AC Milan begun their 2023-24 Champions League campaign with a frustrating 0-0 draw against Newcastle United in the first group stage game at San Siro.
The statistics from the game speak volumes regarding how dominant Milan were, but ultimately they were thwarted by some heroics from Nick Pope in the Newcastle goal as well has some heroic blocks inside the box.
It is not the ideal start from a result point of view to what will be a very difficult group, with PSG establishing themselves as early front-runners with their win. Here are five things we learned from Tuesday’s game at San Siro…
1. Leao not at that level
Let’s start with an obvious statement: Rafael Leao is Milan’s best forward. He is also one of the only game-changers and match-winners in the squad, which comes with a lot of responsibility to deliver.
He should have been the man to potentially proper Milan to all three points in the first half. Leão beat two opponents in the penalty area, creating space to shoot on his favoured right foot, but he took one touch more than he should have before trying a back heel and falling over.
In many ways that was symbolic of the Rossoneri’s night from a finishing standpoint. While Leao’s numbers continue to get better season by season and he is still only in his early 20s, that miss and his body language change in the second half was rather revealing.
On the biggest stage of all in club football and with some earlier joy that was also there to be exploited as the game became more stretched, he seemed to stop putting in the same hard yards and almost began to sulk.
The talent is there, and while he is still on a path towards his prime years and peak maturation, Leão knows that now he is now a leader of this team and he will be leaned upon to decide games as his salary suggests he can and should.
He will have replayed that chance over and over in his head last night and next time he gets a big chance, we’re sure he’ll be putting his foot through it.
2. Defensive improvement
The 5-1 defeat to Inter on Saturday rocked Milan from many different standpoints, but above all it seemed to expose the defensive uncertainties that many knew were present after last season and the preseason friendlies.
It was amateur hour (and a half) against the Nerazzurri who exposed a stretched Milan time after time in transition and looked like scoring every time they went forward, which they eventually nearly did.
Nonetheless, new week meant new slate. Fikayo Tomori came back into the side to partner Malick Thiaw and we instantly saw what a difference it made to have a pairing that have played together and developed some chemistry.
— SempreMilan (@SempreMilanCom) September 20, 2023
Dealing with Alexander Isak is not easy; he is an imposing presence who is good technically for his size and he brings the wingers and onrushing midfielders into the game with his hold-up play.
Both Tomori and Thiaw but particularly the former channeled their aggression perfect to limit his influence and keep tabs on the wider players too, while they dealt with Callum Wilson’s pace off the bench too.
The fact Newcastle’s only shot on target came in the 95th minute speaks volumes. A much better collective effort as a unit, something Davide Calabria/Alessandro Florenzi and Theo Hernandez deserve a mention for too.
3. Limitations exposed
The numbers say that Olivier Giroud is Milan’s top scorer this season with four goals in five games across Serie A and the Champions League. Looking beyond that, you see that only one of those has come from open play with the others being penalties.
Penalties still need to be scored and it is better to have a striker who will confidently stick them away rather than leaving it to chance, but Giroud is struggling when it comes to scoring goals from ‘normal’ situations.
There have been doubts about his fitness levels since he suffered a sprained ankle on international duty with France. Let’s be honest though, he has never been the most mobile and his centre-forward responsibilities are now restricted to holding up the ball to bring the wingers in and trying to get on the end of service.
In a game of this level – especially against centre-backs like Fabian Schar and Sven Botman who are physical units that are switched on from a positional standpoint – he didn’t look up to the task.
When Milan surged down the left, Giroud would often be yards behind the play when it came time for a delivery. When there was the chance for Loftus-Cheek to cut-back into the box, the Frenchman wasn’t even in it.
Of course Giroud’s experience and generally clinical finishing can serve a purpose this season, but he cannot be over-worked and over-relied upon. With each game he doesn’t score, the decision not to invest in a striker like Mehdi Taremi draws more reflections.
4. The key to territorial dominance
For good chunks of the first half and for the last 15-20 minutes of the second half, the same pattern repeated itself whereby Milan would build an attack that would either lead to a big chance or would be cleared to the halfway line at furthest.
There, the team were able to regain possession and build again through the thirds of Newcastle’s half. It wasn’t quite wave after wave of attacks, though being able to established such dominance in the central area was massive in such a commanding performance.
Rade Krunic deserves credit for doing the simple things right: efficiency in build-up, being in the right place to recover balls and also stopping some menacing breaks by sticking with his runner.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek played more centrally and deserves immense credit for the rather unseen job he did of shadowing both Bruno Guimarães and Sandro Tonali at times, keeping the Magpies’ two metronomes quiet for almost all 70 minutes he was present.
Then there was Tommaso Pobega, ridiculed by some for even being in the starting line-up. The Italian rose to the occasion and leant a hand in both phases, while he could have had his second UCL goal if Jacob Murphy hadn’t cleared his shot off the line.
Finally, Yunus Musah was very bright off the bench in advancing play and was a large reason – along with Alessandro Florenzi – for that big spell of pressure that came in the final quarter of the game.
After being totally overrun against Inter, the midfield really stepped up and players like Pobega and Musah not only proved they are well worth their spot, but perhaps asked some questions about a potential starting spot on Saturday against Verona.
5. Missed opportunity
With each round of Champions League action, the scenarios will change. There are five games to go meaning there remains all kinds of different possibilities for how Group F ends up, however it must be said that Milan’s chances of qualifying will not have gone up.
A lot have said that Newcastle at home was the easiest fixture for Stefano Pioli’s side by virtue of the fact they were a pot four side. At the risk of tempting fate, it is probably Borussia Dortmund on paper.
However, when the Toon came to town and played that badly (by their own admission), without ever really having a foothold in the match and having their goal peppered 25 times, any dropped points will make it feel like a glass half empty.
That’s where we stand now. Starting with a deserved win would have been ideal heading into tough away games against Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain, yet now there will probably be a need to avoid defeat in both and maybe win one of those two games.
This is the nature of the beast in the Champions League: in a group with lots of parity you have to take your chances, seize moments, earn points and let the other sides chase. Instead, Milan could have a mountain to climb by the fourth and fifth games now.