AC Milan got a much-needed win to close 2023 in the right way, emerging 1-0 victors against Sassuolo on Saturday night at San Siro in what was a hard-fought contest.
Milan were definitely the better side during first half but in truth they didn’t really produce anything too threatening in terms of clear-cut chances, something reflected in the fact that there were some jeers as the team left the field.
Christian Pulisic once again stepped up when the team needed him the most, converting a one-on-one chance not long before the hour mark, and in the end it would be enough to beat a spirited opponent who have a good recent record at San Siro.
It is a much-needed three points just to slightly ease the pressure surrounding the club, while the lead to fifth place has also been restored to five points. Here are five things we learned…
1. Another timely intervention
Pulisic wheeling away towards the corner flag in celebration after scoring the opening game has become a common sight for Milan fans now, and he was the decisive forward once again on a night where he didn’t get much help from his team-mates.
He has got six goals and four assists in the first half of the campaign, which is his best return in terms of goal contributions since the 2019-20 season when he was playing for Chelsea, having recently signed from Borussia Dortmund.
Christian Pulisic has reached double figures in involvements in Serie A this term (6 goals, 4 assists), only doing so previously in a 'top five' European League back in the Premier League 2019-20 – 13 active involvements in his first season with Chelsea.
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) December 31, 2023
Pulisic is on track for the best attacking season of his career which makes Milan’s decision to sign him look very wise, and the timing of his goal – plus the composure of his finish having been put through by Ismael Bennacer – came at a moment where the crowd were getting anxious.
Considering that Leao and Giroud have a home goal drought in the league which now stretches for a combined seven months, the USA international has had to step up and he really has done.
2. A dangerous split
It was a win and a clean sheet, Milan’s performance against Sassuolo yesterday afternoon was not a memorable one by any means as the team were far from the levels seen against Monza, for example.
In the end the victory came and this is what will count for most people, but we just can’t forget the jeers as the team came off at half-time after a lacklustre display and the rather similar reaction when Rafael Leao came off.
The problems at a tactical level have not been fixed. Too many times the team were disjointed and – without wanting to sound too much like Arrigo Sacchi – when the team are so stretched it is hard to create chances, keep possession and prevent counters.
In the second half when things were getting a bit desperate in terms of finding the opener, and even when defending at times, there was a strange 5-0-5 formation that was clear to see.
The compactness has gone, which limits the effectiveness of the press and can see games descend into a back-and-forth basketball-esque game.
3. Fire marshal
There were several absences for Pioli to deal with again as Marco Sportiello, Pierre Kalulu, Malick Thiaw, Fikayo Tomori, Marco Pellegrino, Mattia Caldara, Yunus Musah, Tommaso Pobega and Noah Okafor all missed the game.
As the names suggest, Simon Kjaer was the only fit senior centre-back so he partnered Theo Hernandez at the back, and while there have been concerns about the Dane’s ability to play regularly at this level and lead the defence he did so on Saturday night.
In addition to an assured performance in which he dealt with pretty much everything that came his way and was dominant in the air, his post-match comments said a lot about his impact on the team. He analysed the perception of mental difficulties in detail, and spoke about partnering Theo.
“He is a central defender to whom every now and then I have to say ‘stop, stay here, don’t go away’. He is a player who plays by instinct, that is his strength. Every now and then, if you are a central defender, you have to choose the moment. He’s listening to what I’m telling him, so he’s fine (laughs),” he said.
4. Listless on the left
As aforementioned, Leao leaving the field to boos from sections of the home crowd was a sad way to end the year for him from a personal point of view, especially given that he has not scored a home league goal in three months.
The Portuguese winger is going to have to raise his game significantly in 2024 to get the whole of the fanbase back on his side because he is the highest paid player and the one that the rest of the team rely on to create when others are finding it difficult.
La Gazzetta dello Sport wrote that his performance against Sassuolo in the 1-0 win was ‘tired, listless and superficial’ – we’d add wasteful to that as well because he seemed to make the wrong decisions both on the dribble and when it came to end product.
The good news for Leao is that he is being defended by those around him and the environment will be put in place for him to get his form back up to where it should be, while the talent is still there and as Pioli pointed out he still might not be 100% after his injury.
5. A positive outpouring
People will point to the scoreline, reflect on the performance and feel quite uninspired by the narrow victory against Sassuolo and they will put it to bed there. However, sometimes it is important to remain attached to the emotional side of football.
The pressure on the team was well known, they needed to get a win no matter which way it came, and it came. Alessandro Florenzi was the man who led the post-match huddle in front of the Curva Sud, saying a few words to the players with Stefano Pioli in the dressing room.
❤️ A team huddle in front of the Curva after a much-needed win
— SempreMilanTV (@SempreMilanTV) December 30, 2023
Kjaer spoke after the game about the unity within the squad and how everyone loves each other. There has been a lot of media speculation about disharmony and Pioli perhaps losing the collective spirit which made his team run through walls, but everything we see with our eyes suggests differently.
Perhaps not in the performances, but in the very least at least in terms of players showing that they care and recognising that they must continue to fight for the fans, for the badge and to try and save a season that otherwise could rapidly implode.