It wasn’t a vintage performance by AC Milan on Sunday night against Napoli at San Siro, but in the end they had just about enough to claim all three points.
The only goal of the game came in the first half and it was that familiar pairing of Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao who linked up, with the latter setting up the former and who finished under the goalkeeper.
In truth both sides missed big chances to either pad their lead or draw level, and Milan had the post the thank when a cross was diverted onto the woodwork by substitute Jan-Carlo Simic.
Milan held on for a big victory, marking their first win in Serie A at San Siro against Napoli since 2014, and as a result the gap between the teams is now 17 points.
Below are five things we learned from the game…
1. Theo at top speed
Theo Hernandez was up and down the pitch throughout the game causing a lot of trouble for Napoli’s defence whilst also locking down their attack as he was difficult to beat at the back.
The Frenchman also scored the only goal in the game for his side after a lovely run into the opponent’s box combining well with Leao before showing his composure to beat the onrushing Gollini with a smart finish.
It was the kind of high-level performance we have become accustomed to from the left-back who had a shaky 2023 but continued his impressive start of the year with yet another top outing.
2. A stark contrast
While Milan managed to keep the clean sheet it was far from a brilliant performance at the back. The nicest thing we could say is that it was a “bend-don’t-break” type mentality.
On the one hand there was Matteo Gabbia, who continues to impress after coming back from loan and is making a case for himself to continue being a key Milan player even after all the injured centre-backs have recovered.
On the other hand, however, Simon Kjaer was just not up to speed at all and it’s a miracle that Mike Maignan managed a clean sheet with the Dane in front of him.
He was sloppy, slow and bad in his decision-making, luckily though he was saved by his team-mates for the bigger part of the game before being withdrawn for Jan-Carlo Simic.
Matteo Gabbia vs. Napoli
➤ 90 minutes played
➤ 3 clearances
➤ 3 tackles
➤ 3/6 ground duels won
➤ 29/33 accurate passes (88%)
➤ 1 key pass
➤ 1 shot on target pic.twitter.com/yB1lAjeEEg
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) February 12, 2024
3. Both drought and creativity continue
It was another bittersweet performance for a man who is expected to be Milan’s star: Rafael Leao. The Portuguese winger was at the heart of a lot of the danger and he provided a lovely assist for Theo’s goal.
However, it must be said that the performance could’ve been much better with the winger being close to scoring his first league goal in four months a couple of occasions. Once he drew a good save from Gollini, but other times was wasteful.
It was a dynamic display by Leao and you can feel that the goal is near for him, and he will be hoping that once the goals start they don’t stop again.
4. Cracks down the middle
Whilst the Milan midfield were not overrun necessarily against Napoli it certainly wasn’t a flashy performance by the trio who in the end did just enough to help their team secure the win.
Yacine Adli and Ismael Bennacer started together for the first time and in truth we’ve seen them perform on a much higher level and they never really provided the shielding of the back four that a double pivot should do.
Then there was Loftus-Cheek who was pretty much invisible throughout the game barring a couple of runs where the end product never came, and we didn’t even see much of his physical presence because the game was played mainly on the flanks.
Yunus Musah came off the bench and looked lively while Tijjani Reijnders will be back from suspension for the next game, so Pioli will have to try nail down a winning formula for big games.
5. Pioli gets his tactics right
The win was a pretty ugly one even if we are at the stage of the season whereby it doesn’t matter how they come. Performance aside, Pioli got his tactics right against a side that has been comfortable playing at the San Siro as of late.
Milan played on the counter-attack and exploited the space well with Leao and Theo Hernandez in particular causing lots of trouble for the opposition.
Stefano Pioli equals Arrigo Sacchi as the #ACMilan coach with the fifth-most games taken charge of (220) across all competitions, behind only Ancelotti, Rocco, Capello and Liedholm.
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) February 11, 2024
In the build-up to the game it became clear that Walter Mazzarri would switch to a three-man defence with Kvaratshkelia in a central position, and the instructions to keep him quiet were pretty much on point.
The Rossoneri’s press also brought about long periods of pressure particularly at the start of the second half, forcing Mazzarri to change formation again. Pioli adapted to that well, and the subs – some bold like Alex Jimenez – brought energy.