Written by Arjit
Ok Fellow Milanisti ! Let’s Discuss Milan ! Let’s Talk Some Red & Black !
SERIE A WINTER CHAMPIONS 2020/21
Milan are enjoying a fantastic start to the current Serie A season. It’s been long since the Rossoneri made such strong strides in the league. Milan are absolutely cruising at the moment, sitting top of the table having collected an impressive 43 points from 19 league outings, a record only bettered in 2003-04 at this stage of the season, since Serie A adopted the ‘3 points’ system. Prior to the Juventus defeat, Milan had been unbeaten in 27 league games and scored two or more goals in 16 consecutive matches, an Italian top flight record. Stefano Pioli and Co. have undergone a remarkable turnaround in a matter of just over a year. After several false dawns, the sleeping giant of European football has finally awoken. Elliott’s youth project has started to pay dividends as the club continues to hunt for a ‘top 4’ finish and UCL qualification. And an additional disclaimer, Scudetto might no longer be a distant dream for the Rossoneri supporters, as evident by the club’s imperious form throughout the turbulent year of 2020. Milan have been quite simply exceptional, and hence crowned this season’s ‘winter champions’.
Midway through a grueling long season, this represents the perfect opportunity to assess the Rossoneri’s performances thus far in the 2020/21 edition of Serie A TIM. Without much further ado, let’s just sit back and take a look at Milan’s ‘mid season review’.
The classic cliché of team spirit and mentality, although it applies perfectly to the Milan squad here. It’s been a bumpy ride to the top of the standings for the Rossoneri in the current campaign. Despite facing many challenges such as injuries, suspensions, and COVID cases, Milan still find themselves in first place and challenging for their first Scudetto since 2011. The squad has been decimated to its bare bones on certain occasions, but the players have pulled together and overcome all adversities with admirable courage, mentality, and determination. Stefano Pioli has managed to instill strong character and belief within the team. Each player has been contributing towards this great run of form, helping Milan mount a serious title challenge. The squad has already proven they currently sit atop on merit, and not by some dumb luck as some seem to suggest in the Italian media.
Last year, Theo Hernandez was a revelation. Since then, he’s become a regular fixture in the team and arguably the best left back in Europe at the moment. The marauding full back has explosive speed, incredible technique, and an eye for the spectacular. Theo has been a regular outlet down the left side with important goals and assists, including an astonishing last minute winning header against Lazio.
This year, Davide Calabria has followed suit on the other side of the defense. He’s recaptured his ‘Gattuso days’ form, becoming the starting right back under Stefano Pioli after some initial struggles. Due to Theo’s offensive qualities, Calabria has often played a more defensive role this season. He’s been a composed and solid option at the back, often shifting inside and forming a back three as Theo bombards forward. This isn’t to discount his offensive capabilities, as evident by the 25 yard piledriver against Genoa. Calabria has improved greatly and looks set to play an important role for the team going forward.
Stefano Pioli has demonstrated his tactical variation in abundance this season. The execution on the field of play has been impeccable as well. It just goes to show the tactical maturity within this Milan side. At the start of the season, the Rossoneri played with a possession oriented approach with Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer at the heart of the midfield. Kessie broke up play and kept things simple, while Bennacer drove the team forward with his wonderful passing and vision. Since Bennacer’s injury, the Rossoneri have switched to a more counter attacking style. This involves lightning quick transitions after front players are released via through balls. The tactic has slightly changed, but the results have remained the same. Besides, the team has also displayed variation in terms of pressing, deploying both high and horizontal pressing depending upon match situations. Milan’s tactical flexibility makes them unpredictable for the opposition, which bodes well for the future.
Squad Depth Exposed
One could make a case that Milan have been very unlucky with an unusual number of injuries, coupled with several COVID cases. Nevertheless, Milan have suffered from a lack of depth to some degree. Stefano Pioli has been dealt a poor hand in this regard since he’s had to shuffle around to even assemble a starting eleven at times, as the club continues to struggle with numerous injuries, suspensions, and COVID problems. The lack of quality depth couldn’t have been more apparent during the recent clash with Juventus. While the Bianconeri brought on the likes of Weston McKennie and Dejan Kulusevski, Milan had no real quality to come off the bench. The team has managed well so far, but the lack of depth doesn’t bode well for the remainder of the campaign.
Right Wing Conundrum
The right wing has been a problem area for the team for the most part of this campaign. Stefano Pioli hasn’t been able to rely on a bonafide starter who can guarantee quality and goals. Samu Castillejo and Alexis Saelemaekers are the two best options at the moment, yet neither has been entirely convincing. Castillejo presses the opposition well, but his offensive production isn’t exactly good for a forward. Hence, Saelemaekers has become the starter more recently. The former Anderlecht man has proven to be a versatile player capable of covering the entire right side of the field. He has great intensity about his play and combines well with Calabria down the right channel. Saelemaekers has made a seamless transition from ‘Belgian’ Pro League to ‘Italian’ Serie A, cementing his spot in the starting eleven and proving to be a vital cog in Pioli’s tactical setup. The Belgian continues to make great strides in the Rossoneri colors, but the next natural step of progression must be to contribute with more goals and assists. After all, he plays as a starting winger for the team.
Left Sided Vulnerability
In recent matches, the left side of the Rossoneri’s rearguard has been left exposed on many occasions. This was more evident than ever in the game against Juventus, where Federico Chiesa terrorized Theo Hernandez and Alessio Romagnoli with his trickery and pace, scoring two goals in the process. In the game, Theo was caught napping out of position several times and Romagnoli was just too slow to cover the space vacated by the Frenchman. Whilst Theo has been menacing going forward, he’s liable for mistakes at the back, and Romagnoli lacks the speed to cover the left side of the defense all by himself. This has often resulted in the opposition targeting the left side of Milan’s backline time and time again. The issue must be addressed, hence something for Stefano Pioli and the players to work on at Milanello.
The lack of solid squad depth has been Milan’s Achilles heel this campaign. The team has to compete on three fronts, Serie A, Coppa Italia and the Europa League. This means the squad will be further stretched due to the congested fixture schedule moving forward in the season. Injuries, suspensions, and COVID cases have already taken a toll on the squad. Fortunately, the January window represents a brilliant opportunity to strengthen and add some much needed depth. The dynamic duo of Paolo Maldini and Frederic Massara have an important job at hand, and so far they have not disappointed. They have been alert and prepared to seize any interesting market opportunity coming their way, as evident by some of the new faces the club welcomed in the month of January. Fikayo Tomori (loan with €28m buyout option) arrived from Chelsea to provide defensive cover, Soualiho Meite (loan with €10m buyout option) made his way from Torino to add more steel in midfield, and Mario Mandzukic (free transfer) will bolster the attack and offer much needed support to Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. Kudos to the Milan management for filling important gaps in the squad and doing so on a relatively tight budget. In a post pandemic January transfer window, Milan have been one of the most active clubs around Europe. That says a lot about the Rossoneri’s title ambitions.
A huge part of Milan’s football under Stefano Pioli has been around the high tempo and intensity with which the players take the field. It’s all about pressing high up the pitch, recuperating possession, and then transitioning quickly to attack. This scheme has been fairly successful since the Rossoneri have scored plenty of goals, securing an astonishing number of points in the process. However, often in games, the intensity has dropped as the team seems to run out of steam towards the end of games. The energy levels suddenly drop and the pressing loses intensity, especially around the 70th minute mark and onwards. This might be dangerous moving forward, as it plays straight into the opposition’s hands and invites unnecessary pressure on the Rossoneri’s backline. A tiny detail perhaps, but something for Pioli’s men to work out on the training ground as they prepare for an intense second half of the campaign.
That’s right. Right from the start of this season, Milan appear to be playing some kind of a bizarre version of crossbar challenge in almost every game. In fact, the Rossoneri have struck the woodwork more times than anybody else apart from Lyon amongst ‘top 5’ European leagues in the current campaign. One could argue that it’s probably a sign of strength, indicating the team has created loads of chances from an attacking point of view. Although, these chances haven’t been converted into goals enough, revealing the team’s profligacy on several occasions. This isn’t a major issue at the moment, but the team could definitely do with a tad more composure and lucidity in front of goal. The team is winning and scoring goals, but there’s always something to improve on, and that’s shooting precision in the Rossoneri’s case.
IN A NUTSHELL
Milan fans around the world would’ve jumped at the opportunity of signing up for the position of ‘winter champions’ before the start of this campaign. The Rossoneri find themselves in a fantastic position, firmly in contention for their first Scudetto since 2011. The club has finally found stability and continuity under Stefano Pioli, for once with no off field drama in the background. Paolo Maldini and Frederic Massara have done a truly outstanding job in terms of recruitment alongside Geoffrey Moncada, the club’s scouting maestro. Everything has come together for the club after many years of mediocrity. The players deserve huge plaudits for providing great satisfaction to the fanbase with their marvelous performances on the pitch. Pioli has resurrected Milan, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic fulfilling the duties of a leader inside the locker room. Milan play attractive and progressive football with high entertainment value for the viewers. Lest we forget, the goal still remains Champions League qualification, although halfway through the current Serie A season, Milan seem like the real deal, firing on all cylinders and going toe to toe with Inter and Juventus for the Scudetto showdown. The resurgent Rossoneri are finally back in the ‘big picture’, and back to competing for the ‘major honors’.