Why AC Milan haven’t convinced anyone yet
AC Milan had a solid transfer window with a wealth of key signings including; Bonucci, André Silva, Conti, Çalhanoglu, Rodriguez, Musacchio, Biglia, Kessié, and Kalinic. But manager Vincenzo Montella seems unsure of his new talent so far this campaign. After a 6th placed finish the previous season, marking Milan’s first return to Europe since 2014, you may have expected the club to make minor changes instead of massive overhauls. But with 11 new signings before the start of this 17/18 league campaign there seems to be a case of revolution and not evolution at the Italian giants.
A.C Milan opened their league campaign at Crotone, a club who spent £2.3m in the summer transfer window (pennies compared to the whopping £175m spent by Milan).
Vincenzo played his team in a 4-3-3 formation. An entirely new back four sat in front of keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Locatelli made up a centre trio with two more new signings Hakan Çalhanoglu and Franck Kessié; and new signing Fabio Borini made up a front three with Suso and youngster Cutrone.
7 of Milan’s team were new signings and only 3 had made first team starts for Montella the previous season; Locatelli (17), Suso (33) and Donnarumma (38). That leaves Cutrone, who only made 5 substitute appearances the previous season, but nobody could have predicted Cutrone’s fine form in the pre-season friendlies scoring twice for Milan against Bayern Munich and definitely put his name in the hat to play in front of new star André Silva.
Milan beat Crotone 3-0 following a 6th minute penalty, scored by Kessié. A headed goal by Cutrone after a cross by Suso into the 6 yard box. And a goal by Suso after Cutrone held the ball up and passed it back into the 18 yard box for Suso to finish low to the keeper’s left.
It was the start to the season Montella would have hoped for. Milan dominated possession with 80% of the ball. Crotone managed only 2 shots on target compared to Milan’s 10 and the team seemed to have great cohesion with a 90% pass success rate.
Milan went into their second game against Cagliari with relatively little changed. Playing the same 4-3-3 with Montolivo replacing Locatelli who dropped to the bench.
The game finished 2-1 to Milan. Cutrone again found the net in the 6 yard box, striking low in the 10th minute into the left corner of the net with his right foot following a far post cross by Suso. Cagliari equalised in the 56th minute of the second half with a strike in the 18 yard box by João Pedro. Suso put Milan ahead once again with a free kick from outside the box with his left foot, beating the keeper on his near side.
Whilst the game finished 2-1 some signs of cracks were beginning to show for Milan. Conceding 51% of the possession to Cagliari and allowing 14 shots at goal. Kessié’s performance was poor and a dispossession high up the pitch lead to the Cagliari goal after he failed to control the ball. However it was the performance of Hakan Çalhanoglu which was most concerning for Milan during the game. He made the second lowest number of passes on the pitch, with only Cutrone managing less; and had very little impact in comparison to the previous week against Crotone as his heatmaps showed.
Çalhanoglu vs Crotone
Çalhanoglu vs Cagliari
With Çalhanoglu playing the majority of his football centrally for his former club Leverkusen, Montella must surely look at playing him further up the pitch and more central behind the main striker to get the best out of him, or risk him becoming a major flop at the San Siro.
Despite Milan coming out on top, it’s arguable that Cagliari were the better team and deserved far more by the end of the game after a very average display by a disappointing Milan side.
Then came the game against Lazio, a team who would be at the top of the table challenging Milan for one of the top four Champions League spots come the end of the season. Montella once again played a 4-3-3, dropping Çalhanoglu to the bench following his poor display against Cagliari for the more defensive minded Biglia against his former team. The only other change was a like for like swap of Calabria for Conti.
Milan started well early, with Borini having several attempts in the first 20 minutes. But a quick fire double either side of each half from Lazio spelt the end for Milan. On the 38th minute Immobile buried a penalty kick to Donnarumma’s left after Kessié fouled Luis Alberto inside the box, his second mistake leading to a goal in two weeks. Immobile doubled his tally only 4 minutes later after Lulic spotted him on the other side of the box, crossing high before Immobile volleyed it into the bottom right corner of the net. Immobile completed his hattrick in the 48th minute after Lulic picked Parolo in the box, who back passed it into the path of Immobile striking it home into the left corner of the net just outside the 6 yard box. Only one minute later Immobile received a long ball and ran high up the pitch in a devastating counter attack, before picking out Luis Alberto who struck low just over the keeper in the 49th minute to make it 4-0 to Lazio.
Milan made two much needed changes in the 55th minute with Crutone and Borini coming off and Çalhanoglu and Kalinic coming on. Çalhanoglu made an impact almost immediately, blasting a shot from outside the box after hitting the Lazio wall during a free kick. The shot found Montolivo who rifled it home to the keeper’s right but, it only ended up being a consolation goal as Lazio won 4-1.
Çalhanoglu played much better making more passes in the 21 minutes he was on in this game than he did starting in his previous game. His heat map showed that he occupied a much higher space on the pitch and had a much bigger influence on the game.
Çalhanoglu vs Lazio
The two Milan full backs played extremely high up the pitch, and when they were back there was a real lack of communication with their fellow centre backs. Calabria pressed Radu, who passed the ball to Alberto who had the room to dribble into the space Calabria had left behind, leading to Kessié conceding the penalty. Immobile was not man marked inside the box on Calabria’s right hand side, Calabria followed the run of Alberto in front of him into the box, leaving Immobile free just behind, allowing Lulic to pick him out and volley it home for the second goal. For the third goal Lulic dribbled around Calabria who lost his feet, allowing Lulic to beat his man and pass it to Parolo in the box who set up Immobile’s and Lazio’s third goal. Calabria also played very narrow when Milan conceded their fourth goal. He offered to defensive support for the extremely deep Musacchio, who had to deal with Immobile alone when we broke into a Lazio Counter attack, he attempted to cover for Musacchio and block the Alberto shot but was not able to make it in time. Every goal could be linked back to Calabria, and you have to question Montella’s judgement when the more experienced Abate is sitting on the bench.
Montella offered a change from the previous week, with Milan sporting a whole new tactic against Udinese. Montella played a 3-1-4-2, with Musacchio, Bonucci and Romagnoli making up a back three in front of Donnarumma. Biglia played just behind a midfield four featuring two defensive wingers in Rodriguez and Calabria with Bonaventura and Kessié in the centre. Suso was given license to roam up to with a central target man in Kalinic.
Overall it was a much better performance defensively by Milan. Discounting the Udinese goal as a mistake, there wasn’t a lot wrong with Milan’s defense, but they certainly had problems going forward. There was such a lack of creativity as nobody was making any real chances. Milan seemed happy to pass the ball around and shoot at first sight instead of taking their time and make the extra pass to create better chances. You have to ask questions of Montella when he has Çalhanoglu, Montolivo, Borini and Silva on the bench. The defensive wingers had much more free reign to attack however, as the back three meant their defensive mistakes weren’t as costly in this game. Tactially Montella got it spot on defensively, but going forward Milan seem to be lacking clinical finishers and the key pass to create goals.
Montella going forward?
You can’t help but feel like Milan are always a mistake or two away from capitulation. Conceding 6 times in their opening 4 games, and 4 to Lazio. They have a habit of letting teams pressure them on the ball, and teams seem to force mistakes out of them. Milan should have kept a clean sheet to Cagliari and Udinese but it was little mistakes that allowed the opposition to snatch goals back. Whether it was Kessié getting caught out on the ball or a pass gone wrong you must consider whether or not playing from the back is the right way to go for Milan or whether Montella needs to tell his players to just get rid of the ball if they’re under pressure. In Kalinic you have an outlet you can pass the pall to from deep, he’s able to hold the ball up and provide an element of relief if a defence is under pressure. But in Çalhanoglu you have a player who can play in space who can play off Kalinic and allow the team to run ahead of him for him to spread the ball wide or dangerously to a striker ahead when an opposition defence is stretched.
Montella needs to find a way of playing and quick. You have André Silva who has already scored 5 goals for Milan in the Europa League, who is a Portuguese first team striker, and who has a wealth of experience from Porto but who can’t get a game in Serie A under Montella. He can’t keep overlooking him for long. Bonaventura played in central midfield against Udinese, but is primarily a left sided attacking playmaker but you have a central attacking midfielder in Çalhanoglu who was touted to move to a lot of top teams sitting on the bench. It all feels like a case of too many top players, but two few spaces in the first team.
In the end I think I can see Montella finding a 3-4-1-2 formation.
The back three worked well against Udinese and allowed the full backs to have a real influence on the game going forward without giving them too much responsibility at the back. Bonucci will feel familiar with a 3 from his times at Juventus and will know how to organise the more inexperienced Romagnoli to his left and Musacchio will have the speed to cover for Calabria on the right. Biglia alongside Kessié in midfield gives the team a defensive minded playmaker in Biglia, protecting the back three and dictating the tempo as he links the defence and the attack. Kessié can do the running beside Biglia, helping to pull players around provide Biglia and Çalhanoglu space while also helping to win the ball himself. Çalhanoglu up top will have space thanks to Kessie and Silva, but will also be helped by the two full backs providing width. He’ll be able to pick out Silva making runs, or even Kalinic when Silva helps to provide Kalinic with space by pulling away central defenders.
It’s not been a poor start to the season by Milan, but you can’t help but feel they have the players now to kick it up a gear. If not you may see them departing ways with Montella sooner than you think. With everything not quite okay with Ancellotti at Bayern, a return to the Rossoneri as soon as next summer might be what pushes Montella towards the door marked “exit” if he doesn’t start getting his team to produce the results the new Chinese owners had spent £175m to get. And that’s why Milan haven’t convinced anyone yet.