessie and Hakan smacks the ball into the bottom corner. 1-0— The AC Milan Øffside (@SBNRossonero) May 1, 2021
6: Stil Having Problems With Center Back Decisions
Fikayo Tomori and Alessio Romagnoli both struggled with their timing on their few moments of action during the match. While neither player had anywhere close to the problems the backline experienced against SS Lazio, there were still moments where Gianluca Lapadula would take advantage of an imperfect step up by either center back. Fortunately for Milan, Benevento does not possess the attacking quality to punish poor defensive decision-making properly. I am still concerned about the center-back play, which could lead to a tumultuous match against Juventus.
7: League Update
I am starting this one part early this week because I want to talk about the Juventus game at the end of this article. Well, FC Internazionale has won the league already, and I do not like that. Hopefully, the Rossoneri will start nipping at the heals of the league leaders and providing a better title pursuit. Milan is young but needs help this summer to take the next step forward in the entire team’s development. As the title race closed, the top four race heated up.
Firstly, Atalanta BC and SSC Napoli both dropped points during match week 34. These dropped points have reshuffled the dynamic of the race for the Champions League spots. Now, Milan controls their destiny in the race for the most prestigious European competition. However, that does not mean that Pioli’s side is favored to stay in the top four positions. Because of the brutal end to the season, Napoli is still the fourth most likely team to qualify for the Champions League per FiveThirtyEight. Milan will play two of the four teams vying for the last three Champions League spots, while Napoli does not face a team higher than tenth in the league table. Maybe the Partenponei will falter again against these smaller teams, but I am not confident in that. The Rossoneri have one option, win out. The team’s magic number is ten now.
8: Overall Thoughts
The expected team won. It is not controversial to say that Benevento is not at the same level as Milan, and this match reinforced that knowledge. Even though we expected this result, it does not mean that it was not crucial. Every point counts for the same amount, and the Rossoneri will need every single one they can get in the last four games. Milan needs to finish in the top four, and missing out now would be unacceptable. This win was another step towards a first Champions League appearance in years. A win against Juventus could almost guarantee our place.
The Bianconeri, under Andrea Pirlo, have played a rotating 4-4-2 and 3-5-2. Generally, Juan Cuadrado will push upfield, with one of the right-sided outside midfielder shading centrally and forward and the left-sided midfielder providing width but being allowed to cut inside. One of the two forwards will have a free role, and the other, typically Álvaro Morata, playing as a proper striker. All you need to do against some teams is stop one or two players, and you will likely win. Unfortunately, Juventus have a plethora of elite-level players playing way below their true talent this season. That means that Milan needs to stay on guard all match. Suppose Pioli’s men can shut off passing lanes to the midfield duo of Adrien Rabiot and Rodrigo Bentancur and isolate Cuadrado. In that case, there is a chance that Juventus will get trapped in their defensive third. That could be enough to defeat Pirlo’s side, especially if Milan can drive at the gap left behind by Cuadrado or the aging pair of Giorgio Chiellini and Alex Sandro. The Rossoneri have defeated the Bianconeri again, but this match will not be easy. Both teams are playing for the right to play in the Champions League so expect a feisty encounter. It is going to be exciting and hopefully one to celebrate at the end of the year. Milan needs to win.