Few tilts were high-scoring and intense up until the final whistle in this round and Juventus-Milan was the most meaningful one out of the bunch. The Bianconeri came into the game looking to get closer or possibly clinch the title with an advantageous combination of results that would have to start with a win, while the Devil were seeking to rebound after three unsatisfactory results, as they had recently lost to Sampdoria and Inter and tied with Udinese.
The French international has been an important figure in Gennaro Gattuso’s side this season, after joining on a season long loan from Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea back in August 2018.
He has played in 24 of Milan’s 30 Serie A games in 2018-19, with 10 in Europa League and cup action for the San Siro club.
Goals galore in few matches in a very exciting Serie A weekend, which culminated in a riveting Derby della Madonnina that easily took home the coveted shout-out.
Milan approached the game looking to carry on the momentum that led them to snatching the third position away from the crosstown rivals with five straight wins. Inter prevailed in the last two Serie A matches, but just endured a bitter elimination from Europa League by the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt.
Let me take you back to last November. Milan couldn’t keep a clean sheet to save their lives and then In the span of a few weeks, the rossoneri lost Lucas Biglia, Giacomo Bonaventura, Alessio Romagnoli, Mattia Caldara and Mateo Musacchio to injuries forcing Gattuso to reinvent Ignazio Abate as a center back, give a bigger role to Bakayoko (who had been such a flop there was talk he would go back to Chelsea in January) and hope Gonzalo Higuain would carry his team on his back despite him being less than fully fit.
Be honest, did you think Milan had any chance of qualifying for the Champions League back then? If dealing with all of those injuries wasn’t enough, Gattuso had to also manage all the drama surrounding Higuain, who constantly looked like someone who had just been told his dog died, a player who left Milanello even faster than his former Juventus teammate Leonardo Bonucci and integrate Paqueta and Piatek into his squad on the fly.
Even for a manager with a lot of experience, this would have been a lot to ask- never mind one who had only coached in Serie A for about a calendar year and who had been hired from the club’s previous regime. While we often focus on Gattuso’s limitations tactically and his penchant for some ill timed substitutions, it’s now time to give him some credit.
It took awhile, but now Milan find themselves with one of the best defenses in Serie A. After a very problematic season on and off the pitch in 2017/18, Gigio Donnarumma is living up to being the highest paid goal keeper in Serie A- he’s also made sure the Azzurri don’t skip a beat in the post Buffon era. Davide Calabria has shown so much improvement that despite coming back from an injury, the highly rated Andrea Conti will have to wait a bit more to play regularly.
New captain Alessio Romagnoli has ended the debate on who is better between him and Daniele Rugani and is now considered the future leader of the Azzurri’s backline. Despite Mattia Caldara’s injury, Gattuso has been able to give Romagnoli a strong defensive partner by rotating Musacchio, Zapata and Abate very well. If Milan can now get either Ricardo Rodriguez or Diego Laxalt going they would be all set on defense for years to come.
For the past few seasons, the midfield has been a big pain for the rossoneri. But Gattuso has been able to turn the unit around by working closely with Bakayoko and turning him back into the player who made the Champions League team of the season at Monaco. Milan’s manager used the carrot and the stick approach with Bakayoko by criticizing him publicly while also working with him individually and he has now turned him into a player who looks like a bargain despite having an option to buy of around 40 million euro.
Speaking of transfer values, when the Paqueta deal was made official, many pointed out that it was a huge risk for Milan to invest 30 million plus bonuses on a young player with no Serie A experience at a time that the rossoneri were financially hamstrung because of Financial Fair Play. Fast forward to six weeks later and Paqueta has brought the unpredictability that Milan lacked in the midfield in recent years.
Paqueta hasn’t of course been the only brilliant January addition at Milanello. Piatek has drawn comparisons to Shevchenko after his brilliant start at the club, and now looks like a bargain at 35 million euro despite Milan failing to land the speedy winger their fans were demanding in the last week of the transfer window. It’s not easy for a manager to integrate one starter mid season, but Gattuso has been able to do so with a player completely new to the league and one who had just arrived last summer.
Like many others, I was rather skeptical when Milan hired Gattuso to replace Montella- he just seemed destined to be another former club legend after Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi who would end up as a sacrificial lamb. But what Gattuso lacks in experience, he has more than made up with his ability to motivate his players- most of which look ready to jump in a fire for him.
Despite all the challenges with injuries, integrating new players, off field drama, Gattuso has the team right where the club expected at the start of the season- they’re very much in contention for a Champions League spot, have a legitimate chance at winning the Coppa Italia, especially with Juventus and Napoli being eliminated- when you consider all of these factors, it’s hard to envision Gattuso not getting the chance to start next season as Milan’s coach- he has shown he deserves the opportunity to grow alongside his young team.
There were a couple of compelling and down-to-the-wire matches in this round, but the most anticipated one did not disappoint, even though it was not the highest scoring one, so Roma-Milan gets the shout-out.
Roma were coming off four hellish days, as they wasted a three-nothing lead against Atalanta in Serie A play and more importantly were smoked by Fiorentina in Coppa Italia. The vultures have started gathering over Eusebio Di Francesco’s head, even though the recent results were actually fine, but obviously a 1-7 loss in a big black eye. Quite the opposite for Milan, who immediately reaped the benefits on their investment on Krzysztof Piatek, who carried them past Napoli in the domestic cup, and had tied with the Azzurri in the previous round. Continue reading
Juventus: Sami Khedira should be back to the squad list after missing time with an ankle sprain. Joao Cancelo, Juan Cuadrado (knee) and Andrea Barzagli are not expected to return in 2018.
Napoli: Simone Verdi is likely to be called up as he has been working with the rest of the team for a week now. Mario Rui missed the last game due to muscle fatigue and has been excluded from the squad list again. Alex Meret has a sore shoulder that needs to be monitored. Allan has been ruled out due to back pain.
Inter: Kwadwo Asamoah is suspended. Matias Vecino (thigh) and Dalbert (calf) have been on the sidelines for the last few games, but they will be available. Joao Miranda is fatigued and is very likely to miss the game. Continue reading
Most of the fixtures were lopsided in the weekend, but Udinese-Milan, albeit decided by a single goal, was intense and certainly a ton of fun. The Bianconeri were coming off a 2-2 tie against Genoa on the road, which gave Julio Velazquez some breathing room after four losses in a row. The Devil prevailed in the midweek make-up game against the Griffon and therefore racked up four wins in the past five games.
The Argentinian coach tinkered with his system, using Ignacio Pussetto as trequartista, giving Hidde Ter Avest his first start on the flank and deploying Rodrigo De Paul in the midfield over a more defensive option. Continue reading
Talking about AC Milan competing for any championship these days sounds odd to hear. The Rossoneri are years away from becoming the force that once conquered European club football. And on the domestic front, it’s difficult to imagine them breaking Juventus stranglehold of the league, at least, not in the nearest future.
After last Sunday the 1-1 draw against Cagliari, Milan Legend Paolo Maldini Summarized the current status of the team in a very reflective statement. “Being the anti-Juventus? Let’s be serious, we’re still a long way off being that. We’re aiming to reach the top four in the league and have a great run in the Europa League. Projects are important, but you can’t yet compare Milan to Juventus.”
One big take out from this comment is the admission by the former Iconic Milan Captain that, the Rossoneri will not win the Europa League. Sure, Milan are looking to have a great run in the competition, but how far can they go, quarter-final or Semi-final? And will that be a prudent use of their current strength or a focus discussion on securing fourth place in Serie A should be the way to go.
Despite the improvement in key areas this season, Milan’s performance last season suggest they need to choose between the Europa League and fourth place in Serie A. And for a club of Milan’s stature qualification for Champions league should be the Holy Grail.
Milan started very well in the qualification round of the Europa League last season, before witnessing some disappointing results and insipid display during the group stage. However, it became a platform for players such as Andre Silva and Fabio Borini to make a case for a starting place in the team which did not quite materialised. The Portugal international, Silva, who is currently on loan at Sevilla could not translate his European form into domestic performance.
Gannaro Gattuso managed to take Milan to the round 16th of Europe’s second tier competition, but stumbled against English side Arsenal both at home and away grounds. Notwithstanding the Gunners ordeal during that time in their English Premier League, which read eight points behind fourth place, the chasm in quality, maturity and organisation was huge. Of course, Arsenal had a crop of players who had been together for quite a long time whiles the Rossoneri were going through what one will describe as a teething problem.
The Europa League could disrupt Milan’s domestic campaign, as it can put a strain on the squad. Compared to last season, Gattuso has got a bigger group of players must be tactful in how he rotates the lads whiles guarding against injuries. The inclusion of Samu Castilljo, Diego Laxalt, Tiémoué Bakayoko and Alen Halilović could provide the Diavolo cover in crucial moments. The team still awaits the return of right back Andrea Conti from rehabilitation after a long spell in the treatment room.
Milan kick start their campaign against Dudelange in Group F which also has the likes Real Betis and Olympiacos. They will qualify and possibly lead the group, but do they have the quality to compete against some of the big dogs who may fall from the Champions league. How would Milan fair against teams like Chelsea, Arsenal, Sevilla or even Olympiacos and Real Betis in the group stage.
From an administrative perspective participation in the Europa league is a great call because it comes with some financial incentives, whiles from a supporter’s point of view, this an opportunity to witness European football at the San Siro, especially, when their rivals from the blue side of the City, Inter Milan, are involved in the bigger one, the Champion League.
It’s early days yet but, Milan’s domestic form isn’t that great and Maldini had some few words on how the team can develop “What to improve? We have to try to accelerate the growth of experience, we have an opportunity and the results of the other teams show it. The team is not yet aware of how strong it is, many guys have not realized how much they can give. Dialogue with us directors could be important for them”.
Certainly, having a discussion with the squad could do a lot for their confidence and provide them with a sense of self believe, but the bigger problem is, there are a few reliable players in this group.
Milan must choose between spending their energies in finishing fourth in Seire A or risk being derailed by their participation in the Europa League as they do not have the quality to compete against the big guns in the competition.
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“Biglia? It may seem like Lucas is my son, but these are players with precise characteristics. When I say that he is irreplaceable, I say it strongly. I’m not biased, he has the specific qualities I need. He is a fundamental player on a tactical level: he filters, he gives compactness and closes many lines of passing. He can make a few mistakes, but he has characteristics that few in this team have.’’ Those were views of Gennaro Gattuso when quizzed about the performance of Lucas Biglia after the 2-1 defeat of AS Roma.
Not a lot of Rossoneri fans will be enthused by Gattus’s remarks about Lucas Biglia been irreplaceable, because more is expected from the Argentine. Biglia endured a challenging first year at Milan last season as he struggled to influence games from his position. Instead, he was guilty of costly errors either from a back pass or an inability to shield the ball when press by two opposing attackers. Mistakes that opponents used to punish Milan. These miscalculations was once again witnessed when Milan played Napoli at the San Paolo as Piotr Zieliński pulled one back after Biglia lost control of the ball in front of the 18yard box.
Truth be told the 32 year-old Argentine did creditably well in the first half of that game, it was actually his pass that found Suso on the right before the Spaniards cross was headed down for Bonaventura to volleyed home. But it is worth noting that, Biglia was substituted for Tiémoué Bakayoko in the 58th minute in the second period of the Napoli game.
So has Lucas Biglia suddenly find form, and if so, what does Gattuso’s irreplaceable comment mean?
Certainly, Gattuso has shown Biglia is replaceable if he fails to perform to his expectation and he proved it when he hurled him out of the first game in Naples. Meaning the Argentine must continue to produce a higher consistent performance to enjoy the current found love of his coach. Rino did also issue a warning that “When I see players who don’t believe in what I say then I’ll go home.”
Biglia has not failed to show his quality as a player and what he can offer Milan on a good day, but his lack of consistency has become a source of frustration for many Milanisti. The Argentine does not affect games quite like Miralem Pjanić does for Juventus or Jorginho previously for SSC Napoli. At least not with his passes. There is considerable concern about his sideways balls to colleagues, his lack of competence to thread balls through the middle to find a player in open space and his timing to pick a pass.
The position of a deeper lying player maker has been clearly defined by Italian Legend and Midfield Maestro Andrea Pirlo since his days at San Siro, and he has become the paragon by which others are judged. In recent times Jorginho who just joined Chelsea from Napoli has performed in somewhat equal measure, but perhaps, no one may exhibit the class and vision of Andrea Pirlo on the ball, someone who controls the game from behind. And Milan is yet to find someone who would produce anything close to what their former midfielder yielded during his 10years stint with the Diavolo. It never happened with former Captain Riccardo Montolivo.
These days, defenders such as Leonardo Bonucci, Jerome Boateng, Segio Ramos, Kalidou Kolibaly Giorgio Chiellini are showing the quality of driving forward and providing passes from deep to create scoring opportunities in attack. AC Milan is missing that from Biglia. Another downside to his game is the obvious lack of pace he shows when Milan is under siege. He is easily bypassed by attacking opponents, maybe needs more protection from Franck Kessie because he is not a ball winner.
Gattuso remark about Biglia been indispensable could also be looked at from another perspective which could be justified. And that is there is a lack of quality replacement for the Argentine. In the absence of Biglia, the only player capable of playing satisfactorily in that role is Riccardo Montolivo. A player whose name sparks derision from a lot of Rossoneri fans, and that’s partly because just like the current occupant of that position, he failed to meet the demands of that role. Manual Locatteli deputised for Biglia last season, but has been sent on loan to Sassuolo to gather more experience and Andrea Bertolacci will require a leap of faith from Gennaro Gattuso to have a look into the starting eleven.
Despite the visible potential of Tiémoué Bakayoko, the Frenchman is currently finding it difficult to convince fans outside France that his outstanding performance for AS Monaco in the 2016/17 title winning season wasn’t deceptive. Last night, at the Sardegna Arena against Cagliari, Bakayoko came on for Giacomo Bonaventurar, and once again failed to have a telling effect from midfield. The on loan Chelsea midfielder may thrive as the season grows, but he needs a bit of Serie A education during training sessions.
Lucas Biglia may be irreplaceable for Gattuso, but that’s because there is no quality substitute on the bench.
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In the first half of last season, Milan were shambolic in defense, conceding ridiculous goals at the wrong place at the wrong time and struggled to make the difference at the other end of the field. Despite winning against AS Roma, there are a few pressing concerns in defense this season.
There were some mitigating factors in the previous year. The infusion of new players and the formation of a new defensive set up. Leonardo Bonucci’s arrival prompted the then manager Vincenzo Montella to opt for a three back because of the defender’s familiarity with that system. Effectively laying the platform for one man.Ricardo Rodríguez, Mateo Musacchio and Alessio Romagnoli had to adapt to this new organization and in most instances they wilted. Among some of the embarrassing displays were the two zero defeat to Sampdoria at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris and the 4-1 debacle at the hands of Lazio at the Stadio Olympico.
But Milan did improve in the second half of the season after Gennaro Gattuso was installed as the head coach. Gattuso steadied the ship and change the structure of the team to a back four. The Rossoneri conceded 15 goals in 19 games before the end of May 2018. After such improve, you would expect that the Diavolo would demonstrate some level of resilience and reliability at the back, but it hasn’t been the case so far.
The season is just two games old, but there are worrying defensive weaknesses that must be addressed. Milan continue to bleed in defense after shipping in four goals in their first two matches. What is more frustrating is the systemic errors committed by players. The reckless concession of possession in Milan’s half and the inability of players to deal with shots from distance. In the two games against Napoli and AS Roma, we saw how Gattuso’s men struggled against their opponent during set pieces.
A bit of narration.
In the 2-1 win over Roma, the manner in which Milan reacted to Javier Pastore’s conner kick is very telling. Pastore sent the cross into the mixer, hoping to find the height of either Dzeko or Fazio, Gianluigi Donnarumma comes out to parry the ball out, it fall to Stephan El Shaarawy close to the edge of the 18yard box, the little Pharaoh sends in a pass which deflects off the foot of Daniele De Rossi, marked by Mateo Musacchio, the ball gets to Davide Calabria with his arms around Patrik Schick, the young Italian kicks the ball with his weaker foot to Federico Fazio, and the Argentine hits in the rebound to put Roma on level pegging.
Now let’s cast our mind back to the 3-2 defeat at the San Paolo against Napoli. The home side equalized the second goal from a corner kick. Jose Callejon hits the ball in from the left side flag, Tiémoué Bakayoko heads the ball out of the box, which fall to Piotr Zieliński, the Napoli midfielder shoots right from the edge of the 18yard and the ball finds its way into the back of the net.
Dissecting the problem.
Milan are failing to pick up these players who patrol outside the 18yard box. And they are mostly players with the ability to provide an incisive pass to create goal scoring opportunities. In the two instances narrated above, there was no sense of closing down both El shaawary and Zielinski when they received the ball.
The positioning of the defenders when a cross is sent in the box. Given Patrick Schick’s height and strength, it’s quite perplexing to see Calabria trying to put a brake on the Czech International. This should have been the job of Kessie or Bonaventura. Calabria invested his strength in his arm around the Roma forward, weakening his position to attack the ball as precisely as he should.
It must also be noted that Steven Nzonzi’s VAR disallowed goal also resulted from a corner kick.
Milan have a relatively youthful defense with a 19year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma in the post so the lack of experience almost always bites them. It will take time and patience for them to grow strong and mature together. Gattuso still needs to sort out the best center back partnership for Alesio Romagnoli. Mateo Musacchio is not the most popular in defense whiles Caldara is yet to start a game this season, but could be crucial in redefining the Rossoneri’s defensive identity. He may be the lynchpin in the defense.
Conceding four goals in two games is not the best way to kick start a campaign, It gives opponents confidence when anytime they are on the offensive and set jitters among the defenders. Milan must get the basic rules of defending right.
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