The 3-1 defeat against Borussia Dortmund not only left AC Milan’s Champions League hopes hanging by a thread, but it also once again openly exposed the mentality issues within the squad.
It is important to let the dust settle after an important game, especially one that produces a result which many believe should mark the end of a head coach’s four-year cycle, but no matter which tunnel of thought is explored the same themes keep popping up surrounding this Milan squad.
Now more so than ever it feels right to speak about and above all question the mental strength of Stefano Pioli’s team, who have simply been not strong enough in the biggest games and on a micro level the crossroads moments of the match.
In many ways the Dortmund defeat distilled everything into 90 minutes. Milan had a huge chance to take the lead from the penalty spot early on and put a lot of pressure on their visitors, and yet Olivier Giroud – who had been excellent from 12 yards before and is one of the most experienced in the squad – did not take advantage.
Moments later, Milan dug a hole for themselves. Davide Calabria is also a leader – something which will become a salient point – given he wears the arm band, and he made a clumsy challenge that he didn’t have to after showing his man outside to a less threatening area.
Despite this, the Rossoneri sparked into life and were able to react before half-time thanks to Samuel Chukwueze’s first goal for the club. Even in the first 10 minutes of the second half, Milan appeared solid and capable of creating danger.
Malick Thiaw’s injury will be pointed at by many as the moment where the game changed, and while Pioli was forced to play Rade Krunic out of position at centre-back it was not a red card and the game remained 11 vs. 11.
The courage seemed to vanish from the players and then the over 70,000 fans present when Jamie Bynoe-Gittens swept home Dortmund’s second after a quick flowing move through the box from one side to the other.
From there the psychological fragility of this squad was exposed, and it is such a stark contract to the confident and almost care-free versions of Pioli’s Milan we saw in the post-Covid and Scudetto seasons.
Going behind is almost a death sentence for Milan this season, given that they have only won two games from a deficit which were the 3-1 victory away against Cagliari in round three and the 2-1 home win over Paris Saint-Germain that kept Champions League last 16 hopes alive. Albeit temporarily, as it turned out.
That in itself must stop and make us reflect, asking difficult questions. The most poignant one is this: has this Milan group – which still has so many of the same leaders from that title season – now mentally regressed?
Often during 2021-22 and last season a tough patch of form was the shake-up that Pioli’s men needed, an internal stimulus driven by a desire for pride and revenge, demonstrated in huge moments such as the 4-0 win over champions-elect Napoli, plus the Champions League nights against Spurs and the Partenopei.
Borussia Dortmund head coach Edin Terzic has made some interesting points straight after his side’s memorable win at San Siro last night, including one where he was asked about the tactical side of things but focused on something more important in his eyes.
“The boys were exhausted, but they are very happy, satisfied with this qualification. We all remember the evening of the draw when we were talking about this group of death, when they told us that we had no chance after the defeat in the first match against PSG and the draw at home with Milan. Milan also needed to win today, but we wanted it more,” he said.
‘What was the tactical key?’ he was asked in a follow-up question. His reply: “We can talk endlessly about tactics, but we entered with the right mentality.”
Since the start of October, #ACMilan have collected 3 wins, 3 draws, 4 defeats in 10 games (all comps).
That is 1.2 points per game on average, the lowest among the seven Italian teams who qualified for European competitions in 2023-24.
— MilanData📊 (@acmilandata) November 29, 2023
Speaking about ‘psychology’ and ‘mentality’ might just be vague buzzwords to some, so how can it be more concretely defined? Well, the numbers demonstrate a quite striking drop-off in the second half of games compared to the first.
A report was published two weeks ago which explored the findings regarding if the Serie A standings took into account only the first or second halves of games, which serves to help understand the performance of a team as the game goes on.
In this sense, Milan are very much Jekyll and Hyde. As of November 14, if only the first half were counted Milan would be on 25 points and would be three behind Inter with 13 goals scored, four conceded and only one defeat.
If only the second halves were included, they would be on just 15 points with seven goals scored, 10 conceded and 11th place in the table, 11 behind the Nerazzurri, still first.
Four recent league games perfectly demonstrate the Rossoneri’s issues. They were 2-0 up against both Napoli and Lecce before throwing it away to draw 2-2, while they were 0-0 against Juventus and Udinese at HT but lost both 1-0.
Then there is the Champions League discussion, which is almost a separate thing entirely. Good performances against Newcastle at home and Dortmund away in the first two games, but zero wins or goals to show. A bad night in Paris, winning from behind back home and then throwing the momentum away with another second half collapse.
Pioli is currently on trial with the fans and the Italian media. The time will come to discuss things surrounding his management and his future in due course, however for now there is nothing to add that isn’t being said and of course he should be apportioned a fair amount of the blame.
However, games are decided by the players on the field and Milan’s most dependable players went missing when they were needed the most last night, just as they have done in other big games this season.
Theo Hernandez was once again disappointing in the left-back role, while as mentioned Giroud missed a penalty before becoming completely ineffectual. Calabria was run ragged on Milan’s right, while Mike Maignan went from hero to (almost) villain as he was completely dumbfounded by Dortmund’s third goal after having produced a match-saving stop on Saturday against Fiorentina.
Some uncomfortable questions must be asked off the back of such failings. Are the leaders really leaders when they cannot lead by example on a regular basis?
Whenever the time has come to show that the squad have taken that next step in mentality and maturity, they have so rarely done so. That doesn’t just apply to the current campaign either, but now there is a real risk of the season being meaningless before Christmas.
Milan need points, they need consistency, they need to score more and they need to keep more goals out. Yet first of all it will be necessary to work on the mental and psychological reaction strength of a team which, above all now, seems to have an empty chasm where once spirit stood before.